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80 years of Q&Q: historically speaking, CanLit moments through the years

5-MacMillanMacmillan’s slow rise and quick fall

Established in 1905 as a branch office of London publisher Macmillan Company, the Macmillan Company of Canada didn’t have a Canuck president at its helm until 1946. During his tenure, John Gray made up for lost time by publishing seminal CanLit works such as W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), and Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy (1951–58).

Four years after Gray’s departure in 1969, Macmillan sold the financially beleaguered Canadian operation to Maclean-Hunter. By the end of the ’80s, subsequent owner Gage Educational Publishing had ceased releasing literary titles under the imprint; several of its key authors – including Mitchell, MacLennan, and Alice Munro – followed publisher Douglas Gibson to his new house, McClelland & Stewart.



(photo: courtesy Getty Images)

Ryerson sale inspired flag draping

For most of the 19th century, the Methodist Book and Publishing House’s Ryerson Press dominated Canadian bedside reading with popular religious and trade titles by the likes of Robert Service and Catharine Parr Traill. But by 1970, facing a debt of more than $2 million, Ryerson was sold to the U.S.-owned McGraw-Hill Book Company of Canada. Protests of the sale – including one by James Lorimer and Graeme Gibson, who draped a U.S. flag over a statue of press founder Egerton Ryerson in front of the main building on the Ryerson Institute of Technology campus – helped spur the Ontario government’s 1970 Royal Commission on Book Publishing.

After three years of study, the commission released a report observing that “For an industry devoted to the dissemination of information, book publishing has appeared remarkably reticent over the years about discussion in print of its own activities.”



Russell Smith (left) and Andrew Pyper with Eliza Clark

Cool Torontonia

Just more than a decade ago, a professor from Saskatchewan named Dr. Winthrup theorized that Canadian literature went into decline the moment novels about early settlers were shunted aside in favour of “this new kind of urban crap that’s so dominant now, you know, the Torontocentrism that’s just so commercial and so dominates the publishing world.”

Dr. Winthrup is not, in the strictest sense, real: he’s a buffoonish minor character in Muriella Pent, the 2004 novel by one of the most notorious purveyors of that new kind of Torontocentric urban crap, Russell Smith. But his rant echoes much of the reaction to the kind of media-savvy, self-consciously debauched, anti-academic, and nationalism-agnostic author who appeared on the Canadian (read: Toronto) scene in the late 1990s. With imaginations fired more by cocaine, fashion magazines, and the throb of distant Manhattan nightclubs than by canonical tales of pre-Confederation strife, a loose cohort that included Smith, Andrew Pyper, Sheila Heti, Derek McCormack, and Hal Niedzviecki declared that the old CanLit norms of farm and failure were dying, kept on life-support by academia and an out-of-touch book industry.

Anthologies were issued. Think-pieces pro and con were written. Reaction was followed by counter-reaction, followed by counter-counter-reaction. Then publisher (now agent) Sam Hiyate produced the notorious Literary Babes issue of his literary magazine, Blood & Aphorisms, with women writers like Heti, Emily Schultz, Ceri Marsh, and Priscila Uppal come-hithering on the cover. The Globe and Mail’s gossip pages dubbed Smith, Pyper, McCormack, and Evan Solomon as the Anne Michaels–trashing “Book Boys,” with predictably furious results on all sides.

The whole thing was deeply goofy and yet highly significant: growing pains for a canon and an industry in the process of opening itself to the wider cultural and economic world. The brat packers flung out a lot of worthy babies, but the CanLit bathwater had become decidedly tepid. The irony of it all is that, despite Dr. Winthrup’s­ ranting, the hip Torontocentric was never commercially dominant – novels about early settlers still do just fine here. And the globalization that happened in Canadian publishing has arguably resulted in even fewer mainstream novels being set in College Street bars. Hip, young Canadian authors writing about urban settings today are as likely to choose 1895 Moscow as they are 2015 Toronto. – Nathan Whitlock