R. M. Vaughan -- author, culture critic (The National Post)
1. Literary fiction is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? Sept. 11? Ultra-violent video games? Wall-sized TV? Or are there are other factors that are being overlooked? For example (as has been argued by Jason Cowley), the power of literary prizes to form taste, and convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
Part of the problem, in this country at least, is the fear of so-called "genre fiction". A Canadian book is supposed to be set in the domestic world, preferably in a rural setting, and to have little or no plot. A while back a writer friend of mine signed with a new agent. Out of curiousity, I went to the agency's website - every single one of the dozen or so agents had warnings underneath their interest lists: no science fiction, no mysteries, no horror, no thrillers, no fantasy books. In other words, nothing that might actually sell. We need to get over the tired prejudice against popular fiction in this country - one we inherited from the first generation of the Canadian Rennaissance in the 60s, almost all of whom were academics and, true to academic fashions of the time, hated popular culture and ranked realist narratives (the best being the ones about poor, uneducated people they'd never met) over speculative fictions. The irony, of course, is that now you can get a PhD in popular culture - but the publishing industry has yet to catch up.
2. What, then, does this suggest about the mentality in Canadian literary circles, especially given the fact that, as Patrick Crean once stated, we have the "toughest literary market in the world" (i.e., we are constantly being inundated with books -- frequently genre -- from the U.S.)? In other words, from a logical perspective there is no market that is more need of commercial/genre fiction ... yet we shy away from it. Why? Snobbery? Or is it something more subtle still -- is CanLit "sublimating" a genre-fiction sensibility into at least some of its literature?
Of course, some authors work with genre tropes - Atwood's sci-fi is the most obvious example, or Findlay's murder mystery-like novels - but I doubt there is any concrete attempt to sublimate anything. Atwood and Findlay are just smart writers who know how best to tell their stories. As to why we don't have more genre fiction in our market, I think snobbery is as good an answer as any.
3. The publishing industry has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being squeezed out?
It's always been this way - deals and money are exciting. If anything, I think the publishing industry could make more of their blockbuster deals. Hollywood does.
4. Are there ways the book marketplace could be tilted more in Canadian publishers' favour? For example, should book stores be required by regulation to devote a conspicuous amount of store-front shelf-space to Canadian work? Should Canada Council funding be significantly increased? Or is cultural nationalism of this sort passe?
Government regulation is not the way, because most of the people who might enforce such regulations are not equipped to understand the complexities of the marketplace. Ask any musician about CanCon regulations. If funding is the issue, perhaps it should go directly into marketing costs. Or, to be blunt, bookstores could be more attentive, especially in the markets outside of the big three cities. I'll never forget going on the book tour for my last novel Spells, and doing a reading in my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick. I was on the cover of the weekly entertainment paper, in the daily paper, and on the local CBC, and the novel was set in Saint John. The shitty little Coles store in the main downtown mall didn't have one single copy of the book for sale. They'd never heard of it.
5. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out? Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem the majors squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end?
It wouldn't be very hard for publishers to hire people to read all their manuscripts. Telefilm has script readers, and every script gets read, good or bad. One wonders what they are missing. I'm not sure the large houses "squeeze" anything, or even pay attention to what small presses are printing.
6. And speaking of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?
A good agent is a good agent, a bad agent is ... well, you get it. Putting "power" into any sentence regarding Canadian publishing seems optimistic to me.
7. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?
Both. Too many publishers printing the same books over and over, and too few printing new, interesting books.
8. After Douglas Coupland published an article in the New York Times criticizing Canadian literature for having too many books set in rural rather than urban settings, you commented that the negative reaction which greeted his column was prompted in part by jealousy of Coupland's success. Given that the Canadian fiction market is relatively small and big-time (or any-time) success in it is hard to find, is jealousy of this sort a particularly Canadian cultural trait? Do we spend too much time knocking others down rather than focusing on ways to make our own cultural more "success friendly"?
I'm afraid juvenile, resentful behaviour is universal.
9. In the 1990s, you were involved with spoken word events such as Tallulah's Cabaret. But spoken word, while it has direct vitality, tends not to travel well unless it is somehow commidified (into a book, or a tape, or something permanent). How can spoken word integrate with more permanent forms and still keep its vitality fresh? Or is it a ghetto for unknowns and an audience-op for knowns?
I don't care about spoken word anymore. It is completely boring now, and 90% of it just wants to mimic American hip-hop culture (and not the good stuff, either).
10. Creatively, you wear many hats: poet, cultural critic, visual artist. Are you sometimes worried that people who create in many fields don't get adequate recognition in one, and so tend to be ignored in all?
I'm fairly certain I'd be ignored no matter what genre I worked in - let's face it, I'm an acquired taste at best.
11. What is Queer Fiction, anyway?
Um, fiction by queers?
12. The US has David Plante and Edmund White. France has Genet. French Canada has Michel Trembley. But despite the fact there are many gay male writers in English Canada, the culture seems averse to really embracing one of them as gifted. Is the genius of English Canada to reject genius?
I disagree with your last statement. We have many prominent queers - Daniel MacIvor, Sky Gilbert, Thompson Highway, and this novelist you might have heard of named Anne Marie MacDonald.
Bio: RM Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist. He is the author of seven books, and his videos play in festivals and galleries around the world.