Better than Stamps

  • Jordan Stouck (Editor) and David Stouck (Editor)
    “Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun”: Canadian Publishing and the Correspondence of Sinclair Ross, 1933-1986. University of Alberta Press
Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo

For many who admire As For Me and My House (1941), Sinclair Ross stands as the paradigmatic lonely Canadian artist, isolated from other writers and neglected until (too) late in life by the literary establishment. His depiction of Philip Bentley amongst the Philistines has always seemed an indirect commentary on his own entrapment by place and time, his talent suffocated by an uncongenial environment. That Ross himself considered and did not reject such an exculpatory narrative is evident in his response to a 1975 review of Sawbones Memorial by his long-time friend and supporter Roy St. George Stubbs; he wrote to agree with Stubbs that his performance over the years has been disappointing—especially so to me—but there are blocks, hang-ups and limitations for which one is not always responsible. Later in the same year, however, he was less inclined to excuse himself when Margaret Laurence sought permission to apply on his behalf for a Senior Arts Award from the Canada Council: If I haven’t made it as a writer, he wrote to her, I have only myself to blame. The letters assembled in Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun illuminate the details of Ross’ decades-long, often frustrating pursuit of literary recognition. These letters to and from editors and friends chronicle not only the many setbacks he encountered as he sought to bring his work into print but also his enduring commitment to and pleasure in the writing life.

In his dealings with publishers, Ross was often reserved and even apologetic, inclined to accept criticism of his work and to downplay its value. Reading of the long delays, dismissive reader’s reports, complicated editorial demands, protracted revisions, and poor sales, one understands his growing resignation. After Maclean’s asked him in 1955 to consider a radical condensing of The Well for possible serial publication, he told John Gray at Macmillan that he had dismissed the suggestion as a mere kindly rejection. Unfortunately, he went on to say, it is typical of me. I always run to meet rejection. Two years later, with The Well refused by Maclean’s and extensively revised for Macmillan, he explained his lack of progress on new work by admitting that The prospect of a couple of years’ drudgery, and at the end of it the dreary business of collecting rejection slips again, makes me falter. His letter to McClelland and Stewart accompanying A Whir of Gold in 1969 was about as defeatist as could be (Spotty, slack, dull, pointless—a big So What? on every page—I can only wonder why I have persisted). And so prepared was he for disappointment that when Jack McClelland wrote in 1974 to accept Sawbones Memorial, congratulating him on its original form, he wrote back anxiously to stress that French novelist Claude Mauriac had made the formal experiment before him: it is best to speak up now, before anything has been done.

Despite his sense of failure, Ross never gave up on writing, and his later years were marked by expressions of satisfaction in new projects and respectful correspondence with younger writers, including Laurence, Ken Mitchell, and Margaret Atwood. He began to read more widely in Canadian writing, and he was gratified and slightly bemused to begin receiving inquiries from scholars about As For Me and My House. One of the delights of this collection are his detailed explanations of that novel, a compensation for the fact that the correspondence with publisher Reynal and Hitchcock has been lost. He wrote a fascinating defence of Mrs. B to John Moss, who had attacked her as vindictive and whiny. While disclaiming ownership of the novel and stressing his lack of conscious artistry (I did my best to get inside Mrs. B and just let her carry on), he was masterly in his analysis of the workings of the first-person narrative and the complexities of the character’s motives. He concluded the letter with a mixture of pleasure and perplexity that What amazes—and gratifies—me is that after all these years you and others should be still interested in and concerned about her. Whatever kind of woman she is, I suppose I can conclude that at least she is very much alive. Hesitant as he was to speculate about his legacy to Canadian letters, he was clearly pleased by Mrs. Bentley’s defiant longevity. This volume of letters, well selected and introduced by Jordan Stouck and usefully annotated by David Stouck, will be of great interest to all who have, with Ross, believed in her.

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