Critical Notice

Of all the injuries Canadian writers endure – royalty cheques that never appear, Canada Council grants curtly denied – none can be as galling as the desolate howl of public indifference.

It’s indifference that consigns cartons of a life’s work to the mass graveyard marked “Bargain books for a buck.” It’s indifference that condemns the Canadian author to toil away unsung, unloved and unable to afford meals in restaurants where the condiments don’t come in squeezable plastic bottles.

But who is to be blamed? Not the authors, surely. And not their agents or publishers or booksellers, not even the vast hordes who obstinately prefer Clint Eastwood to Margaret Atwood, Burt Reynolds to Pierre Berton.

Ah, but wait. Perhaps it’s the fault of the press. Yes, perhaps the sorry state of Canadian belles lettres can be traced to rapacious newspaper publishers and their philistine editors, too busy whipping up a steady diet of scandal ‘n’ violence to give the struggling artists their due.

And so for six months the Writers’ Union of Canada quietly monitored the book-review sections of 30 of the nation’s newspapers. Researchers tabulated column inches, noted the number of women reviewers, calculated Canadian content.

By mid-May the data had been assembled and the conclusion was inescapable: Canadian newspapers devote too little space to the publishing scene. In fact, the best book review section in the country belongs not to the Globe and Mail (third), the Ottawa Citizen (second) or the Gazette (fourth, and out of the medals, sports fans), but to a small independently-owned paper in Kingston called the Whig-Standard.

Clearly this intelligence had to be trumpeted to the farthest reaches of the land. So the writers’ union drafted two punchy press releases and fired them off. The idea was to shame publishers into beefing up their book sections by confronting them with the record of their sins.

Alas, the strategy was ill-conceived from the outset, the study itself a load of codswallop, and by announcing their findings in a blaze of grammatical blunders, the scribblers torpedoed their own credibility.

“Canadian Dailies Unfair to Women Writers,” declared one of the communiqués – not the most electrifying of headings, and one that owes more to the cadence of a picket placard than the craftsmanship of Alice Munro, but a copywriting tour de force when compared to the major announcement:

“Kingston’s Paper’s Book Pages Wins Writers’ Union Applause.”

There are three possessives in that sentence (one of them in the wrong place), six sibilant endings and a huge grammatical clanger in the verb region. Read it aloud and small particles of spittle will shower from your lips like microscopic anti-missile flak.

One sympathizes with the union’s goals, of course. One merely wishes the strategy and its execution hadn’t been so inept. The organization might just as well have taken out coast to coast ads: “Warning – profeshunal righters at werk.”

The sad fact is that the institutional voice of the nation’s literati is incapable of recognizing even rudimentary grammatical conventions. Throughout the two releases, inanimate entities are personified (“newspapers who”), plural nouns are rendered singular (“the main criteria was space”), singular nouns become plural (“the Committee have been”), and a number of nouns become verbs (“women-authored books”).

This is to ignore locutions such as “Pierre Berton (the outgoing chairman of the Writers’ Union) . . . noted a strong gender imbalance among book reviewers,” which in particular casts vaguely libelous aspersions on the hormonal rectitude of freelance critics.

The study itself is 39 pages long and is available for a mere $25. If you’re a statistician, and if you enjoy a good laugh, it’s probably well worth the money.

For a start, the analysis eschews any assessment of the quality of the various book sections in favor of the brute tabulation of column inches, but then uses these bloodless figures to support a range of subjective judgments (best/worst). (Social Science 101: you can’t do that.)

As well, there’s not a single francophone paper among the 30 surveyed, an oversight the document not only fails to explain, but neglects to acknowledge. Perhaps the authors are anglophone unilinguals – but even this entails a delicious irony.

Because the study limits itself to the mere measurement of space, it wouldn’t have been necessary to have a working knowledge of French to include Le Devoir or La Presse. The researchers simply counted the number of reviews; they didn’t really read any of them.

In any case, on what possible grounds can one claim that a newspaper’s attention to the book trade is insufficient? According to the union, The Gazette reviewed 283 books in the span of six months, which is at least three times as many movies reviewed in the same period.

The system whereby the various papers were ranked is equally curious. The Citizen beat The Gazette because the former favors bullet-style reviews, while the latter devotes greater attention to a smaller number of titles. The Whig-Standard (which admittedly has a fine book section) managed to place first only because the results were weighted against circulation figures, thus penalizing the large metropolitan dailies.

But why should circulation be a factor at all? Why not measure book review space against the available “newshole” – the total amount of space given over to editorial copy? The nagging suspicion is that the survey was cooked to produce results consistent with the union’s self-interest. (Small paper with integrity outclasses Southam, Thomson flagships – big dailies urged to do better.)

Certainly, there’s the underlying assumption that newspapers should function as vehicles for the promotion of Canadian authors – a misunderstanding that’s either disingenuous or worrying.

The book pages exist, not for the benefit of the scribblers, but for the enjoyment of a newspaper’s readers. Their merit lies in how thoughtful or engaging or informative they are, and only the readers are entitled to render that judgment. It has nothing to do with how much space is lavished on the members of a Toronto-based lobby group.

If the union truly wants to enhance the nation’s literary coverage, it would do well to look elsewhere. What limits the size of book sections is not the callousness of newspaper editors, but the refusal of the large publishing houses and retail book chains to support adequately the editorial effort via advertising.

The culprits (if there are any) have names like Coles, W. H. Smith, Doubleday, McClelland & Stewart – the very organizations, coincidentally, that financed the union’s survey.

When all is said and done, the most striking thing about the writers’ attempted intervention is its essential naiveté. Did Berton and Co. sincerely believe that newspaper publishers – men like Clark Davey, Russell Mills, Roy Megarry – would be swayed by a couple of barely literate press releases proclaiming the irrelevant findings of a pseudo-scientific study? Seriously now, what on earth did the union hope to accomplish?eg

  • Montreal Gazette June 18, 1988