ETHICAL MATTERS AT MASSEY COLLEGE

Recently I attended an interesting literary event that raised some difficult questions. It was held at Massey College, in the University of Toronto, and the Upper Library was filled for a Book Club meeting. The regular Chair, my friend Charles Foran, was gadding about on the West Coast, so his wife Mary stepped in and handled the event with aplomb.
Our speaker, whom I won’t name, was talking about her recent book, which has been a considerable success. She spoke about the book’s genesis, and how she learned the skills of writing, and enjoyed the experience of working with an editor. Then, in the course of a long Q and A session , she went into troubling detail.
She told us that she had worked first with a freelance editor who was helpful in getting her manuscript into such good shape that she found a literary agent in Canada, who placed the book with a Canadian house. The author then worked on the book through the pre-publication process, until she had proofs to check.
At this point her agent was trying to sell the rights to the book to a number of US publishers. She sent out copies of the Canadian proofs to several interested New York houses and arranged to hold an auction for the rights, where, traditionally, the publisher bidding the most money in advance royalties will be the winner.
In this case, however, the editor on the case at Penguin became very excited about the book,and so creatively engaged with it, that she sent a TEN-PAGE letter full of detailed instructions about how the author could improve the book, by expanding this or compressing that, or switching this with that.
The author told us that this detailed editorial advice was so convincing, and so obviously good, that she excitedly worked through the entire weekend, rewriting the proofs of the book, to follow the Penguin editor’s suggestions.
Then her agent went ahead, presumably with the author’s approval, and sold the rights to the book to the highest bidder in the US — which was not Penguin.
There was distinct unease in the Massey room, not just, I think, among former editors and publishers. She was telling us that she eagerly took all of the Penguin editor’s work (freely offered, of course, with no formal quid pro quo) but then went off elsewhere, with a wave of the hand?
This didn’t seem right.
In my opinion there was an ethical way to handle this situation. In the circumstances, I think that her agent should have contacted all of the interested US companies that were involved in the auction, saying : “I must tell you that the auction has now changed. The book will be awarded to Penguin, although their respectable bid did not involve the highest amount of money. What made the Penguin offer the decisive winner was the fact that their editor invested a large amount of time in crafting a ten-page editorial letter that was so helpful to the author that she has now re-written the book to incorporate the changes suggested. We are thrilled that this editor understands the book so perfectly. As all of us in publishing know, that sort of enthusiastic editorial understanding is so rare that it should never be disregarded, and is of immense value.”
I believe that the other publishers would have accepted this, Penguin would have got the book, and justice would have been done. What do you think?

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THE RUNNING OF THE DEER

Having what you might call “an editorial mind” can be a blessing or a curse. Musing about the hidden meanings of well-known phrases can lead to surprises, or at least insomnia.
Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”. The chorus begins.. “O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir”.
All very pleasant, right? Perhaps especially the prancing and trotting of the little deer, some of which might even be agreeably red-nosed.
Except that the editorial mind recalls that in the Middle Ages — when “The Holly and the Ivy” was written — maintaining a reliable supply of food was difficult. Getting deer-meat on the table involved great dangers for ordinary, starving peasants, who would be killed if they dared to poach a deer from someone’s forest. As for the lordly forest-owners, to get their supply of venison they would occasionally organise a ” deer drive”. They would noisily “run” the startled deer, flushed out from their hiding places, towards a line of armed bowmen, who would then shoot them down and butcher them.
That was what “the running of the deer” involved. An interesting way to re-interpret a lovely, apparently innocent, old carol.
There was a Canadian equivalent, for many generations, in the buffalo hunt on the Prairies. Buffalo (or Bison, if you prefer) are huge, and fast. Until the local humans were able to use horses to keep up with them, or to invent fine bows and arrows to shoot them down, they had to rely on cunning to catch them and use them for food. So they invented what we cheerfully call “buffalo jumps”.
I’m happy that we’ve dropped the euphemisms by adopting the name Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Provincial Historic site near Fort Macleod in Alberta. I went there once with my friend Andy Russell, the historian and mountain man. Because I was with Andy, they let me go behind the scenes. We walked up the slight slope to the flat prairie, then turned, and got a buffalo’s eye view as we sauntered unsuspectingly towards the hidden cliff-top.
It was easy to imagine how successful the hidden “drivers” leaping out , yelling and waving blankets, must have been at keeping the snorting, stampeding herd going straight towards the hidden cliff edge, where the slight downward slope turned into a roaring plunge to death, and smashed in heads.
And of course, the butchering and skinning took the hard-working women many days, and with collected saskatoon berries produced the pemmican that opened up the West to the Fur Trade. But that, of course is another story… which takes us a long way from the Running of the Deer.

