Sunday, November 03, 2013

History of writers in Canada

Marian Engel (1933-85) Founding Chair

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the Writers Union of Canada at a convention held at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa.

I've been involved with an oral history project, recording some memories of those events -- some of which can be heard here.   What follows are few excerpts from the transcripts.  First, Margaret Atwood sets the early 1970s writing scene.
The poets were first to form a network. That was in the ‘60s, and why was that? Because poetry was cheap and you could do it in your cellar and contact other poets, and they ended up sort of visiting each other and sleeping on your floor and that sort of thing. They formed the League of Canadian Poets on somebody’s lawn, with F.R. Scott and the anthologist, A.J.M. Smith. That was formed before the Writers’ Union.
So the poets’ network was there but the novelists’ network was not, and you met people more or less one on one. I knew Margaret Laurence from England in 1969-70 and I knew Alice from just shortly before that time. There was some crossover with the poets and the prose writers, and I knew people that way. But there was no overarching — there was no place for people to get together, and people were working on their own.
Heather Robertson, journalist, nonfiction writer, novelist, and writers' advocate, picks up the idea of writers in isolation:
You had this emerging bunch of writers by 1973. We were working individually. We knew each other by our bylines or by the names on dust jackets, but I think what was exciting about the idea of the Union was “All coming together.”

That’s what I remember about the founding convention. Margaret Laurence, for goodness sake — a Manitoba writer whom I had never clapped eyes on or met — there she was playing the role of ‘great mother.’ Very friendly and welcoming; very impressive. I met all kinds of Maritime writers who I knew by their names but hadn’t actually met in the flesh. If you were living in Winnipeg or Toronto, the opportunities to travel were almost non-existent unless you were working on a story or something. There were writers from B.C. who had their own very powerful community there. But in Manitoba, there were only a very few of us there, and I hadn’t really met anybody in Toronto at that point.
David Lewis Stein remembers an early meeting:
Stein: I remember going …. into the room, and everyone there is a writer. That was a fantastic feeling. Margaret Laurence called us a tribe, and that was I think a bit of an exaggeration. There were all sorts of personal things going on with other people – and likes and dislikes – but there was that feeling that if we weren’t a tribe, we were at least a society. We were people with a common interest and a common dedication to writing. You know what it’s like to have to write a book, and suddenly you’re in a room with all people who’ve done it. That was a marvelous feeling.
Short-story writer, editor, mentor John Metcalf left the union early and has sometimes criticized it vigorously. But he remembers meeting Alice Munro:
I think that was the first time that I met Alice. We had corresponded and talked on the phone, and I had been very enthusiastic about her writing — in fact, overwhelmed by her first book, and when it came out, I remember I bought 17 copies from a bookstore called The Black and Orange Bookstore in Montreal on Queen Mary Road, and I had a big stack of them, and I used to give them to people and say 'You must read this.'
…. It was absolutely euphoric.  It was like meeting all these fabled people that I had read in the magazines and published alongside. It was just a huge amount of pleasure and socializing, and as you say, that feeling that one was not alone; that one was part of something that was very, very important.
It took a long time for those feelings to go away, and in that sense I think the Union at its very beginnings was terribly important for a lot of people. It gave them the strength to go on because Canada at that time was a very desolate place I think for writers.
 Novelist Graeme Gibson, a key organizer, notes that behind the euphoria, the union was also about organizing and representing a profession:
The Union from the very beginning introduced itself to the Canada Council, to the Ontario Arts Council, and they responded to us as professionals. We haven’t always won what we’d like to win, but indeed we’ve had an eye on the whole thing.  ....
What we really were concerned about in the one fundamental area was -- how best to say? -- managing the professionalism. Managing how writers were being treated by publishers, by government, and to establish a sense of authority for the profession. A bad book published and coming out deserved our attention. It was a book, somebody had made that decision …
Moore: Even bad writers deserved decent contracts!
Gibson:  They are still trying to make a living. All that kind of stuff. So there was a real preoccupation with professionalism of it. I think that’s one of the reasons why we had almost no trouble at all, because, one, you have the tribe coming together and all that nice warm fuzzy stuff, and on the other side, professionalism. And the combination was pretty devastatingly effective. We somehow managed collectively to bring it together exceedingly well.
 Alma Lee, who was the first executive director of the new organization, later founder of Vancouver International Writers Festival:
The people who attended, who did all the initial work to get it off the ground, it is amazing how many of them became international icons -- think of Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje.  Then they were relatively unknown, except among a small number of their peers.  
(Photo: German Wikipedia)

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