An Editor’s Delicate Art

Doug Gibson worked with many of the best authors CanLit ever produced

“It was Stephen Leacock who brought me to Canada.” What a fine way to start your memoirs—even should the thought continue “Not literally, of course.” Leacock died three months after Douglas Gibson was born (December 1943), but the call from Mariposa was strong enough to lure Gibson across the Atlantic from his small Scottish village of Dunlop. Remember: this was 1967. Indigenous publishing was still fledgling; cultural grants and the continuous labour of optimists were busy constructing an arts framework. In that centennial year all things seemed possible. Young Gibson found work in the registrar’s office of McMaster University, but a want ad in The Globe and Mail (“Trainee Editor”) moved him to Toronto and Doubleday Canada. Just like that. His first project? David Legate’s biography of Stephen Leacock.

Much water has flowed under many bridges since that auspicious start, those halcyon days. As readers of this journal probably know well, Gibson wound up steering his own imprint at McClelland and Stewart, midwifing many significant authors into print there and previously at Doubleday Canada and Macmillan of Canada. Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau and Others relives in 21 chapters the (few) perils and (many) pleasures of this life in Canadian publishing. It is filled with markers of not just editorial diligence—as we shall see—but also a life well lived: friends drawn around a well-fortified table, scenes of children (Gibson’s and authors’) playing soccer under indulgent supervision, much travel and adventure (usually to badger authors or celebrate their wins—or both), even more hijinks. You will find little spite in this account (hooray) and also only passing discussion of the editorial process (boo). Working on Alistair MacLeod’s magnificent novel No Great Mischief, for example, entailed nothing more, claims Gibson, than a decade chivying the “Stone Carver” to finish writing. But once the story arrived, “Alistair’s style … is so deliberate and the rhythms so clear that pages of the manuscript would fly by untouched by editorial hand.” This mirrors my own observations over 20 years: the more established the editor, the less interference after that first editorial discussion. But snoops will be disappointed.

At the physical and thematic centre of this genial, anecdotal collection of friendships recalled is Robertson Davies. An exceptional writer from Gibson’s period at Macmillan (1974–86), then at M&S until his death, Davies also seemingly embodied many of Gibson’s own ideals. He was self-invented (that English accent inexplicably bred in southwestern Ontario), a trait Gibson welcomes from many in his stable and a significant thread through these tales. Gibson is nothing if not a romantic, in love with febrile imaginations, inky pages forged in the crucible of (pick one) dilapidated bars, secluded cottages, overstuffed studies. Barry Broadfoot—the Vancouver folk historian who had much to do with Gibson’s early career success—up and quit the Vancouver Sun one day, buying a tape recorder and hitting the road, arriving in Toronto with “fistfuls of manuscript” built from interviews about the Depression with regular folks along the way. At a dive on Dundas Square, Gibson recalls his editorial lunch with this freshly minted historian:

Right there at the table I started to read. It was a Hollywood moment, the one that never happens in real life, when a young editor reads a few pages and knows—just knows—that he is looking at an amazing bestseller, a book that will change people’s lives.

They “were off on a fascinating journey together, rewriting the history of Canada from 1929 to 1939 … [and] inventing a new type of book as [they] went along.” And reinventing Douglas Gibson as well: at the annual meeting of the Canadian Authors Association that year (1973), Gibson—employed by Doubleday at the time—enthused about the book, Ten Lost Years, and its surefire success. “Listening to my bold predictions was Hugh Kane, the head of Macmillan of Canada. When all of these predictions came true, he was the moving spirit behind the staid and very respectable Macmillan deciding to hire the cocky kid to be their editorial director at the age of thirty.”

Charles Ritchie was another self-inventor. Gibson encouraged the Canadian diplomat to continue publishing after the success of his Governor General Award–winning diaries, The Siren Years. Several more installments followed, filled with exploits of both the political and romantic varieties, showing a writer who had been in fine command of his métier even as a teenager. Too fine, as Gibson discovered at Massey College last year:

To my horror I learn that long before I and my colleagues at Macmillan saw the “diaries” to do the usual editorial smoothing before publishing them, he [freelance editor Ramsay Derry] and Charles had worked hard to “improve” them (my word) … The ultimate irony is that the person spurring on these “improvements” was, apparently, me. It seems that Charles’s diaries speak of Macmillan (that would be me!) having such high hopes for his new books that he felt under pressure to give us/me really fine stuff, even if the new material was just that—new.

“Horror” aside, the sense remains not of censure but of waggish reproof: authors will be authors. In a chapter on the much-missed Peter Gzowski, Gibson takes to task Rae Fleming, the historian from Argyle, Ontario, who wrote the famed broadcaster’s biography. In Gibson’s account, Fleming finds that when “his hard-won facts contradict Peter’s published accounts he takes it very, very seriously. He even quotes—with obvious prim disapproval—Peter’s jokey confession that ‘he never let reality stand in the way of a good story’.” Gibson is no Fleming—prim disapproval never flickers across these 43 years. And, it seems likely, reality has been shown its place, safely to one side when good stories are uncorked.

