Meera Nair

“history begins with geology”

In Posts on September 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Those were Margaret Atwood’s words as she gave the 2016 CLC Kreisel Lecture at the Winspear Centre in April of this year. Broadcast this past Friday via CBC’s radio program Ideas, the lecture—in content, form, and delivery—exemplifies, yet again, why Ms. Atwood is both a national and international treasure. If contemporary politics did intrude into her account of some of the events which shaped Canada’s literary landscape, I have to reach for every shred of temerity in my possession to point it out. But it needs to be done.

When explaining the origins of The Writers’ Union of Canada, Ms. Atwood said:

[there was] no-one to represent their interests, the interests of writers, as opposed to the interests of publishers, readers and libraries. The latter three felt in their hearts that simply being read was honour enough for a writer, no money need be expected. The writers on the other hand took the quaint position that what they did was work and they ought to be remunerated by those making use of it. Plus ça change. Those taking the view that writers’ work is like air, to be had for breathing, now include many internet pundits, some former members of our recently departed government, and a great many universities – those bastions of fair dealing.

Ms. Atwood paused, and some nervously–charged laughter came forth from the audience. The Kriesel Lecture takes place under the auspices of the Canadian Literature Centre, established at the University of Alberta in 2006; some (perhaps many) of those in attendance were likely to be fair dealing practitioners.

Ms. Atwood is, of course, entitled to hold and express any opinion she chooses. But the strength of her reputation and influence requires that some clarification follows where it is needed. Listeners present at the Winspear Centre that evening, or receiving Friday’s broadcast, or those who might yet encounter the Ideas website, may come away with the impression that fair dealing is a morally and legally reprehensible ruse that enables universities to deny remuneration to copyright owners with impunity. The truth is far more prosaic, as truth tends to be. From the days of its codification into law in 1710, copyright has never been a grant of absolute control; it is a system of limited rights. Fair dealing is one such limit; nothing more, nothing less.

The limits upon copyright ensure that creativity, innovation, and civil society may flourish, an objective which also happens to be the raison d’etre of universities. Universities handle fair dealing with care and pay fulsomely for the resources they consume. Generally speaking, limits are the mode of entry to a space where one might hope to emulate achievements of the past. All fair dealing can do is maintain the potential for a small realm of unauthorized use, legitimate under the law, where independent expression of thought may be cultivated. No doubt, some would prefer to see copyright function in absolute form, to the exclusive benefit of current copyright owners. Be that as it may, wishing does not make it so. The system of copyright must also nurture an author yet to come.

What I prefer to reflect on, to savour, is Ms. Atwood’s beautiful presentation of some of the people who contributed to the development of Canadian literature, and their efforts to build audiences and infrastructure for reception and publication of their work. The presentation itself was titled, The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s. Ms. Atwood explained that burgess shale is a particular geological formation found in Western Canada and that “history begins with geology. Geology determines what you can grow and extract, where you can build houses and so forth.”

Ms. Atwood detailed events of the 1960s and 1970s which created an environment conducive to Canadian letters. To obvious audience delight, she began with her own life story. The skills needed for the 1960s were honed in the 1950s, a decade Ms. Atwood described as “robust amateurism—acting one moment, painting sets the next.” The capacity to multi-task served that generation well, “when it was time for a bunch of kids who didn’t know what they were doing to start new publishing companies in Canada which we did in the 1960s.” Due to demographics (the Depression and WWII had taken its toll on birth rates), that generation’s services were in need: “… we stepped into a relative emptiness; we sought to fill it. We didn’t see why not.” Needs that were met creatively to say the least (the stories about the All-Star Eclectic Typewriter Revue and the Pornography Project are priceless; I will say no more than to recommend you listen for yourselves.)

But the limitations of an hour could not allow Ms. Atwood to convey a deeper geological survey of events prior to the 1940s. She remarked that Canadian literature had no presence in her early life; while an occasional Canadian creation might have appeared among the school-imposed diet of Hardy, Shakespeare, Eliot and Keats, “we weren’t taught Canadian literature as a subject in school.” A key difficulty for a Canadian author was the lack of literary infrastructure, a viciously circular problem. Canadian writers needed readers; without distribution, readers could not be had, and, without readers, distribution could not be entertained. But as to how this situation came about, that bedrock had solidified a century earlier.

