On 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.
I 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.