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Continental Shift
by Alan Twigg

THEY DIDN'T call it British Columbia for nothing. The Brits peed all over the territory, trying to colonize the Natives and all other races, setting up schools, building roads, collecting taxes.

The first artist to produce literature that went beyond romantic potboilers was Morley Roberts - a friend of George Gissing -whose novels The Mate of Vancouver (1892) and The Prey of the Strongest ( 1906) were based on his experiences as a global wanderer who eventually became a sawmill worker in New Westminster.

Roberts's forgotten novels - and subsequent works by Bertrand Sinclair, Julia Henshaw, Bruce McKelvie, Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, Frederick Niven, M. A. Grainger, and A. M. Stephen -failed to make a lasting impression in a pioneer province. Instead B.C. venerated the socalled Mohawk Princess, Pauline Johnson, who once sipped tea with Queen Victoria.

Erected in 1922, Vancouver's only monument to a Canadian writer can still be found in the woods of Stanley Park. It's a plaque on a rock with a phoney portrait of Johnson, who specifically stated in her will that she wanted no such monument to be built.

The first two B.C. writers to win the Governor General's Award were the painter Emily Carr (non-fiction) and Victoria-born Anne Marriott (poetry) in 1941.

Although the likes of Dorothy Livesay and the editor Alan Crawley were active here during the war years, and littleknown William McConnell financed B.C.'s first literary press (Klanak), by far the most central literary figure in B.C. history has been Earle Birney. It was Birney, the ex-Trot, who inspired countless other writers and secured a job for an unemployed pacifist-anarchist named George Woodcock.

Woodcock, who had returned to Canada from England in 1949, served as the founding editor of Canadian Literature, the country's first publication exclusively devoted to coverage of Canadian writing. Meanwhile Birney was the driving force behind Canada's first accredited creative-writing department, which was established at the University of British Columbia.

During the 1950s and '60s the prolific humorist Eric Nicol won three Leacock medals and even had some plays produced on Broadway, but the Sorbonne-educated Nicol is still regarded primarily as a clever, ink-stained wretch who wrote for the newspapers.

For most of the 1960s and '70s the primary literary icon in B.C. was a Campbell River lay magistrate named Roderick Haig-Brown. A good man and a very good writer, Haig-Brown had the good sense to be born with a hyphenated name and Lord Baden-Powell as his godfather. He also smoked a pipe. A friend of higher-ups in the UBC English department, he primarily wrote meditative essays on fishing.

Malcolm Lowry, on the other hand, didn't fish - he drank like one. In the process of putting himself into an early grave, he painstakingly produced the most famous novel ever written in B.C., Under the Volcano. Lowry's shack on the beach was unceremoniously bulldozed shortly after his death in 1954. In that same year Hubert Evans published Mist on the River, the first novel to realistically portray Canadian Natives as its central characters. Margaret Laurence revered Evans as the "Elder of the Tribe," but throughout Evans's remarkable 70-year career, Canada's literary aristocracy mostly looked the other way. Apparently, profound Quaker decency from the backwoods could be threatening too. By contrast, the first uniquely

British Columbian novelist to gain public acceptance was Ethel Wilson. Living with servants and married to a wealthy physician, she didn't start publishing her fiction until in her late 50s. Along with her excellent novels of manners, Wilson made an equally important literary contribution: when Margaret Laurence was unhappily living in Vancouver as a separated homemaker, raising two children, it was Ethel Wilson who gave Laurence the encouragement to continue her writing.

During the 1970s influential ex-Brits such as David Watmough, John Mills, and Robin Skelton were soon outnumbered by an influx of Americans such as Jane Rule, Audrey Thomas, Keith Maillard, Crawford Kilian, William Gibson, and Stan Persky. But England didn't cease to be literary Mecca until unconventional types like bill bissett and J. Michael Yates, the TISHites at UBC, and David Robinson (Talonbooks) joined rural-based outsiders like Art Downs, David Hancock, and Howard White in starting their own publishing companies.

Writers can protest all they like about the transgressions of publishers, but British Columbia never began to grow up in terms of its literary climate until the anything-you-can-do-l-can-do-better frenzied factionalism of the '70s gave rise to a viable publishing industry. The first person to make it work in a conventional, commercial way was Jim Douglas, who later took on a former M & S employee named Scott McIntyre to operate Douglas & McIntyre. Douglas's daughter Diana operates the second-largest B.C. publishing firm, Self-Counsel Press, entirely independently of her father.

These days, if you believe the federal government's most recent survey, British Columbians read more books per capita than residents of any other province. As well, B.C. is currently home to approximately 2,000 authors and 300 publishers.

I can only speculate on the various reasons for this abundance of literary activity - and there isn't space to do so here. It's probably more germane to note that despite our numbers we continue to get short shrift, or think that we do. If you take a ruler as I just did -and measure the column inches allocated to B.C. stuff in the December issue of Books in Canada, you'll likely arrive at a figure of about seven per cent.

Similarly, go through back issues of Quill & Quire and look at how many cover stories are from English Canada's secondlargest market. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, as well, is a bad joke. The fix has been in. For decades. Only with the recent recession in Ontario has there come a real change in Toronto-centric literary politics.

Last year the Canadian Booksellers Association surprised everyone by naming Bob Tyrrell's Orca Books in Victoria the Canadian publisher of the year. Pretty soon after that, Val Ross came out here for Report on Business to say nice things about us. Then Gzowski calls, wondering why things are suddenly so great in B.C. publishing. ("The truth is, Peter, it's been this way for years. The same folks have been publishing books all along. It's just your outlook is changing now that Ontario is in the dumps.")

Next, Paul Stuewe calls from Books in Canada. Sounds like a nice guy. Wants an article. I ask him, in return, to promise me he'll follow these regional issues on Atlantic Canada, the Prairies, and B.C. with a special issue devoted to the region of Ontario. He thinks it's an idea whose time has come.

A few final points:

Because of the distance to Ontario, self-publishing has always been a respectable alternative in B.C. These days about every third B.C. book that crosses my desk is from an "independent" publisher. Increasingly these books are sophisticated products from very sane people who have rationally decided to self-market for business reasons. (I view this phenomenon as a radical democratization of the market, place. Thirty years ago, let's say, there were five Canadian publishing houses, so the tastes of five editors in Ontario were deciding the literary culture of Canada.)

B.C. is blessed with far more independently owned and operated bookstores per capita than anywhere in Canada. If we define B.C. by how it's different, this is a key point. The chains aren't dominant.

Similarly, Dr Rowland Lorimer's independent study from the Canadian Centre for Studies cites B.C. BookWorld - of which I happen to be the publisher - as the most important cog in the infrastructure that supports books. I'll spare you the details.

The Association of Book Publishers of B.C. is actually a progressive group. In spite of very low levels of provincial sup, port for two decades - or perhaps because of it - the publishers here mostly get along and respect one another. I'd say the leader in this regard has long been Howard White of Harbour Publishing. Karl Siegler of Talonbooks has long been a political dynamo, fighting bureaucrats with statistics. And Scott McIntyre has excelled at going out to lunch with the right people (something we generally frown upon here), giving B.C. a sorely needed professional image, pioneering ironically - in the middle of the road.

Our mood in B.C. is changing. We're the brash lot that led the rest of the country in saying No. We know our house prices are highest. You might even get stuck with Kim Campbell as your next boss. Even Maclean's has woken up to our existence. The day I realized the continent was shifting was the day Maclean's actually got around to including George Woodcock in its list of our country's 10 most significant citizens So long, Northrop; hello, George. A mere anarchist is being loosed upon the fold.

And the centre cannot hold.


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