The spirit of the ’60s turns entrepreneurial
“It sounds like such a Canadian cliché,” says Stan Bevington about the origins of what would go on to be one of Canada’s most important independent presses. “In the summer of 1964, I saw an early version of the Canadian flag – two blue bars and three maple leaves. I had learned silkscreen printing in high school, and I went into the basement of my studio and started silkscreening these flags and selling them on the street in Yorkville. We sold thousands.”
Bevington made enough money, in fact, to purchase a red sports car and two other interesting accessories. He was approached by a man selling an old printing press for $100, and another who offered to lease an old coach house in downtown Toronto. In collaboration with Dennis Reed, and inspired by the work of designer Frank Newfeld, Bevington produced The Man in a Window, which would be the first book published by the nascent Coach House Press. “We made this object that was head and shoulders above the mimeo or any of the other self-published books [of the time],” he says. It was good enough to draw the attention of Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Margaret Atwood, and others. “Suddenly we were a publisher.”
Three years later, a second Toronto independent appeared under much the same circumstances. In 1967, Dennis Lee and Dave Godfrey launched House of Anansi press to publish Kingdom of Absence, Lee’s first poetry collection. As a result of that publication, authors began to approach the two with proposals. “It was a bit like Topsy,” Lee says. “It just growed.” Indeed, it “growed” into one of the country’s foundational publishers, releasing early work by Michael Ondaatje, Graeme Gibson, Matt Cohen, and Marian Engel, among others.
Such entrepreneurial spirit may seem unconscionable in the publishing atmosphere of 2015, but these houses – along with Oberon, Véhicule, and Talonbooks – were instrumental in helping create CanLit as we know it. “The new publishers didn’t create the writers, it was virtually the other way round,” says Lee. “There were many gifted writers whose work didn’t fit at the established houses, and Anansi and the others emerged just at the point where new launching pads were needed. So it was a happy coincidence.” – Steven W. Beattie
Canada Council makes “comfortable living” possible
For professional authors hoping to have money to buy groceries, the most important governmental initiative of the 20th century may have been the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957.
The arms-length granting agency was a recommendation of the 1951 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, which quotes a brief from the Canadian Arts Council that states, “No novelist, poet, short story writer, historian, biographer, or other writer of non-technical books can make even a modestly comfortable living by selling his work in Canada.”
Among its other findings, the commission identified the lack of “national literature” as an issue, given the miniscule number of books published in postwar Canada compared to other countries:
CanLit grows a conscience
Alongside the Canadian branch plants of big-name international publishers sprout homegrown independent presses, some of which operate with a resolve to advocate for social-justice issues.
Founded in 1977 as a feminist literary house, Caitlin Press prides itself on a split mandate to publish women’s stories and those from the central interior of B.C. Owner and publisher Vici Johnstone says Caitlin is where the province’s urban and rural stories meet.
“I had a sense that women’s stories, specifically historical, weren’t being told. They’re in the community, not in newspapers or books,” Johnstone says. “When we started publishing about the central interior, it was natural to also publish the women’s stories.”
Other purveyors of this kind of socially conscious work include Women’s Press, founded as a feminist collective in 1972 with a focus on alternative academic and political perspectives. Then, in 1988, former Women’s Pressers Margie Wolfe and Carolyn Wood helped create Second Story Press.
“Women’s Press was a hugely important force in the women’s movement in Canada during those years, along with Press Gang and SisterVision. Those three organizations created feminist publishing in this country from scratch.” Wood says. “The ethos of Second Story is still leftist feminist, and the commitment is still to publishing books that challenge patriarchal values, discredit stereotypes, promote diversity, and contribute to women’s empowerment.”
Founded in 1971 by university students and local writers, Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press takes interest in peripheral stories, with a particular focus on LGBT and First Nations communities.
“The first years were spent publishing poetry chapbooks and purposely provocative broadsheets,” says publisher Brian Lam. “By the 1980s, Arsenal’s interest in the alternative grew to include the traditionally disenfranchised.”
The early 1990s saw the publication of Dennis Denisoff’s Dog Years, about the AIDS crisis, and Queeries, the first anthology of gay male prose published in Canada.
Today, Lam says Raziel Reid’s YA novel When Everything Feels like the Movies exemplifies how alternative titles can still provoke the mainstream. The novel’s explicit content led to petitions demanding that the Canada Council revoke Reid’s 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award win.
“It is important that books like Reid’s have a place in the landscape of Canadian literature,” says Lam. – Becky Robertson
These stories appeared in Q&Q’s 80th anniversary feature in the April 2015 print issue.