We are just waiting for our vegetarian grandchildren to arrive for Dinner. Merry Christmas

MARSHALLING NEW FACTS ABOUT McLUHAN

In Across Canada By Story I spend some time discussing my links with Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Today I learned some interesting new facts about both of them. This was courtesy of an intriguing new Exhibition on McLuhan in the St. Michael’s College Library at the University of Toronto ….which happens to located on “Marshall McLuhan Way”.

The well-known facts about Marshall are all there, including the unfamiliar news that at first he published as “Herbert Marshall McLuhan”. We  are reminded that he first produced the phrase “the medium is the message” at a conference for radio broadcasters in Vancouver as early as 1957, and that The Gutenberg Galaxy  came out in 1962, winning the Governor-General’s Prize (from  a jury chaired by Northrop Frye) and establishing his reputation, so that in a few years the San Francisco Chronicle was calling him “the hottest academic property around”.

By  1967 his fame had spread so that the Toronto Star called him “Toronto’s most influential and controversial celebrity.” From 1965 t0 1969 in the US alone, interviews with him ran in Harpers, Newsweek, The New York Times, Life, Fortune, Esquire, Look, TV Guide, McCalls, Glamour, Vogue, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, the Saturday Evening Post , and in Playboy.

Ah, yes, Playboy…. the magazine full of airbrushed naked women who occasionally caught the passing eyes of teenaged boys who really bought the magazine “for the articles”. After Playboy ran their 1968 piece on Marshall (labelled “a candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media”), Marshall wrote to Jack Kessie, the Managing Editor. The letter, on display in the Exhibition, was pure McLuhan. He assured Mr. Kessie that “nudity is not realism.Compared to the clad figure, nudity is sculpture. Clothing is an anti-environment, a kind of weaponry, providing an enclosed space that is pictorial rather than sculptural….'”

To reassure Playboy’s head man further, he went on “Of course, basic human sex attraction is olfactory, not photo-factory, hence the playful harmlessness and natural innocence of your pictures.” Perhaps we can assume that before Mr. Kessie went home to be greeted by his sweet-smelling wife, he considered raising the price of ads for perfumes in the magazine.

I have written about how Marshall and Northrop Frye (that’s Herman Northrop Frye) were two very large fish in a fairly small Toronto pond. They were wary of each other and tried to avoid giving offence, working together as U. of T. English Department colleagues. They were, I argue in the book, friendly rivals. Yet in the Exhibition there is a 1971 letter about Marshall from Frye  that hints at the strain. Ronald S. Berman, the Chair of the National Endowment For The Humanities had written to Frye from Washington asking if he would recommend McLuhan to give a major speech.

In part Frye’s letter reads…”and I think he would do a very good job for you, assuming that he took the assignment seriously and wrote out his speech beforehand. He makes a deliberate technique of uttering what he calls “probes”, or challenges to the imagination, which to many people sound like simply irresponsible statements, and his habit of regarding the whole of culture as a gigantic allegory of his own view is growing on him.”

At the end of the letter, Frye’s irritation at having been lured into these frank statements seems to me flick out, like a dragon’s tongue. See what you think..” If you invited him to give the lecture you would, I think, be taking something of a risk, but I think you ought to take a risk, like everybody else, and not hedge your bets by enquiries of this kind.

Yours sincerely”

From the Exhibition I walked for five minutes to re-visit Marshall’s old Centre For Culture and Technology, at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent. It still reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase “an unused Newfoundland fishing shack” and I was unable to get inside, to remind me of visits to see Marshall there. But I was able to clamber through the undisturbed snow, to peer through the window inside the room that launched a thousand probes.

BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

I was disappointed to read that Bob Dylan has decided not to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a huge loss — for him. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies knows what a pinnacle they represent. Attendance is so cherished that to get into the hall (all gentlemen wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails) you must present not only your ticket, with the specific seat number noted, but also YOUR PASSPORT, to prove that you are the person to whom the valuable ticket was issued.

Jane and I still remember every dreamy detail of our 2013 day there as part of the Alice Munro party. We also remember the sense that we were part of what I can only describe as “the world at its best”.

Now, with his unfortunate decision, Bob Dylan will miss all of that.

I suspect that, even at death’s door, Leonard Cohen would not have made that mistake.

I knew Leonard, a little, because when I was the Publisher at M&S, we published his new poetry books. In the process, I worked cordially with Leonard’s charming agent, who was secretly stealing all of his money. Ironically, this crime had the beneficial effect of forcing Leonard to revive his career, making him earn new money by going on tour again, and writing and performing fine new songs.

I have two memories of Leonard that may be worth sharing. First, when he was at McGill, he studied English with Hugh MacLennan. They liked each other, and became friends. Hugh told me that once in private conversation Leonard was explaining the opportunities opened by the new, open sexual freedoms among young people like him. The older Presbyterian was scandalised , and protested: “But Leonard, you remind me of a girl I knew back in Nova Scotia. She was called “Anytime Annie”!”

Leonard did not mend his ways, to the relief of many ladies down through the years.

