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The Perilous Trade

by Roy MacSkimming
ISBN: 0771054939


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A Review of: The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada∆s Writers
by Clara Thomas

Roy MacSkimming's The Perilous Trade is a comprehensive guide to Canadian publishing from 1946 to 2003. The book has been in process for five years, but most important, MacSkimming has been involved in both writing and publishing in Canada since 1964 when he began to work in Clarke Irwin's warehouse. He is uniquely qualified to trace our publishing history. In the late 60s and 70s Canada's burgeoning cultural nationalism made anything seem possible and quite often, against all odds, it was. There is a strong undercurrent of optimism in his work, a holdover from those days: what happened once can happen again. In spite of our publishing's present battered state: "Whether it will regain the vigour of its experimental, innovative, risk-taking youth, infused with fresh human and financial capital, or subside into working as a seed farm for writers destined for the internationals is a question yet to be settled. Neither outcome is inevitable."
With the end of WW II in 1945, a period of unprecedented growth began for writing and publishing in Canada. John Morgan Gray, who had begun working as a sales representative for Macmillan in the 30s returned in 1946 after war service to succeed the brilliant, unpredictable Hugh Eayrs as Manager, then, shortly, as President. Similarly, Jack McClelland, after release from the Navy, joined his father's firm, McClelland and Stewart, becoming President in 1952. In 1948, William Toye joined the Oxford University Press, Canada, and in 1953 Marsh Jeanneret, who had worked as a textbook traveller for Copp Clark, became the Director of the University of Toronto Press. Along with Lorne Pierce of the Ryerson Press, a tireless Canadian enthusiast since his appointment in 1922, these men dominated the book trade in the fifties. They were in the forefront of the advances that began to gather impetus in those post-war years. This cast would fit nicely into a dramatization: Pierce the benevolent, anxious father, Gray the cautious oldest brother, Toye and Jeanneret each gifted, hard-working and successful within their chosen fields, and McClelland the maverick, charming, impulsive, an unfailing magnet for publicity good and bad. Though MacSkimming is notably even-handed in his treatment of his cast, McClelland is inevitably its hero, a rogue hero to be sure, but always well remembered and always attracting the spotlight.
MacSkimming's greatest skill is his ability to combine enormous amounts of information with personal and anecdotal sketches of these and many later movers and shakers. His treatment, well-salted with humour, is at all times intensely readable, giving chapter after chapter the compulsive page-turning appeal of a good novel. His own experience in writing both fiction and non-fiction serves him well. The chapter titles alone are an entertainment: two on McClelland and Stewart, "Prince of Publishers" and "Surviving Prince Jack", or "Printed in Canada by Mindless Acid Freaks" on the rise of small publishers, Coach House, Anansi and New Press among them. He captures the temper of those amazing days of the late sixties and seventies when "the indigenous industry was fighting for its life" and at the same time was spawning ever more hopeful newcomers.
In 1949 the appointment by the St. Laurent government of the Massey-Levesque Commission, with five royal commissioners, was a giant step forward: they called for briefs and travelled the country to hearings in sixteen cities, finding a uniformly sad state of affairs in broadcasting, the arts, and scholarly and scientific research. Their recommendations, tabled in 1951 and called the "Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences", were solidly in favour of government intervention with funds on all fronts. The Canada Council with its granting system was one of the Commission's achievements, as was the National Library, its mandate the collection of Canadiana.
In 1955, the cause of Canadian literature and its publishing took another important step forward with the "Canadian Writers' Conference", a three-day gathering at Queen's University. Frank Scott, poet, constitutional lawyer and one of the writers of the Regina Manifesto, the founding document of the present NDP, was the driving force behind the gathering. There were eighty-one invitees, an impressive group of writers, publishers and teachers, and though their report, published the next year, identified massive problems and "dismal situations" on all sides, the conference left an aftermath of dawning collegiality and stubborn optimism, justified as it turned out, by the Canada Council's establishment in 1957.
After Chapter 10, "The Rise of the West", documents the work of Gray Campbell, the founding of Douglas and McIntyre and the huge achievement of Mel Hurtig and James Marsh in producing The Canadian Encyclopedia, the canvas becomes crowded. Large numbers of new presses jostle for place among the old established and increasingly challenged companies. The advent of the computer vastly enabled newcomers while also vastly complicating the whole scene. MacSkimming acknowledges the difficulty in his source notes: "I'm conscious of not having devoted equal space to all the deserving. Certain presses seem to me more emblematic than others of their time and place." His chapter, "The Mavericks of KidLit", is one of these, a much deserved recognition of a branch of our publishing which from a standing start became and has remained a consistently successful and much admired enterprise.
Inevitably the final chapters, "Wars of Succession" and "No Publisher's Paradise" cast dark shadows over the future: the collapse of Stoddart Publishing was a bitter blow and the infiltration of the multinationals is a constant hazard: "an enduring national publishing industry can't subsist on authors who move on to the multinationals after a book or two." Though money is always the bottom line, hope remains-stubborn entrepreneurship is ageless and endless.
A chronology, "Canadian Book Publishing, 1946 to May 2003" and an unusually informal and informative chapter by chapter "Sources" follow the text, along with a list of the ninety-nine persons interviewed on tape. For everyone in any way connected to the book trade this book is essential reading. More than that, it is an extremely satisfying history of the good-and bad-fortunes of our literary culture. Most of all, it is an ongoing tribute to the many men and women who believed enough in our writers to stake their careers, against all odds, on publishing, The Perilous Trade.
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