NCL Paperback History
- Janet Friskney (Author)
New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Hjartarson
In "The New Canadian Library: A Classic Deal," published in 1994 and reprinted in Making It Real (1995), Robert Lecker examines the role of the New Canadian Library reprint series in developing English-Canadian literature as an academic field and in establishing the post-World-War II pedagogical canon. Lecker's research on the NCL led him to the McClelland and Stewart papers held by McMaster University, in particular to the correspondence between publisher Jack McClelland and NCL editor and university professor Malcolm Ross. "A reading of these letters," Lecker declares, "led me to some unsettling conclusions about the ways in which the pedagogical canon was established in Canada. Moreover, when I asked the archivists at McMaster how many people had consulted this correspondence, I was told, to my astonishment, that I was the first." Lecker may have been among the first researchers to examine the correspondence-Carl Spadoni and Judy Donnelly certainly read it in preparing their book on M&S imprints released by Robert Lecker and Jack David's own ECW Press in 1994-but future researchers will have the benefit of Janet Friskney's thorough and judicious assessment not just of the correspondence but of the McClelland and Stewart papers as a whole.
Friskney's study provides the firm groundwork on which future scholars can build. The information she provides (in appendix B) concerning the yearly sales of each NCL title alone promises to alter critical assumptions about postwar Canadian literature. In 1958 NCL released titles by F.P. Grove, Morley Callaghan, Stephen Leacock, Sinclair Ross, Gabrielle Roy, Thomas C. Haliburton, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Hugh MacLennan. Which title outsold the other seven by a wide margin between 1958 and 1979? The Leacock title? No, Roy's The Tin Flute (146,309) followed by Ross's As for Me and My House (116,906) and MacLennan's Barometer Rising (107,121). Leacock's Literary Lapses (51,563) proves a distant fifth.
Like Lecker, Friskney focuses on the Ross-McClelland years. She divides her study of the NCL into two parts. Part One, "The Historical Narrative," examines the period between Ross's first overture to M&S about the possibility of a paperback reprint series in 1952 and his resignation in 1978. In Ross's two decades as general editor, NCL issued 152 titles in the reprints and twelve in the original series. (Ross himself edited Poets of the Confederation,the first volume in the original series). Although the success of the NCL reprints prompted other Canadian publishers to launch quality paperback series, M&S dominated the market. Whether readers are interested in the development of English-Canadian literature, the postwar book trade, or Canadian culture generally, Friskney's account opens new perspectives on transformative decades.
In Part Two, "Editorial Practices and the Selective Tradition," Friskney considers the editorial practices Ross and McClelland adopted for the series, particularly the process by which titles were chosen or rejected. Part Two includes a chapter on the issue of source text and another on the role the NCL played in the development of the postwar canon. As Friskney points out, and as the sheer number of NCL titles attests, Ross and McClelland were more interested in getting texts into the hands of readers than in the niceties of scholarly editing; nevertheless, issues did routinely arise, particularly concerning editorial work on early Canadian texts such as Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush and John Richardson's Wacousta and concerning titles in the original series. Friskney's study demonstrates the value of the M&S papers to anyone studying either the history of particular titles or Canadian publishing or literary scholarship in these decades. In the final chapter, she considers the role of individual NCL titles-Ross's As for Me and My House, for example-and of the series as a whole on postwar canon formation. No discussion of this issue would be complete without careful consideration of Ross's arguments with McClelland over planning for the Calgary Conference on the Novel and Friskney does not disappoint. Here, as throughout the volume, she makes effective use of the extant correspondence.
Inevitably, a volume this strong-a study that opens perspectives on so many issues-leaves the reader wanting more. The biggest absence here perhaps is the lack of a Conclusion-not to tie up loose ends but to point to work that remains. In the Introduction, Friskney writes: "Several appendices and a selected bibliography have been included in this book as an aid to future researchers, whose scholarly and critical preoccupations with the NCL of the Ross-McClelland era may prove quite different from the ones that have animated me as a book historian." It is a testament to her scholarship that Friskney understands her research as service in a larger project.
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MLA: Friskney, Janet and Hjartarson, Paul. NCL Paperback History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 163 - 164)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.