Literary duality

By MJ Deschamps

In comparison with publishing hubs such as France, the United States or Great Britain, Canada’s literary market is quite small. Not only do publishers and writers have to contend with a small population spread over a vast territory and split into two language groups, but they also have to compete with major international publishing houses to claim a share of an industry that is suffering the effects of technological change on a global scale.

Nevertheless, Canada’s book market is one of the healthiest of the country’s cultural industries, and our English and French literature both enjoy a reputation that extends far beyond our borders. Indeed, the international success of writers such as Gabrielle Roy, Michel Tremblay, Margaret Atwood and Ann‑Marie MacDonald means global audiences are becoming more aware of Canada’s past and present English-French dichotomy, and many writers have found that setting their tales in the context of Canada’s rich cultural surroundings gives their works a certain uniqueness.

“Canadian literature is becoming more recognized in North America and globally, and I think because of that, there is less of a fear of setting it in a Canadian context,” says Anita Purcell, Executive Director of the Canadian Authors Association. Purcell says that the Canadian literary arena has evolved significantly in the past few decades and is now more relatable than before. “Whereas French-English issues may have been at the core of Canadian novels previously,” she continues, “they are now more of a backdrop to stories. If you go back to the 1970s and before, there was a very distinct flavour to Canadian novels … [it was] all about searching for identity. But over the years, Canadian literature has become more universal in some of its themes, which I think really makes a difference in its appeal.”

Greg Hollingshead. Photo: Kim Griffiths

Greg Hollingshead, the Toronto-born author and Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, says that in the context of a changing publishing industry, some authors have felt pressured to stray away from the linguistic and cultural duality themes that helped make books distinctly Canadian in the past. “As publishing kind of narrows down, it becomes more difficult to get books accepted … and more necessary for Canadian writers to think about the chances of [their book] being sold to a publisher outside the country,” admits Hollingshead.

Still, Hollingshead says that linguistic duality makes a significant impression on Canada’s book market. “Certainly in my own writing, I’m aware of French-Canadian characters, depicted within the context of an Anglophone society,” he says. “I think everybody has a general awareness of this being a bilingual country, and that the French do things differently than the English do … there is a lot of dramatic and comic potential in that.”

Carolyn Wood, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, believes that even with new publishing challenges, Canadian authors need to continue to write what they know. “I think there are lots of authors who write with their eyes on the international blockbuster market and fail. I think, in the end, writers need to write for an audience that they understand.”

To promote the flow of literary works between Canada’s official language communities, the government has created the National Translation Program for Book Publishing, which is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts. With a budget of $5 million over four years, the program helps publishers translate Canadian‑authored books into English or French. “More money to pay translators better and to promote the finished books is a necessity, especially if we want unilingual citizens to better understand each other,” says Marc Côté, Publisher and Editor at Toronto-based Cormorant Books.

Since 2011, the Canada Council for the Arts has hosted the Translation Rights Fair, where English- and French-language publishers and literary agents can meet. The event provides a networking opportunity for professionals from both language groups and fosters the sale of translation rights to Canadian-owned firms, to ensure that translated works retain their Canadian flavour.

Book covers shown in the image above:

  • DICKNER, Nicolas. Tarmac, Alto, 2009.
  • GILBERT-DUMAS, Mylène. Yukonnaise, VLB, 2012.
  • GRANT, Jessica. Come, Thou Tortoise, Random House, 2009.
  • LAFERRIÈRE, Dany. Je suis un écrivain japonais, Boréal, 2008.
  • LYON, Annabel. Oxygen, McClelland and Stewart, 2000.
  • ONDAATJE, Michael. Anil's Ghost, McClelland and Stewart, 2000.
  • VIGNEAULT, Guillaume. Chercher le vent, Boréal Compact, 2001.
  • WHITTALL, Zoe. Holding Still For as Long as Possible, House of Anansi, 2009.

Published on Thursday, June 28, 2012

Date modified: