LISTEN TO CBC RADIO’S SUNDAY MORNING TOMORROW, NOV 25

All going well, on Michael Enright’s fine programme tomorrow, you’ll be able to hear me talking about Hugh MacLennan.
It’s more than a casual chat. Young Michael is so good at what he does that his interview pushed me to declare things that I wasn’t aware that I knew. So not only will you hear me encouraging every listener to go and read THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, which I describe as Hugh’s very best book. You’ll also hear me reading aloud the paragraph from BAROMETER RISING that , I claim, created Canadian Literature.

If you find that idea intriguing , you might enjoy listening to Michael’s show tomorrow.

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THE VERY FIRST GILLER PRIZE…..A STORY OF TERROR

The contribution made by The Giller Prize to Canada’s writers, publishers and readers is well-known. The impact on sales for the winning novel (even for books on the short list) is so dramatic that it has its own term: “The Giller Effect”.
Yet that might not have happened, without an outrageous gamble 25 years ago.
I was there. To be precise, I was in the room with Avie Bennett, the Chairman of McClelland & Stewart, where I was the Publisher, when we had a very, very tough decision to take.
It was the first year of Jack Rabinovitch’s interesting new prize. We were glad that he had decided to launch the Prize, and we looked forward to the fine evening Dinner.
Avie and I were both going to be there, since several of our books were among the five finalists. But we had no idea if the Giller was going to be just a pleasant Toronto social event. Or if, possibly, it might prove to be a very effective way of selling books.
(It’s fair to say here that neither Avie nor I would have predicted even half of the impact that the Giller Prize has proved to have on sales in our bookstores.)
Our problem revolved around one of the finalists, M.G. Vassanji’s novel THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
Unlike the other M&S contenders for the Prize, we did not have a good supply of copies. In fact, if the book were to win the Prize, we would not be able to meet any demand for it that rose in the bookstores. Even worse,if we delayed a reprint, while the book was being re-printed, which would take weeks, the book would be “out of stock”, and any surge of popular interest would be flattened. “Come back in two weeks” is not a good line for a bookseller.
So we had a major problem with THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
To make matters worse, the book had come out in the Spring. So in the bookselling world it was an “old” book. It had had its day. And as a Spring title, by the November Giller Prize Dinner it was being returned to our warehouse.
So, in these circumstances, Avie and I knew that if the book did NOT win, it would not lead to any further sales from our warehouse. At best, the fact that the book had been short-listed might slow down the rate of returns, a little.
So for us to reprint in these circumstances, before we knew if it had won, was a horrendous commercial risk. In effect, we knew that WE WOULD NOT SELL A SINGLE COPY OF THE REPRINT.
On the other hand, IF THE BOOK WON, AND WE WERE OUT OF STOCK FOR WEEKS we would be dealing a death blow to the hopes that The Giller Prize might lead to dramatic sales of the winning book.
So, after anguished debate, Avie took the bold decision to reprint (I believe 7,500 copies). We both knew that every single copy we printed would moulder in the warehouse if the Giller Prize went to one of the other four contenders.
So, that year, Avie and I were sweating blood through our fancy dinner jackets as the evening culminated with the words, “And the winner is……..M.G. Vassanji’s THE BOOK OF SECRETS!”
Afterwards , Avie and I were asked what we felt when this M&S book won the Prize, and we both said” Relief!”

And indeed the reprinted books flew out of the warehouse, so that we had to reprint again and again. And we helped to establish “The Giller Effect”.

On the 25th anniversary, it’s a very proud memory. Well done, Jack! Well done,Avie.!

IN PRAISE OF MARY PRATT

I was saddened to read about the recent death of Newfoundland’s own Mary Pratt, a timeless painter of realistic scenes, often deceptively plain and domestic.
The comparisons with the work of Alice Munro are clear, and I was very glad to bring the two artists together by using Mary Pratt’s evocative image of a dress on a clothesline for Friend of My Youth in 1990, and of an unmade bed on the cover of Alice’ s Runaway in 2004.
Alice’s biographer, Robert Thacker, in Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, notes that “Gibson’s comment that he and Munro had been looking for “just the right”magic realist painting is indicative, too, since as her Canadian editor he justifiably prided himself on the choice of appropriate artworks for her dust jackets. Given the initial Rose-Janet relation in Who Do You Think You Are, they first settled on a detail from Christopher Pratt’s Young Woman in a Slip, where the young woman is looking into a mirror, rejecting it (though it was later used on the dust jacket of the Canadian edition of The Moons of Jupiter), they ultimately opted for a detail of Ken Dandy’s The Sunbather”.
To my great pleasure,Thacker ends this paragraph with the observation: “Gibson’s covers, from this one to the painting of a dishevelled bed by Mary Pratt on the dust jacket of Runaway have been capsule symbols of the elegant everyday found in Munro’s writing”.
“The elegant everyday”! Perfect.
And as Canadian magic realism flourished, I was thrilled to be able to use paintings by people like Mary Pratt, and Christopher Pratt, and Alex Colville ( Elm Tree at Horton’s Landing, on the cover of The Progress of Love).
A great generation of artists.

GREAT NEWS! MY PODCAST IS NOW AVAILABLE TO YOU — FREE!

As my faithful friends who follow this blog know, I spent a lot of time in 2017 touring my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, 1867 To Today. Yet anyone who missed the live Power-point stage show was out of luck.

Until today. Canada Day!

