OUR NATIVE SON Chuck "10 per cent" Cook's infamous statement - that only one-tenth of Canadians read books, that Canadian books just aren't good enough - got me peering into people's laps. I wanted to know what they read on the bus, in waiting rooms, in bathroom stalls. Ignoring a few hostile glares (no, I didn't follow them into the john), I detected the new Margaret Drabble, Frederick Forsyth's latest thriller, Dances with Wolves (The Book), and several unidentified pulp novels.
When I asked friends about their recent purchases, I uncovered Drabble (again), a Peter Mayle incantation, the Granta travel book, various British and American mysteries, Robert Persig's Lila. And, oh yes, Robertson Davies's Murther and Walking Spirits and Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints.
From this informal research it was clear to me that certainly more than 10 per cent of the public stick their noses in books, and at least some of the titles they read are Canadian. It is also clear that people's tastes in books, just as in food and sex, differ.
That diversity is what attracted me to this job. After eight years as the Vancouver Sun's film critic, I realized I was watching the same five or six films being made over and over again. Publishing, on the other hand, is open to new subject matter, to new voices.
Book editors of daily newspapers need to cover the local literary scene, but - because our audience is more general than a literary magazine's - we must also answer to the market-place. During tough times, newspaper publishers look to cut the -areas that bring the least advertising, and book review editors all start feeling like giant pandas. So we juggle and we balance (a section-front interview with Jean Auel may entice the casual reader to investigate a poetry review inside) and we hope we never have to go one-on-one with the New Homes section.
When the 15 nominees for the B.C. Book Prizes were announced last spring, I found The Sun had either reviewed, run excerpts from or had features on 13 of them (two children's books were the exceptions). No sooner had the self-satisfied grin creased my face when certain colleagues wondered aloud if our pages were perhaps too elitist but then a check of the best-seller lists proved we had covered 80 per cent of those titles. I'd like to think that we also review some important books that fall between those two categories.
There are times when I find myself agreeing with Chuck Cook and wondering how some Canadian manuscripts come to see the light of day. But then I consider the alternative where only books deemed to have the most commercial appeal are published - and those doubts quickly evaporate.
This province, like the country, has a motherlode of talented short-story and non-fiction writers, as well as some fine poets. I wish I could say the same for the novel. With a few exceptions, Canadian writers struggle with the long form; each season we see a rash of important novels by important writers (publicists' emphasis), and each season one is left, like the sports fan who supports a losing team, saying, "Wait till next season."
Every B.C. publisher, with the exception of Douglas & McIntyre, gets slapped with the "regional" label. It's a fact of life: if you don't have an office in Toronto, you're considered a colony. Of the 15 titles published by Vancouver-based Talonbooks, one of the largest literary presses in the country, only four were by B.C. authors. There were two each from Ontario, the Prairies, and English-speaking Quebec, four translations of Quebec francophone authors, and one writer from the Maritimes. Yet Talonbooks still gets saddled with the regional moniker.
Economically, publishers in B.C. have fared somewhat better than their Eastern cousins, thanks to a history of adversity. It was only last year that the provincial government began infusing non-emergency cash into the industry, matching federal contributions. So B.C. publishers have been fiscally conservative, careful not to accumulate debt. When a small press like New Star Books suffers a 1988-89 downturn of some 25 to 30 per cent, it cuts its staff but doesn't go under because, as its publisher Rolf Maurer says, "We're used to getting by with less." That conservatism will likely hold through 1992, as B.C. publishers continue to do what they do best: quality fiction and poetry, historical nonfiction, and books on social issues.