Floating Voice

Two recent books nicely illustrate, for me, the disturbing state of contemporary publishing. The first book, Hemingway: The Toronto Years (Doubleday) by William Burrill, a Toronto journalist, is a handsome example of the book-making art. The elegant, gold and silver cover features a young Hemingway posing on a park bench inset into another image of a Toronto streetscape ca. 192. The type is crisp, the pages are clean, the photographs inside are interesting and, best of all, it is much smaller than the usual hardcover, not much bigger than a mass-market paperback. As a result, it is satisfying to fondle and fits easily into a coat pocket. This book is a fashion accessory, it makes you feel like a serious person. It is also completely trivial. Hemingway worked for The Toronto Star for four years, 192-24, but for most of that time he was not even living in Canada. When I did the arithmetic the vaunted "Toronto Years" turned out to be eight months. The stuff he wrote for The Star, some of which is collected in an appendix, is undistinguished. What's more, Hemingway hated it here, calling Canada "a dreadful country" and claiming that he and his wife were the only nice people in it. Getting all excited about the fact that he spent a few months here seems to me to be a form of cultural self-hatred. The only reason Doubleday gives this subject such a high-class design treatment is ... Well, I don't really have to explain it, do I? It's Hemingway. The second book is Floating Voice (Anansi) by the critic Stan Dragland, a bulky trade paperback with a blurry black and white cover image. The photographs inside are equally muddy. The pages are so densely packed with type that reading them is like wading through sand. However, if you persevere you will discover that Floating Voice, subtitled Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9, addresses one of the most important cultural issues in Canada. Dragland is attempting to answer the basic question about Scott: How could the author of such moving poems about the Indians have at the same time been such a fierce exponent within the government of a policy aimed at their destruction? Of course, the issue transcends Scott. If we could understand his contradictions, we might understand our own: how as a culture we have at once romanticized and made war on the Native people. Dragland adopts the perfect style for his subject. He puts himself directly into the narrative and asks us to think along with him as he attempts to puzzle out the answers to this perplexing question. What strikes me about these two books is that the publishing industry apparently is able to invest so little in the presentation of a very significant book, and so much in the presentation of a completely unnecessary one. I know, I know: this is the way capitalism works. Still, it is depressing to see revealed so nakedly the way that the economics of the industry are pushing serious cultural issues to the margins. One wonders if without the support of the usual granting agencies, Dragland's book would have appeared at all. If public policy makers wish to see the results of the destructive cultural policies they are following, they need look no farther than these two books.

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