When I was doing research this summer, I was surprised to find that so many pre-1970s Canadian writers had studied or worked abroad. Here is Margaret Atwood’s explanation for this:
When Munro was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, the idea of a person from Canada – but especially one from small-town south-western Ontario – thinking she could be a writer to be taken seriously in the world at large was laughable. Even by the 50s and 60s there were very few publishers in Canada, and these were mostly textbook publishers that imported whatever so-called literature was to be had from Britain and the United States. There might have been some amateur theatre – high-school performances, Little Theatre groups. There was, however, the radio, and in the 60s Munro got her start through a CBC programme called Anthology, produced by Robert Weaver.
But very few Canadian writers of any sort were known to an international readership, and it was taken for granted that if you had hankerings of that kind – hankerings about which you would feel defensive and ashamed, because art was not something a grown-up, morally credible person would fool around with – it would be best for you if you left the country. Everyone knew that writing was not a thing from which you could ever expect to make a living. –“Close to Home,” Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 11 October 2008.
The thing is, Alice Munro did not leave the country to live abroad. Neither did Margaret Atwood, apart from her studies at Harvard. That is precisely what I find interesting. The two Canadian writers with international reputations stayed home. Unless you count Munro moving to B.C., where she and her husband opened a bookstore.
The second thing that interests me about this is that the article by Atwood on Munro appears on the Guardian website – where each of them has their own page, with links to Guardian articles and interviews and reviews. All accessible to anyone. The Times – if you subscribe – offers an excerpt of Munro’s work and a raft of reviews. For Margaret Atwood, it offers interviews, reviews, and birthday wishes, but no external links.
So I did a quick search on the Canadian newspapers, to see if there was similar coverage. This was dispiriting.
Entering their names individually in the search box of the Globe and Mail website brings you nothing. It brings you to other articles about literature, such as the Giller prize nominees, but not actually anything about or by them. A search of the Montreal Gazette actually brings you to some useful non-Gazette information. First a Gazette article on the short story, and then links to references to their work (not full on about their work) on Canada.com network, and to web links powered by Google. The web links take you to such sites as the Paris Review interviews and, um, the Guardian author pages and the British Council. The British Council? Atwood shows more links than Munro, including to her own website.
The Ottawa Citizen brings similar results. The Vancouver Sun doesn’t even have articles referring to their work, but it also provides web links. Searching Munro brings you to an article on Ethel Wilson. The Star ran an excerpt and photo of Munro in 1979.
Finally, while reading about the Giller nominees on the Globe site, I strayed onto the comments. Of which there were three, and all of them negative, and all of them incorrect. Where are the defenders of Canada’s writers and of such prizes as the Giller, which are important to writers’ livelihoods?
Did I say they stayed home? Well, not entirely. They travelled. They went abroad to collect international literary prizes. Unable to find their travel souvenirs online, I found this, on the dust jacket of Munro’s Friends of My Youth. “Countries as far-flung as Norway and Australia have invited her to speak about her work, and she has made an official visit with a writers’ group to China.”
And this just in from The Quill and Quire. Apparently Munro’s first short story to be published was republished last May in the 12th issue of a journal based in Paris: Her Royal Majesty. Hmm. Looks like a trip to Paris might be in order. Or a trip to the Moons of Jupiter. Or to Victoria, B.C.
All I can say is that I have never found an equivalent to The Guardian for news, reviews, interviews and all to do with literature. I think that is do with the grand city of culture London that it resides within, its desire to stay ahead of other competition and strengthen its niche.
In observing Canadian news companies and finding what you did, you could have equally found a similar situation in Australia, New Zealand, France and many more. I haven’t lived in in London for more than 10 years but will never stop reading the Guardian, in particular the Saturday Review which is entirely dedicated to literature. It is a wonderful resource.
Munro’s Books is still a mecca for book lovers in Victoria.
Jane Rule spent time in England in her youth.
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