I once had a comment from an American to the effect that there were no great Canadian authors, elsewise they would have heard of them in the US. I mentioned Lucy Maude Montgomery to him, who most people recall for Anne of Green Gables. He knew her, so there was one at least. But Lucy Maude Montgomery is unusual, her work was pre-war. I’m looking at a list of famous Canadian writers right now, I just Googled it and this is what came up
some of them I’ve heard of, Margaret Atwood , Alice Munro, others not. But like our American friend I didn’t grow up in Canada (well only for a few years). For the most part I grew up in Australia. Would I have heard about any of these writers there? Chances are, no, I wouldn’t have.
So what happened? Did history conspire against Canadian writers? Why do people in Australia, America and elsewhere know about Lucy Maude Montgomery but not later Canadian authors. Well, the short answer is… yes, history did conspire against Canadian authors of that later era. It turns out that at the end of World War 2 the great publishing houses in the English speaking world, centred mainly in New York and London, met, and divided the publishing world. Agreements were made that left New York with America and the Philippines, while London got the Commonwealth nations and Ireland. It was pretty much an even split. A better history about this is given elsewhere, see here.
But think about it. To that time the biggest market Canadian authors had for their books, was to the south. A country with some similarity, a continent that we share, pioneering times that were not that different in many respects, but Canadian author’s books were no longer marketed there. Funny, we know about American authors here, but that was largely through the media of film and television. We heard about American novels from movies about them, so we knew about them. Some of their books even appeared in Canada because of this. There was no reciprocation. Canadian writing was lost to America for pretty much half a century.
So why was it lost to Australia? Australia was part of the London publishing sphere, just like Canada. Well the sad truth of that it is that there was/is a great deal of parochialism in publishing. Why would you print a book about Canada in Australia? Australians aren’t going to be interested in that? Are they? To get to Australia, a Canadian book first had to do well in Britian, and then be passed on to Australia, whereas prior to that there was a big enough market that if a Canadian book did well in North Amercia it might make it to Australia based on local accolades. Again, in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand it could actually be argued that there was greater commonality with the people of Canada. We might have read each others books and enjoyed them. But first they had to do well in Britain.
Amazingly these divisions still exist to a certain extent, though the internet is quickly breaking the old boundaries down. From Canada I can access books from France, from the US, from Australia, from Ireland, the UK, from everywhere, it seems, and quickly. I know a new generation of Canadian writers now, and they are writing for a trully international audience. I look forward to hearing of their successes in a world where they are no longer disenfranchised from any audience.