Monday, June 05, 2017

History of CanLit: Elaine Dewar's The Handover

Avie Bennett
Maclean's draw attention to investigative reporter Elaine Dewar's recent book The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational.

The "best publisher" in the title is McClelland & Stewart, and the foreign multinational is the Penguin Random House (Canada) empire. (Note: I have active titles under M&S and under other PRH imprints, too.) Avie Bennett, the wealthy Torontonian who took over Jack McClelland's debt-burdened house and lavished both attention and money on it, eventually set up a complicated sale/disposal process when he retired, the outcome of which was eventually to make M&S, the flagship CanLit publisher, into an imprint within a foreign company's Canadian operations. Bennett's deal, in which the University of Toronto had a small, awkward role, and its consequences seem to be the heart of Dewar's book - which I have not yet read.

The consequences certainly run deeper than M&S. In recent years governments abandoned all seriousness about requiring Canadian ownership of major cultural assets, and all the largest Canadian publishers quickly become part of multinational publishing corporations.  The publishing aspect of the CanLit revolution that began in the late 1960s has pretty much run its course.  Once again, Canadian-owned publishing is mostly a small-press world. Dewar's book is published by Biblioasis, a small literary house in Windsor, Ontario.

Talk among writers of fiction and nonfiction is about editors who are as Canadian and as dedicated as the authors, for sure, and who swear they make their own editorial decisions and are not under New York's thumb -- but suggest they would be more interested if the new book had more "international appeal" or if the settings were a bit more "North American" rather than Canadian.  Or just are not so interested in that Canadian story, what else have you got?

Avie Bennett, a protagonist in Dewar's story, it would seem, died last Friday at age 89. To the extent I knew him, he struck me as a businessman who became a terrific and dedicated publisher, and as a man who used his wealth well and wisely. But even at the time, handing over M&S to Random House, or to the University of Toronto, or to any combination of the two, never seemed to me likely to work out well. That seems to be what Dewar's tenacious reporting has proven.

Image: University of Toronto

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