Feeding the Barbarians at the Gate

Once upon a time, a benevolent prime minister looked upon the land and decreed that we would no longer be diminished by books written in the UK and America, that Canadian writers would stand tall and be recognized for their talents. He opened a war chest of money to fund fledgling publishing houses and to assist writers who couldn’t make a living solely on their trade. Universities and colleges came to the fore by seeing an opportunity to spread creative writing courses across the land, provide employment to writers on a more permanent basis, and cash in on the largesse of government grants for literary and educational programs. CanLit was born.

For the next twenty-five years this effort blossomed, and Canadian writers reached the world stage. We won literary awards, not just in Canada but abroad as well. But something else was happening. After that benevolent PM’s exit from the political stage, subsequent politicians did not see value in the arts as he did. They did not see that a sign of a mature society is the blossoming of its arts, not just its economy; they did not see that the arts industry, when  viewed by its broadest definition, is the largest employer in Canada. They did not see that Canada’s population had virtually doubled from when the benevolent PM had attained his enlightenment, and that more people were creating as more people were living longer and had stories to tell. What the latter-day politicians saw instead were budget deficits, and the easiest way to bring spending in line was to cut frivolous funding—to the arts, for instance.

Net result: barriers to entry shot up in CanLit as funding shrank. It’s Marketing 101. If you create scarcity, prices and incomes can be stabilized for those within the gates. Even Donald Trump is trying to do it with America First.  And replacements to the existing stock of writers would only be made selectively when older ones retired or died out. And it was best to replace them with younger ones who were likely to produce another 10 books per author before having to find their replacements. Net-net result: the “barbarians” started gathering outside the gates. Who were these barbarians? Older writers, retirees writing the stories they always wanted to write, those who did not luck-in with the right book at the right time, those with good stories but poor literary connections, and those whose first book had flopped. There were writers of smaller ethnic communities, marginalized writers of colour, creed and sexual orientation, memoirists, poets, and a heap of other categories assembling at the gates too. They all needed a home if the insatiable creative appetite of this land was to be satiated.

Enter the small presses. And I don’t mean the subsidized small presses who still enjoy the largesse of government funding yet call themselves “small” so that they can continue to be looked upon as vulnerable and in need of support . I mean the unfunded ones who by sheer dint of personal conviction, limited personal funds, raw grit, and using the internet and social media to craft out an existence whereby good stories from those barbarians will see the light of day. I mean those ones. These unfunded presses do not enjoy the big award galas or invitations to literary festivals, or reviews in national newspapers; they create their own awards and festivals, with their own money, within their communities, and they rely on personal contacts to obtain reviews and interviews for their work, to place them in “virtual” street corners where readers gather. They are extremely vulnerable, for the spectre of financial failure dogs their days; their grasp has to be within their reach, and they cling like leeches to the hides of mighty online distributors such as Amazon, Apple and Kobo. And lo, beware a health crisis, for the one or two-person shop needs all hands on deck to push a book out the door. But, like the Energizer Bunny, they keep going, because CanLit is not just that inner sanctified layer but this rougher outer layer that embraces, and sometimes feeds the inner circle, and in turn embraces the traditional channel’s discards.

Whether one is in the inner or outer layer, they are now mutually dependent on each other, for writers transfer between both layers as fortunes wax and wane, and we need both in order to keep writers of all types writing and continuing to be published. This is a reality that many do not want to face. But it is our reality, one that has existed in some shape or form throughout history.

Welcome to the new and improved CanLit!

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