Canadian Words in Canadian Places

windOn this, the week of his birth in 1914, W.O. Mitchell would be rolling over in his grave if he were to find out about what’s going on in Canadian publishing right now. I’m starting to see some disturbing trends in Canadian publishing lately that are making me think that books, a realm in which North Americans have traditionally been fairly light handed in their interference with content, are now being controlled more than we think. We all know that publishing houses control the cover art, but something else is fishy.

I started noticing in the past year or so that more Canadian books, especially the YA and kids’ books, were being set in the US  (many in Seattle and surroundings). It was starting to bug me a little, but if that’s the author’s prerogative, I can get down with that with only minor grumpy undertones.  And then, while listening The Next Chapter on CBC, I found out that this is, in part, because some publishers are advising their Canadian authors who have written a book in a Canadian setting to switch their setting to Non-Canadian locals. The thought being that they’ll sell more if they are set in the US. Richard Ford was asked to change the title of his novel, entitled Canada, to something else. I’d like to have been in on that conversation.

Is it just me, or is this a trend that is upsetting, disappointing and just plain stupid? I’m not saying a book has to be set in Canada to be Canadian, but if the author wants to write about Canada, the shouldn’t be forced not to. Firstly, it’s underselling Canada in thinking that no one could possibly find our nation interesting. Then, tell me why Anne of Green Gables has been a best seller in Japan for eons and why many Japanese girls dream of being married on PEI? Why did Alice Munro just win a Nobel Prize? Secondly, our landscape is a massive part of our identity here in Canada – the east and west coasts, the prairies, Quebec, our winters, the beautiful autumns out east. Where exactly would these same people who are starting this trend suggest Mitchell set Who Has Seen the Wind?  Thirdly, as I discussed previously, the danger of reading only a single story in your life, and not getting other perspectives, is a great one. In that previous post, Chimamanda Adichie thinks it’s inexcusable that she did not get exposed to Nigerian literature as a child, was not able to see herself as a character or hero in a story, until she grew older. Seeing the children’s and YA landscape out there now, where the Canadian protagonist is disappearing, I find this no less excusable. It’s important for our young people to see themselves as part of a story. Hell, it’s important for our older people (like me) to see it, too.

aliceI will read a book set in any location, if it looks like a good story, and I think most people will do the same. If the books set in Canadian landscapes aren’t selling as well, perhaps the fault does not lie in the location of the story, but in the marketing team behind said story. I’m gonna go read some Alice, I think and some Anne, and some W.O. Mitchell, and make myself feel better. Rant over…for now 🙂

For more on this debate see: Kerry On Can Lit’s blog posts on this.

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10 Responses to Canadian Words in Canadian Places

  1. lauratfrey says:

    I dunno. I don’t find setting to be the most important thing, or rather, any setting can be used well, described beautifully, made significant, etc. I know there are many ways to define a book’s nationality but to me the author is the most important part of the equation. If it’s written by a Canadian, then it’s Canadian.

    Now, if this is a thing being driven by marketers or publishers of whoever, well that sucks. But I guess there’s always a give and take between the artistic and the commercial – if this is really what people want… that’s the part I’m sort of doubting, that there’s a big demand for books set in certain areas.

  2. writereads says:

    Thank you for the comment! It made me realize that I have to clarify that this is happening with books already written and set in Canada, and then the publisher pushes the setting to be changed to the US because, they feel, more people will be attracted to a book set in the US. Of course, if the author WANTS to set it somewhere else, they should do that. I am in no way suggesting that Canadian authors must set their books in Canada if they want to be considered Canadian books, but that if the story they want to tell takes place in Canada, they should not be forced to set it elsewhere in a misguided attempt at marketing. Basically, I’m stating that national settings should not be changed in any piece of artwork simply because of weird ideas about marketing. My very impassioned two cents on that 🙂 I know I have to accept that marketing and art go together, but I really do feel that the marketers are off on this one.

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  4. I am very happy to see this debate continuing — it’s one that needs to be dealt with if we are to find our own reflections in our literature — and it’s always important for readers to understand the forces that shape their cultural experiences. For some other ideas, check out:
    http://kerryoncanlit.wordpress.com/commentary-2/what-makes-a-national-literature-national-or-yonge-and-bloor-and-damn-the-consequences/ and
    http://kerryoncanlit.wordpress.com/commentary-2/the-canlit-debates/

    • writereads says:

      Thank you for recommending your posts – I’ll put them up in the body of the blog post as you have clearly done far more research than I. I merely heard about it and started ranting 🙂 I’m glad I’m not the only one upset by this trend. Also, thank you (and Sommerset) for the verb “de-canuck” 🙂
      I wonder sometimes, if part of the reason canucked books don’t sell as well (that’s what “they” tell us, anyhow) is that Canadians are not pumpers…that sounded gross. What I mean is that other nations, especially the Americans, are very good at pumping up a novel, their country, their movies. Canadians are not so good at that sort of thing. It really dawned on me while I was watching the Canadian Amazing Race. My partner loves the American version (I’m not much for reality TV of any sort), so we watched the Canadian one and I was struck by how Canucks just don’t know how to put the drama into their situations. The participants on the American show bring the drama and boost themselves tremendously. The Canadians…they just don’t. This is not a well thought out point of view, it was just one of those observations that occurred to me at the same time as I heard that we were de-canuckifying our novels.

      • Yes, it’s true that the American approach to self-promotion is quite a bit more dramatic, and aggressive — and it sells to the market it has created for itself — but it’s that aggression and “faked’ drama that I find grating about it. I suspect that I’m not the only Canadian who does not respond particularly well to this style. We are just a different animal, and American marketing techniques may not work as well with us. Of course, their huge population (compared to us) creates a continuous conflict for Canadian publishers — access requires one to conform to marketing norms. I have this little, hopeful theory though, that the American pop cultural monolith marketing ideas have a sort of self fulfilling prophecy aspect to them — the product appeals to a certain part of the population, who, then, validate the ideas. This doesn’t sound very hopeful so far — but flip it around, and there may be a significant segment of American society who appreciate a quieter, more thoughtful approach to culture, who have no influence, at present, on best seller lists because they are not being offered a product they want. The internet, though, opens up this access, and takes power away from the cultural gatekeepers who have, for so long, determined what North Americans “want.” Fingers crossed!

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  6. Even though I’m all for Canadian authors setting their stories wherever their creative minds have taken them, it bothers me to hear of them purposefully changing to U.S. locations in order to sell more books. I would like my kids to grow up (and for me to grow old) with more than a handful of memorable Canadian protagonists.

    I find this topic very interesting since I recently read two books written by Canadian authors (Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper) which were not set in Canada. I think there may have even been some controversy about Half Blood Blues being a contender for this year’s Canada Reads because it is mostly set in Europe. I noticed that while both books are not set in Canada, the authors found some way of bringing Canada into the story. Specifically by having Canadian characters and describing Canadian locations.

    • writereads says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’ve been wanting to read The Demonologist for ages, thanks for the review over at your blog! And I do agree that you can still canuckify a book that isn’t set in Canada and that Canadian protagonists can travel anywhere they want to 🙂 -Tania

  7. writereads says:

    In response to Kerry, I completely agree about the marketing. I like the less bombastic way and I think there are many people out there who feel the same way…at least I hope so.

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