Robertson Davies stands at the centre of this book because he had wit, too. He was an epigrammatist, a sharp observer of human behaviour and a lover of puns. Gibson’s own prose is surefooted but rarely fancy. (The book would benefit from more vigilant copyediting—tropes like “I must confess” and “as you can imagine” repeat often, paragraphs overlap, dates conflict, etc.) Nevertheless, his perceptions of the central cast and the book’s dozens of cameos are keen-eyed. If his editorial role was often merely to rearrange stories for collections and pluck titles out of paragraphs (surely an understatement), then his publisher’s responsibilities were more political: soothing egos, rallying troops, deploying favours. And puns? W.O. Mitchell was such a character that “I have never known anyone around whom stories clustered in such numbers. He was, shall we say, incident-prone.” Irish politicians “seem able to quote literature by the yard, and poetry, some might say, by the metre.”

How marvellous that Gibson includes Davies’s sharp response to edits of Murther and Walking Spirits: “I thought some of them needless, and some inadvisable, because I sense that your notion of the novel is different from mine; you have edited always for a rigorous clarity, and I feel that a certain fuzziness is essential to the nature of the book … I did not feel when I was writing that a statistical realism was needed, but you do, and now you’ve got it, though it creates a lump in the narrative that I do not like.” Gibson especially loves that Davies saw himself in middle age as an ugly duckling, a failure: “He may have written and published a number of books and plays, but he had been disappointed in his great ambition—to become an internationally renowned man of the theatre.” Yet at the age of 57, when Fifth Business rebirthed him as a swan, now “the world would sit up and take note as the elegant white shape glided by.” From the Scottish village lad who had answered the ad for a trainee editor and almost directly become head of editorial, then Macmillan publisher, then Canada’s first editor/publisher of his own imprint, this is recognition not of failure but of its opposite.

Let us celebrate Gibson’s enthusiasms. Never standoffish, in his life story he is keen on good writing, very keen on eager readers, extremely keen on conviviality of all sorts (“my friend” precedes half the names in this book) and beyond keen on practical jokes, wordplay and the work of Robert Burns. He celebrates enthusiasm in others (as publishers should). Paul Martin, for one, is “nice,” “witty” and “decent” but comes to life in his passions: “He was an intellectual in the sense that he really liked ideas. I have worked with bright people of all sorts, often with strings of publications and degrees to their name. But I have rarely encountered anyone who was so genuinely excited by ideas … Ideas set him afire with excitement.” He exhorts writers (this seems self-directed) to emulate Peter C. Newman: “He is a great believer in the ‘Hey, Mabel!’ school of book writing, where you try to include lots of stories so good that readers will read them out excitedly to their spouses or companions.” And so Gibson never passes up the chance for a good anecdote, no matter the hairpin bend needed to hit the off-ramp. The chapter on Newman includes swerves for onetime Doubleday editor David Manuel, journalist Bruce Hutchison, political cartoonist Duncan Macpherson, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Berton, Newman’s various wives and “a number of fine ladies, notably a fair Southern Belle from Mississippi. I am grateful to them all. But compared to Peter I am a mere dabbler, a sexual dilettante.”

If Robertson Davies is this book’s central pillar, its foundation and its hearth is Alice Munro. Gibson can be thanked for many fine books rescued from inattention and inaction, but nothing equals his care in persuading Munro to do right by her home country. And do right she did, as she herself describes:

No one in Canada had shown the least interest in taking on a writer who was going to turn out book after book of short stories. The result of this was that I wasted much time and effort trying to turn myself into a novelist, and had become so depressed that I was unable to write at all. Doug changed that. He was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short story writer, and that a book of short stories could be published and promoted as major fiction. This was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. It was his support that enabled me to go on working, when I had been totally uncertain about my future.

Munro (who wrote the foreword) is one of the few authors from the book still living. She is not the youngest (in their early 70s, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin take that title), but she is not the oldest either (that is Mavis Gallant). Two thirds of the featured writers, though, are dead, which makes for an elegiac mood not just for them and their output, but for Canadian publishing more broadly. Gibson’s heyday was singular: a time when indigenous authorship came into its own, when the reading (and buying) public cared about the novelty of stories told about their own country by their own countrymen (that gender being deliberate). He talks about readings and signings in department stores and grand old shops. He recalls when Morningside could ensure a book’s fortunes, when reviews in daily newspapers really mattered, when three-hour lunches formed the backbone of business. The hardships of recent years, the small, careful thinking that survival requires, were still far in the future from Gibson’s gleeful encounters with Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Mitchell, Pierre Trudeau, Davies, Gzowski and others—all dead now, all fixed in the amber of the past.

Gibson is too bright, too spirited and too gentlemanly to prefer the past merely for its own sake. His is a straining intelligence, ever onward, as these accounts plainly show. Yet the careful reader might make much of his defence of Hugh MacLennan—unjustly overlooked, Gibson says, for no better reason than fashion. “It was time, as the world works, for the old order to change, for the council of elders to be replaced. But ‘decency,’ the consistent tone in his novels and essays, ‘generosity of spirit,’ and the ability to make the world seem a better place are qualities with lasting appeal.”

The same seems too true of Douglas Gibson, who, with this book, reveals a little of the ugly duckling turned swan himself.