A Publisher's Letters
- Sam Solecki (Editor)
Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McClelland. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janet Friskney
Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McClelland is a welcome addition to the scanty collection of works available about Canadian book publishing. Comprised of approximately 170 letters either authored or received by McClelland between 1949 and 1982, the volume offers a revealing look at one of the most significant Canadian publishers of the mid-twentieth century. Even so, this collection provides only an introduction to the vast resource represented by the McClelland and Stewart (M&S) archives held at McMaster University. The limitations of space ensure that this volume is one of partially-revealed stories.
Solecki, has divided the letters into four chronological periods. Each section opens with a brief introduction in which the editor sets out basic contextual information about M&S for the period in question. The volume is rounded out with a preface by McClelland and a general introduction by the editor. In the latter, Solecki argues that since McClelland "wrote no books and has so far not completed his memoirs, his letters are the most revealing testament to his career and influence." That statement is borne out by the letters that follow. Through them the reader is privy to the publisher’s delight with, and concerns over, specific titles and his enthusiasm for, and frustrations with, particular authors. While the letters collectively reveal that McClelland was committed to responding to and accommodating the wishes of his authors as best he could, they also make clear that his patience had limits. When his patience was exhausted he was capable of composing and delivering a vivid and unexpurgated piece of prose that left little doubt about his feelings on a matter. In terms of the information that might be drawn from it, the volume will hold greatest appeal for those engaged by an interest in Canadian literature and its history. As the title of the book implies, Solecki’s selection focuses on McClelland as a publisher of Canadian writers of literary prose and poetry. Major Canadian literary figures, such as Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Laurence, and Mordecai Richler, are highlighted. Writers of non-fiction, political memoirs and popular fiction, by contrast, are represented only to a small degree. Solecki also places a certain amount of emphasis, both in his section introductions and through his choice of letters, on several M&S series, such as the Canadian Centenary Series, the Carleton Library, and, particularly, the New Canadian Library.
One might speculate that Solecki’s bias as a literary scholar is what leads him to privi- lege editorial concerns and the personal relationship between authors and publisher over other publishing issues. In an introductory note on Pierre Berton, the editor regrets that, though "there are more files devoted to Berton and his books than to any other M&S author, the letters are disappointing because they deal primarily with matters of design, contracts, promotion and royalties." Arguably discussion of such matters is fodder for scholars of the history of the book. Moreover, in the McClelland letter to Berton which follows, one might have hoped to see a note addressing the historiographical significance of Michael Bliss’s advice to the author, given that it speaks to the debate among Canadian historians at that time about the relative merits of political and social history.
Solecki and his publisher might reject such criticisms, however, as too narrowly academic. As the editor states in the "Editorial Note," his objective was not to produce a scholarly edition. Structured to appeal to a more general readership, the scholarly apparatus present in the book has been kept to a minimum. Cuts to the letters have not been indicated in the text while notes, for the most part, are confined to identifying individuals mentioned in the letters. On a few occasions identifications have not been established, which is puzzling given that McClelland presumably could have been consulted. Otherflaws marring the volume are several errors of dating and the apparent misordering of one of the letters from Phyllis Webb. Finally, if one accepts the premise that this title has been prepared for a broader readership, then one might question Solecki’s use of several specialized literary terms without clarification and his presumption of his readers’ knowledge of concepts such as those of a Canadian literary canon and a modern Canadian literature. However one classifies the volume, it is to be hoped that one of its effects will be to encourage researchers to use the letters collected in it and to pursue those that remain unpublished in the M&S archives.
- The Unexpurgated Carr by Linda M. Morra
Books reviewed: Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journal of Emily Carr and Other Writings by Susan Crean
- Two Women, Two Writers by Veronica Thompson
Books reviewed: A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard by Allison Howard and Blanche Howard and The Staircase Letters: An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life by Elma Gerwin, Arthur Motyer, and Carol Shields
- Rock, Paper, Histories by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Deactivated West 100 by Don McKay, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination by Lawrence Buell, and History of the Book in Canada, Volume One: Beginnings to 1840 by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde
- Northrop Frye by Germaine Warkentin
Books reviewed: The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1932-1939 by Robert D. Denham
- Genealogy and History by Adele Perry
Books reviewed: English Immigrant Voices: Labourers' Letters From Upper Canada in the 1830s by Wendy Cameron, Sheila Haines, and Mary McDougall Maude
MLA: Friskney, Janet. A Publisher's Letters. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 240 - 241)
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