Now, we’re launching a series of Podcasts based on that show. There are 16 podcasts in all,  each based on a decade in Canadian literature. For most of the decades I’ve selected the best Fiction Writer, in English and in French. Against a background of music from the time, I also talk about Canadian Art in those days, as well as the major events in our history.

It’s all very informal, and friendly, and each decade’s podcast runs between 15 and 25 minutes.

I hope that you’ll give it a try.

Here’s how:

Go to the Podcast Section of i-tunes. Search for Douglas Gibson. What you want is the one with a caricature of me, running across the country. The heading is Douglas Gibson Literary Talks. It is, as I say, all FREE.
Enjoy.

If you seek a more formal direct link, here’s the URL

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/douglasgibsonliterarytalks/id1403911781

Please share widely

THANK YOU

DOUG

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.

NEIL BISSOONDATH AND DYSLEXIA

A very long time ago, in 1985, I published Neil Bissoondath’s first book, the short story collection Digging Up The Mountains. Since then I’ve watched his international career take flight with his long and short fiction, including A Casual Brutality (1988), On The Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990), The Innocence of Age (1992), The Worlds Within Her (1998), Doing The Heart Good (2001), and The Unyielding Clamour of the Night (2005). Among other titles.
Neil continues to teach Creative Writing at Laval, and is a welcoming fixture with his wife Anne for visitors to Quebec City. Recently Jane and I were yet again recipients of their superb hospitality.
We talked at length about his controversial non-fiction book, Selling Illusions:The Cult Of Multiculturalism In Canada (1994). I was unfortunately not the book’s publisher, but was well aware that the word “controversial” here is an understatement, like the word “costly” applied to the Second World War. In fact, the updated 2002 edition begins with Neil’s Introduction, which briefly demonstrates the tsunami of outrage that burst over his head when the book appeared…… and went straight to the top of the best-seller list.
I won’t try to summarize the book here. But I’ve just re-read it, and will recommend it to anyone who would like to spend time thinking hard thoughts about what it means to be Canadian. The outrage that Neil provoked included a denunciation by Sheila Finestone, the Minister for Multiculturalism in Ottawa. I think it’s clear that some of that outrage stemmed from the fact that he,  born in Trinidad, was a person with dark skin who wanted to be judged on what he did as an individual writer, and wanted to avoid being seen as a “representative” of any group, of any sort.
That is an increasingly lonely position today, but Neil makes a very thoughtful defence of it. I strongly recommend that you read his book, and see what you think.
Selling Illusions contains a story about me, which I had forgotten. As you’d expect, Neil gives a very accurate account of what happened.
“And a Canadian publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart, relishes the following story. In a speech to an industry convention, Mr. Gibson, a clever and witty man, attacked the federal government’s tax on books by saying, “Those who tax reading must be people who find reading taxing.” The line was greeted with laughter and applause. But afterward, one person approached him to register displeasure. “That was a clever line,” the man said. “Many people laughed. I did not.  I’m dyslexic. It’s not nice to imply that people who have a hard time reading are stupid.”
The chapter, Diversity and Creativity, where my sad story appears, begins with the sentence “How easy it is, in life and in art, to give and to take offence.” Indeed.

PHILIP ROTH IS GONE FOR GOOD. SORT OF…

You may have missed two recent tributes to Philip Roth, who died last week.
One is in The New Yorker, by the novelist ALI SMITH. She learned to her surprise that she and this admired older gentleman both swam in the same New York pool. When she consulted him about how to keep your mind active while swimming boring lengths, up and down, up and down, he told her that he made a point of fixing on a specific year, then recalling everything he could about it. He would tackle not only the events in his own life during that year, but in the city, the state, the country, the literary world, and the world at large.
Ali Smith tells us that he swam long distances, much faster than she did, and learned from him that his recipe for a mental workout also seemed to produce good results.
As the outdoor swimming season begins in much of Canada, I’m happy to pass this idea along.

Meanwhile, I hope that you read the National Post cartoon on May 24 by my friend GARY CLEMENT. It’s an 8-panel piece that runs for half a page, headed “Goodbye, Philip Roth.” The sub-heading says simply “True Story.”
I’ve been in touch with Gary to congratulate him, but complained that it strains the reader’s belief that his encounter with Philip Roth took place “on Columbus Ave., of all places”.
He swears that it’s true.
Gary and his wife and son were in New York when they saw an older man sitting quietly alone outside a coffee shop. Gary says “OMIGOD! It’s Philip Roth!”
Urged to go and say hi, Gary objects “YOU CAN’T JUST SAY HI TO A GUY LIKE PHILIP ROTH! HE’S A GOD OF WRITING! AN IMMORTAL!”
The family goes off for a hamburger.
Then, in mid-burger, Gary abandons his family, runs back, and blurts out “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Roth but I just wanted to tell you how much your writing means to me.”

The story unfolds as you would hope.

“Turns out.. he was a real kibbitzer.”
Roth:”Normally when this sort of thing happens, people offer me a little cash.”

Gary:”I only have Canadian money.”

Roth:” I’ll take a cheque.”

Gary recalls: “It was like talking to my Dad!”

To Gary’s surprise, Philip Roth wanted to know more about him.

Roth:” What do you do in Canada?”
Gary:” I’m a cartoonist.”

Roth:” From this you make a living?”

At the end, “Finally it was time to go.

Gary:”I look forward to your next book…any hints?”

Roth: “I can’t say. I’m just READING books now.”

The superb True Story ends with Gary’s words: “Shortly after that, Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. And now, he’s gone for good. Sort of…”

A lovely memory of Philip Roth late in his life. I wonder if his hair was wet.