Once, when he visited our Toronto office in what was a busy day of interviews, for lunch we brought in to the Boardroom some unglamorous sandwiches from Druxy’s downstairs. Leonard was perfectly happy, expecting absolutely no special treatment. He chatted happily with me and Avie Bennett and Ellen Seligman, about subjects ranging from Hugh MacLennan to how to get money from a bank machine in sketchy areas in LA. In such a situation, he explained, using an on-street machine was asking for trouble, making yourself a target. So what you looked for was a bank machine inside a small grocery store. There you cased the joint, apparently immersed in reading the ingredients of, say, a bottle of Pepsi.

Then, when the coast was clear, you drifted across to the machine, still apparently deep into your Pepsi scrolls, quickly punched in your banking needs, grabbed and concealed the cash, then escaped to the front of the store with your Pepsi purchase. Muggers were not interested in a man bearing a bottle of Pepsi.

In the mourning that followed Leonard’s death, I was pleased by how seriously our newspapers took his loss. The CBC, too, devoted important hours to paying tribute to him and his work. I found myself deeply moved by the message that he had sent to Marianne, his long-time lover, when she was dying in Norway this summer. His loving message ended with the words…”see you down the road.”

On Remembrance Day came my moment of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, I would argue, Leonard Cohen knew what was really important. When someone came to him asking if he would recite “In Flanders Fields”, he said yes. Many major musical stars would have laughed off the idea of reciting this poem from grade school , about the First World War, for Heaven’s sake, as hopelessly “uncool”.

Leonard read the poem aloud. As the CBC ended its broadcast of Remembrance Day with Leonard reading that poem, the fact that it was happening  in the week of his death was almost too much to bear. But most powerful of all was how brilliantly he read it. No tricks, nothing fancy, just a serious, perfect reading, by a poet who knew what really mattered.

I’m sorry that Stockholm will not see him.

ALICE MUNRO SAYS GOODBYE TO THE WRITING LIFE.

 In 2006, Alice Munro said that she was not going to write any more. Many journalists seized on this terrible news and reported it as fact, and it flashed around the Canadian literary world like summer lightning

 Wiser heads, however, checked with me, her long-time editor, and found me dismissing the idea, with the words that “Alice is a born writer, and she’s not going to stop writing.”

   Fortunately for the world, I was right, and she has produced two collections of stories since then.

  Sadly, I’m not saying that this time.

   In fact, when she came to Toronto in June, to accept the Trillium Prize for Dear Life, I was with her in a private room at the Toronto Reference Library when the enterprising Mark Medley interviewed her and asked her about her future writing plans. When she told him that she had no such plans, and had stopped writing, (“I’m probably not going to write anymore”), I stayed silent.

  Recently Charles McGrath, of the New York Times, visited her in Clinton and returned with the same story. His fine July 1 article, “Alice Munro Puts Down Her Pen To Let The World In” reflects the fact that he is an old friend and editor of Alice’s work, and a great admirer. It’s a superb account of Alice’s life and work, and I recommend it highly.

  So what has changed? For a start, Alice is now 82. In April she lost her beloved husband, Gerry Fremlin, and life is harder now. On the subject of growing old, which Charles McGrath rightly notes is “a subject that preoccupies some of her best stories”, she says “I worry less than I did. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s better than being dead. I feel that I’ve done what I wanted to do, and that makes me fairly content.”

   “Fairly content”…now there’s an Alice Munro expression, (just like “better than being dead”). I suppose I can say that the millions of readers around the world who know her work can be “fairly content” that she wrote a lifetime’s worth of wonderful short stories that can be read and re-read for ever. My own recommendation, by the way, is The Progress Of Love, which I discuss on my Book Club website, complete with 20 Discussion Points.

   I accompanied Alice to two award sessions in Toronto in June, in both cases whisked by limo to the event, then escorted (with me hovering at Alice’s elbow, the escort escorted) to the reception and the dinner. At both the Libris Awards session, where I spoke to introduce Alice to the nation’s booksellers, who were giving her a Lifetime Achievement Award, and at the later Trillium Prize event, there was a strong sense that people in the audience knew that this was a special moment towards the end of a long , unmatched career. The affection and respect in the sustained, standing ovations were very obvious, almost tangible. And the people who took the opportunity to come to our table to greet Alice (“Yes, I once met Alice Munro!”), sometimes were literally kneeling to greet her , and were always visibly affected when they staggered away, dazed by the experience of meeting her, although she was always friendly and unaffected (“Who do you think you are?”)
It was wonderful to be so close to such powerful experiences, although my role was to watch for signs of strain, then to swoop Alice back to her limo, and back to the family waiting for her at the hotel.

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Jack Hodgins

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, Doug talks about Jack Hodgins.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Jack Hodgins, see chapter 9 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Barry Broadfoot

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, Doug talks about Barry Broadfoot.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Barry Broadfoot, see chapter 5 of Stories About Storytellers.