Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen Publishers:
1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
I think this is something of an exaggeration, but it is true to say that there has been a concerted effort in North America to ‘dumb down’ the culture. This arises from the corporatist ethos which is to essentially ‘farm’ humans in order to make as much money as possible. This is being achieved through the numbing effects of television and other technologies on the population - which encourage people not to think, but to passively accept. This, coupled with a massive focus on pandering to the lowest common denominator, means the population slowly and gladly wallows more and more in the metaphorical hamburger franchises across the culture.
Perhaps the problem stems also from the late 20th century explosion and cacophony of popular mass culture – fueled by technology and corporatism - all around us, which makes it really difficult to see and hear carefully, to discern what is of value and what will last. That coupled with the fact that we live in an accelerated culture which does not allow for continuity, proper judgment or necessary stillness. This creates anxiety and uncertainty.
Books as such resist this by and large, but the reader is bombarded with so many distractions that it is becoming more difficult to spend concentrated reading time with a book. While reading habits in Canada are holding according to surveys (they are at the same level they were 20 years ago- but are dropping in the USA), there are more books being published than ever before – so the reader has even more choice. In the end, unless George Orwell was right in a literal sense with his dystopian 1984, literature will always survive, as will the book, a hardy technology if ever there was one.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
Ezra Pound put it succinctly when he said – and I paraphrase - that literature was news that stayed relevant. He meant those works of fiction, of the imagination that will last and be read years from now. It is interesting to look at the bestseller lists, say, of the 1920s, where one would be hard-pressed to recognize virtually anything that is read today, with a few notable exceptions. As someone said: Today’s bestseller lists are tomorrow’s obituary columns.
I think there are other forms than the novel that do serve this vital purpose, works of philosophy and ideas, as well as literary non-fiction such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, to name a few ‘creative’ non-fiction titles – but finally, yes, I think it is the novel that still has pride of place in the sense of embodying what is vital to the culture because it deploys language and the use of the human imagination in ways no other literary form does.
3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.
Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
Somewhere in Alice In Wonderland there is a reference to the fact that there shall be prizes for all. The surge in prizes over the past 30 years or so is a two-edged sword. Yes, it is wonderful for the winning author and his/her publisher, but I think it does create a kind of laziness in the media, and with readers who get spoon-fed with books because Oprah said so. How convenient to have juries provide us with short-lists. How exciting to read a book a celebrity has picked! How much time is saved for readers and media in an era of too-much choice!
Prizes are also the one portal that authors and publishers have to the world of celebrity, the drug of modern culture. How irresistible is the glitter of prize lust! Who doesn’t want to be rich and famous? It is worth noting that some of the giants of modern literature never won prizes. James Joyce never won a damn thing. On the other hand, Malcolm Lowry garnered overnight fame for Under the Volcano, and the attention ruined him and he never wrote another book of note. So, yes, it is dangerous. There is no such thing as a best book. For a body of work, yes, but that’s another matter.
I must in the end confess that our authors at Thomas Allen (Austin Clarke and David Gilmour) have won both the Giller (2002) and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (2005) respectively, and that has been a tremendous boon to their reputations and the reputation of the house. I say this because winning prizes is terrific when it happens to you. But it does mean that there are many other authors who do not win and whose books won’t get the same kind of attention. This creates a terrible ambivalence about prizes in publishers.
4. Literary publishing 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 pushed out?
It’s certainly under protracted siege, especially at the big branch plant multi-national houses, where the bottom line and the corporate ethos rules. I’m not so sure this is happening elsewhere in Canada, however. This cult of the deal is an American phenomenon. In Canada we work in what is arguably the world’s most difficult book market, because we share a common language with our American and British cousins and so have to compete with a flood of imports. The market is more finite here, less elastic like the USA. So there is a limit on how high advances can go here. While it is true that these factors coupled with a very difficult delivery system (one chain – one monopoly – and very few good independents left) make it harder and harder to publish high literature, the “art” of literary writing will never die – it will find it’s way even if it has to resort to small presses or even self-publishing.
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?
Not at all. We live in an age of “confession” and there are more people out there writing than ever before. My first job in book publishing (1971) was as McClelland & Stewart’s unsolicited manuscript reader. I looked at some 5000 Mss in 9 months and only one got published. Yes, there are always Cinderella stories about the slush pile, but it is so time-consuming and there is so much mind-numbing junk, that it is hardly worth it any more. Good writing will always prevail. If Confederacy of Dunces finally got published (after the author was rejected over and over again and finally committed suicide, and then his mother at last found a university press to publish what has become a classic), then we can trust in either chaos theory of the synchronous nature of the universe for good books to find their way. For starters we can look to the literary composting of the literary magazines and small literary presses to find new voices.
6. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?
You can’t compare small literary presses to the big houses. It’s apples and oranges. The small presses try their best, but they simply don’t have the resources of the multi-nationals. Unfortunately, the way it goes is that it is often the small presses who discover the new talent, publishes it, and then the author moves on to the bigger lights of large presses. That’s just life in the barnyard. But the small presses perform an absolutely vital role in the ecology of Canadian literary publishing. Porcupine’s Quill was a good example of this (until John Metcalf left the press).
7. Returning to the question of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?
It really depends on the agent. Too powerful? Not in Canada. That’s an American phenomenon. The likes of Andrew Wiley would be an example. But here, as I point out, the resources are limited, so agents can be very influential, but certainly not as ‘powerful’ as their American cousins.
I think they are helpful in the sense that you don’t have to do business with the author: it’s taken care of by the agent – and so you can concentrate on editing and publishing the author.
My only caveat would be that the most important relationship that exists in publishing (besides the publisher and his banker) is that of the editor and the author. If an author finds an editor he/she trusts and can work with, that is gold. Agents should not interfere with that, nor should they edit authors’ Mss.
8. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?
Difficult question. We live in a democracy wherein freedom of speech is sacrosanct. Anybody could become a publisher in theory. What I worry about is there being too many mediocre publishers in Canada. For a population of some 33 million, we have something like 150-200 book publishers. Is that too many? I don’t know. I think there are too many books being published, and there are too many ineffectual and undistinguished presses being subsidized by the gov’t.
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
Not very much. As I said, the book is a hardy and clever technology that is hard to improve on. Yes, there will be more e-books and there is a thriving audio book market, but I would wager that this will only remain a small percentage of the market. The reason is that technology’s aesthetic is dull and monochromatic, and in the end can’t compete with the tactile nature of the book. Humans still like to hold, touch, smell, riffle, mark up and feel books. Until that changes and we morph into techno-mutants, the book will still occupy bookshelves across the culture.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
Jury may still be out on this one. Word of mouth is still the best way to sell books and so in theory you could take that to an exponential level with the Net. Trouble is the Net is such a free-for-all it is still difficult to find the right target audiences. But we’re working on it.
11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
Continue to do what they do best. Making books available in libraries and teaching literature in colleges in an inspired and engaging way. To continue trying to imbue a love of reading in students and to bring literature alive and out of the deconstructionist dust bin.
12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
New fiction coming up this September ‘07 from Roy MacSkimming and Ray Robertson.
MacSkimming has conjured an extraordinary novelistic recreation of the last days of Canada’s indomitable first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The novel is entitled Macdonald. It’s a brilliant portrait of a young emerging nation and its greatest champion.
This fall is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road, and Ray Robertson has written a clever fiction entitled What Happened Later with two stories that intersect in highly original ways: one about Kerouac’s last road trip to Quebec and the other about a young boy whose discovery of On the Road will change his life forever.
There’s more too: some excellent non-fiction from David Gilmour entitled The Film Club about some unusual home-schooling using scenes from classic movies to illuminate his drop-out son. And then there’s B.W.Powe, one of Canada’s most original public intellectuals, with his new book on what is was that haunted Pierre Trudeau entitled Mystic Trudeau.
Bio: Educated at Upper Canada College and Queen’s University, Patrick Crean grew up in a peripatetic foreign service family and lived in various European capitals including Paris, London, Belgrade, Rome, and Bonn where his father was Canadian Ambassador.
He began his career at McClelland & Stewart, rising to the position of acquisitions editor. Since then, he has worked for a variety of major Canadian publishing houses. At both Somerville House publishing and Key Porter Books he had his own imprint.
Noted for publishing original voices, fine writing, and uncommon ideas, he has tended to focus on literary fiction, culture and technology, travel writing, metaphysics, philosophy, history and memoir.Over the years he has worked with a wide range of authors. A number of his authors have won or been nominated for literary awards, including Greg Hollingshead whose collection of stories The Roaring Girl won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1995, Austin Clarke whose novel The Polished Hoe won the Giller Prize in 2002, the Commonwealth Prize and the Trillium Award in 2003, Brian Fawcett who won the 2004 Pearson Writers Trust Non-fiction Award for his book Virtual Clearcut, and David Gilmour who won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his novel A Perfect Night to Go to China.
In 2000, he was appointed Publisher of Thomas Allen & Son.