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The Way We Were
Twenty years of snapshots from Books in Canada`s family album WELL, WE made it. It hasn`t been the smoothest of journeys, but there`s no doubt that it`s been an exciting one. When Books in Canada made its debut in 1971, the centennial-celebration enthusiasms of 1967 had turned into a much more realistic awareness of how uncertain the future looked for small periodicals and publishers. But our founders carried on regardless, and so here we are after 20 years of highs, lows, and lots of jolts in between. Consider, for example, these year-by-year highlights from Books in Canada`s back numbers: IN MAY, 197L Books in Canada came into the world, avowing that it aimed to "provide a bridge between Canadian writers and Canadian readers:" With Robertson Davies, Hugh Garner, AI Purdy, and Mordecai Richler featured in its first issue, the magazine seemed to be off to a good start. But the editor, Val Clery, didn`t downplay the difficulties: "Conceived in some passion, born in haste, we feel ourselves essentially Canadian in being somewhat short still of our potential." ISAAC BICKERSTAFF`S June, 1972 drawing of Norman Levine was typical of the caricaturist-reviewer`s distinctive contributions to BiC`s early issues. Meanwhile, in the letters column, Bickerstaff`s earlier review of Graeme Gibson`s Communion was causing a furor: "insulting" according to one vociferous complainer, "witty" and displaying "guts" in the opinion of two other correspondents. Whatever your view of Communion, it was clear that baby BiC could howl when necessary. CONTRASTING reviews of two prominent literary titles appeared in the April/May/June, 1973 issue. Beverley Smith had nothing but praise for Anne Hebert`s Kamouraska, but Clyde Hosein warned living Layton that Lovers and Lesser Men might make him "scrap on the rubbish heap of time." Elsewhere, eclecticism was the order of the day: spokenword recordings, plays, paperbacks, and even a batch of civilservice books were all grist for BiC`s omnivorous reviewing mill. IN JUNE/JULY, 1974, Howard Engel`s sketch of his ideal bookstore introduced essays by himself, Peter Martin, and Donald Jack on "Three Views of Booksellers;" typical of BiC`s frequent articles on the publishing industry. Further on, the new editor, Douglas Marshall, who`d come on board with the October, 1973 issue, was indulging his penchant for humorous headlines: "Tomb Essence" (above a review of Carole Hank`s Early Ontario Gravestones) was a characteristically punny effort. IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time April, 1976. Why not take all the candidates for the Governor General`s Award for English language fiction and treat them as entrants in a horse race? Well, one reason would be the notorious foibles of judges: that year`s winner, Brian Moore`s The Great Victorian Collection, was buried way back among the Hong shots according to out handicapper. Another might be the basic silliness of the whole idea, which was never - thankfully - repeated. THE VERY FIRST Books in Canada Award for First Novels, announced in the April, 1977 issue, really wets a first: a tie between Michael Ondaatje`s Coming Though Slaughter and Ian McLachlan`s The Seventh Hexagram. But with five judges and nine titles on the short list, difficulties might have been expected and our decision to print the judges` opinions - and thus become the only major Canadian literary award to do so - certainly added to the drama of the occasion. MORE FEATHERS were ruffled by Keith Maillard`s "Writing for the Yankee Dollar" in December, 1979, which argued that the literary style of the "American Smartass" was taking over CanLit. Maillard supported his contentious argument with some convincingly detailed 1 . -ary analysis, and BiC wouldn`t say no to an update. "BLISS OF SOLITUDE;` Earle Birney`s May, 1980 memoir of his university days, was one in an occasional series of literary reminiscences that helped BiC define contexts as well as texts. We particularly liked Birney`s description of Bliss Carman`s arrival at the UBC campus: [Carman explained that] "he wanted merely `to be set going on a good nature path, and then left alone.` I tried to explain that the campus was still being carved from the woods." WHILE Douglas Marshall was succeeded in the editorial chair by Michael Smith, one of BiC`s periodic redesignings resulted in 11 consecutive black bordered covers between the June/July, 1981 June/July, 1982 issues; here`s how W O. Mitchell looked on the front of November, 1981. Nothing terminal about what went on inside, however, where one could read such disturbing sentiments as John Moss`s frank assessment of recent Canadian literary criticism, his own included: "It`s appalling ...All these bloody generalizations born out of this need to systematize and generalize ...post-coital ruminations after the centenary ecstasies:" SUSAN SoNTAG was among a star-studded group of writers (Josef Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Sillitoe, and Wole Soyinka among them) who responded to queries about our literature`s international reputation in the January, 1982 issue. Most seemed moderately interested but largely ignorant concerning what wed been up to, with the Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos`s `Mordecai Richler I know the name, but I didn`t know he was a Canadian" being typical. Good idea for an article, though, and we`ll see what we can do about rounding up a contemporary symposium on the subject. WE HAVE sometimes been accused of lacking a sense of humour not to mention a sense of decency, or sense itself- but covers such as October, 1983`s depiction of Ken Dryden, Superstar put the lie to that. The issue also featured an extensive survey of the Kingston, Ontario areas literary lights, proof that we can get out of Toronto - or at least 250 kilometres away - when necessary. IT WAS West Coast writers who took a turn in the spotlight in May, 1985, as Eleanor Wachtel portrayed Anne Cameron, Jack Hodgins, Phyllis Webb, Robin Skelton, Audrey Thomas, and P. K. Page in their native habitat. Like many of BiC`s contributors, Wachtel has gone on to a distinguished career - as a CBC-Radio arts guru and co-editor of Language in Her Eye - that we`re proud to have assisted. THE MAY, 198615th anniversary issue really was a watershed. Readers were for the first time asked to pay for the magazine, and there was a lot of anxiety as to whether they would buy what had always been free. And it was now the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award that writers vied for, as we began an association that has continued, most happily, down to the present. OUR MAY, 1987 reader`s survey was one of several periodic attempts to find out what we`d been doing right and wrong. This time around there was a definite consensus as to the necessity of government support of the arts, and the usual batch of surprises concerning relative popularity: Edna Alford, Wayne Johnston, and Gertrude Story outpolled Pierre Berton, Irving Layton, and Farley Mowat. DORIS COWAN officially took over the editorial chair with the April, 1988, issue, which also featured Matt Cohen`s trenchant exploration of the tensions between `Author and Critic:` After publishing so much criticism of so many writers, it seemed only fair to put the boot on the other foot; and the results were so entertaining that you can bet we`ll do it again soon. IN THE August/ September, 1990 issue, the new editor Paul Stuewe, another readership survey, and W J. Keith`s fine essay on "The Ethics of Fiction" prepared BiC for the challenge of meeting a new decade. Prognosis for the now full-grown magazine: continued growth prospects, as our writers make both books and Canada a livelier place to live.
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