The root cause was Canada’s inability to develop its own publishing industry in the 19th century. Caught between British Imperialism and American capitalism, Canadian publishers were prohibited from reprinting the bestsellers of the day, meaning those of prominent English authors, while American competitors were free to reprint those same works and capture the Canadian market. Canadian governments, of both Colonial and Dominion stature, laboured for years to develop an equitable copyright arrangement that would provide local publishing firms the option to supply their own markets and build their own capacity, by reprinting British works with permission and provision of royalties. The logic of the arrangement was consistently set aside by the British Crown, through invocation of the sanctity of copyright and the imperative of Empire. This, despite the fact that the copyright demanded of Canada did not serve Canadian writers. British copyright was to be respected in Canada, but Canadian writers, unless published in Britain, were not afforded any such protection.

British intransigence was due, not merely to slavish attention to the word “copy.” What Britain longed for was a reciprocal copyright arrangement with the United States, and Canada was the bargaining chip. Eventually reciprocity did come, but strictly on American terms: publication must use plates set in the United States, and occur prior to, or concurrent with, publication elsewhere. (Notably, the proposed Canadian offer was far more generous to the British; the proposal allowed delayed publication in Canada via imported plates.) Added to these conditions that ensured continued prosperity to American reprinters, the United States sought assurances from Britain that Canada would not interfere in American distribution in Canada.

Details of this period of time are covered in my work, “The Copyright Act of 1889—A Canadian Declaration of Independence, Canadian Historical Review (2009). For a complete monograph on the events of this time, Eli Maclaren’s work, Dominion and Agency – The Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867-1918 (2011) is stunning. Painstakingly researched, he confirms that the manner in which copyright law was applied to Canada diminished any ambition to build or support independent publishers of original Canadian material.

Even after Canada achieved some measure of copyright autonomy through amendments in 1900—when Canadian publishers could finally reproduce foreign work in conformity with the copyright owner’s wishes—the benefits of the Act principally accrued to established American publishers via branch-plant operations in Canada. Maclaren describes the dual-objectives of Macmillan Company of Canada as “[to] distribute the trade books of the London and New York houses to the Canadian market and publish textbooks for Canadian schools (p.123).” The omission of original publishing was not an oversight, original publishing was strictly frowned upon. When Frank Wise, president of the Canadian operation, requested that some manner of capital be kept available for publication of promising works, the head office made its displeasure quite clear:

… we should be more than a little surprised and displeased if you embarked upon any publishing venture of importance without consulting us. … The only kind of publishing which ought to originate in Canada is the production of school books authorized by one or the Provincial governments (p.124).

It was against this legacy that Ms. Atwood and her peers laboured. That they are to be congratulated is more than evident. But the congratulations should not eclipse what we know now—the fact that Canadian literature began even before Canada, exists during Canada and may safely be expected to endure in any Canada to come. First Nations’ culture has relied on story-telling since time immemorial, early colonists’ writings left a mark we feel even today (Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail come to mind) and even when fleeing Canada in search of markets, Canadian literature took shape under the themes of regionalism, as Nick Mount expertly uncovers in When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005). Mount does not valorize the writings of all Canadian expats, but lauds the importance of the Canadian community of writers, editors, and publishers that formed in New York to the advantage of Canadian writing.

It is the aspect of community that permeated Ms. Atwood’s recollections and was present in another address given earlier this year. As a keynote speaker at the Jaipur Literary Festival she invoked the theme of community on both global and individual scale. And she reminded listeners of the most intrinsic element of the community that underwrites literary effort:

Here we all are to celebrate books and authors and writing and yes, reading. Writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it is your own secret journal and the future reader is you… Platforms may be changing but thanks to the Internet, reading has become more possible for more people than at any other time in history. … There is a lot more access to literacy than there used to be. …

With thanks to Margaret Atwood, and a great many universities. Those bastions of fair dealing.

  1. The history of the Writers Union notwithstanding, today’s Writers Union has become a proxy for the interests of Access Copyright which is itself primarily a proxy for the competing interests of foreign educational publishers. The interests of literary writers like Margaret Atwood are being abandoned by the current leadership of the Writers Union, and as I suggested on my own blog this leadership must be changed.

    http://mcormond.blogspot.ca/2016/09/access-copyright-activism-disconnected.html

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