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When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Memoirs of a Publishing Pimp

A guru of CanLitCrit bares almost but not quite all

Nick Mount

Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit

Robert Lecker

Véhicule Press

294 pages, softcover

One afternoon not so long ago, a senior professor at a major Canadian university joined an internet chat room under the name of Lamp Man, a 23-year-old, single, athletically inclined student. The professor was excited by the anonymity of this brave new world, not to mention the sexual interest of the twenty-somethings attracted to his stolen photograph. But something bothered him. The other inhabitants of the chat room could not spell. Their grammar was appalling. Not one of them recognized that he had taken his name from a 19th-century Canadian poet. And when he tried to correct their spelling, or expand their reading, they laughed at him. When he persisted, they told him to leave the room.

Lamp Man was—is—Robert Lecker: professor, publisher, literary critic and author of Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit, from which this incident comes. It is a revealing moment in a revealing book, bluntly typical of Lecker’s career-long eagerness to venture off the academic path. It shows a man excited, as he says, by the possibility of assuming identities other than his own. Mostly, it shows a man out of place, at odds with his surroundings and his audience. That gap between self and world is symptomatic of Dr. Delicious, the memoirs of a CanLit insider written by a self-cast outsider. Like Lamp Man, Lecker seems deeply uncertain of his audience, of whom he is addressing and of how to talk to them. It is possible that this uncertainty is not Lecker’s alone, that he is himself a symptom, the exaggerated case that reveals a shared pathology. One of the recurring complaints of Lecker’s memoir is that nobody reads the Canadian literary criticism he has devoted his life to writing and publishing: not the general public, and not the specialized academic. If Lecker is right about this, and he should know better than most, then the reason Dr. Delicious does not seem to know who its audience is might be that it does not have one.

A student once told Robert Lecker that his surname means delicious in German: “You are Dr. Delicious.” Blame that student for this book. Professor Lecker did not gossip about his students or his colleagues; Dr. Delicious could and would. Professor Lecker wrote scholarly books in a scholarly style that no one read. Dr. Delicious would write a more personal book, in a more personal voice: “He would write about his passions, his failures, how the whole business of CanLit drove him crazy, lost him sleep, drove him on.”

And so he does. Dr. Delicious follows Lecker’s life from his graduation from a Montreal high school in 1969 to the sale of his share of ECW Press to his partner, Jack David, in 2003. As promised, it is candid about his passions, his failures, how CanLit drove him crazy. But it is not really a personal book. Lecker gets married, divorced and remarried in a sentence or two, has two children in fewer. He tells us that he cruised the internet under pseudonyms, or that he visited the red-light district of Amsterdam with an ECW author, but he does not tell us what actually happened on these adventures, for which some will be disappointed and others grateful. And as it turns out, Dr. Delicious does not write much differently than Professor Lecker. He starts a few paragraphs with “anyhow” instead of “furthermore,” but the spell-checking professor is always visible beneath his casual new clothes. As the chat room incident proved, you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher.

So Dr. Delicious is not quite the classroom confidential its Jekyll and Hyde conceit promises. It is primarily the memoir of a critic and publisher heavily involved in Canadian literature for more than a quarter century. Born and educated in Montreal, Lecker completed his doctorate at York University, taught first at the University of Maine in Orono, then moved to McGill University in 1982, where he still teaches. He is one of Canada’s most pugnacious and prolific literary critics, the author of a half dozen books and the editor of many more. His 1990 essay on the canonization of Canadian literature, which became the first chapter of Making It Real, is one of the dozen or so indispensable essays in the field, up there with Frye’s conclusion to the Literary History of Canada. The memoir devotes some space to Lecker the critic: the transformative influence of his York professor, poet Eli Mandel; his growing disaffection with high theory; and, most compellingly, the bond between his nationalism and his criticism. Teaching in universities first outside of Canada and then in a province that wanted to be outside of Canada made Lecker determined to find the Canadian in Canadian Literature, what held that literature together and made it unique. Besides setting him against post-national critics such as Frank Davey (with whom Lecker quarrelled in print and person), Lecker’s nationalism produced his best-known foray into the public sphere, a courageous critique of Quebec separatism published in Saturday Night the year after the last referendum.

At least in part, Lecker’s commitment to Canada also fuelled his best-known contribution to Canadian literature, his 25 years as the co-editor of the journal Essays on Canadian Writing and the co-owner of ECW Press. Jack David founded Essays on Canadian Writing at York University in 1974 while still a graduate student, using funds from the English graduate students’ association. (One of the journal’s working titles was Using Up the Beer Money.) Lecker joined near the end of his first MA year at York, appearing on the masthead as an associate editor in the fall of 1975 and as co-editor two years later.

Left sharing the editor’s desk after co-editor Ken McLean landed a teaching job, David and Lecker came up with a plan to use ECW’s strength in bibliographies to improve their own employment prospects: a two-volume bibliography of major Canadian writers, compiled by professors across the country and edited by themselves. They signed a contract with the Toronto publisher Peter Martin, but Martin backed out when the 45 bibliographies mushroomed into a two-metre high manuscript. Faced with telling the very people who would soon be sitting on their hiring committees that their work had been for nothing, David and Lecker decided they had to publish the bibliographies themselves. In Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd., with David and Lecker as equal partners.

The first ECW title came out in 1979, a collection of essays on Hugh Hood originally edited, like many ECW books, for an issue of the journal. Hood himself signed with ECW that year, followed by John Metcalf and Leon Rooke. The rejected bibliographies eventually ran to eight volumes and suggested equally ambitious projects such as Canadian Writers and Their Works and the Canadian Fiction Studies series. In 1992, a biography of singer k.d. lang in ECW’s Canadian Biography Series sold unexpectedly well in the United States after catching the attention of lang’s lesbian following. After a decade of surviving on Canadian grants and library sales, the foreign smell of foreign money prompted ECW’s move into trade publishing for niche markets. Alongside the scholarly monographs in ECW’s catalogues now appeared biographies of movie and pop stars, guides to TV shows, books about gambling, witchcraft, professional wrestling. Short books for markets with short memories; many were hastily assembled from existing sources by ECW staff or Lecker’s students under pseudonyms. At least one of those existing sources objected, successfully suing ECW for using material without permission for a biography of Shania Twain. But the new books sold well, enough to keep ECW afloat on its bipolar course.

Meanwhile, David and Lecker were themselves growing apart, running separate offices in Toronto and Montreal and increasingly pursuing separate lists and separate visions. The partnership limped along until 2002, when the nearly simultaneous bankruptcies of their American and Canadian distributors lost ECW almost $400,000. In October 2003, David bought out Lecker’s share and closed the Montreal office. The first book the partners had published together was Before the Flood: Hugh Hood’s Work in Progress. Their last was WrestleCrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling. How, Lecker wonders after surrendering his keys to the office, did they get from Hugh Hood to WrestleCrap?

As Lecker admits, the answer is not complicated: it is about the money, honey. ECW Press was conceived partly to promote Canadian literature, but mostly to promote Jack David and Robert Lecker, to find them the academic positions they both found. From then on, both men saw the press as a commercial venture—which helps explain why, for a life lived with authors, Dr. Delicious has so little to say about them. Some of CanLit’s cast have walk-on parts (a Margaret Atwood reading gone sour, Hard Core Logo author Michael Turner flirting with Lecker’s babysitter), but ECW’s own authors typically only appear as they figure in the book’s main subject, the getting and spending of money. “For me, at least,” says Lecker, “a guiding principle in the development of our publishing program was the idea of 

May 1977, Essays on Canadian Writing gave birth to owning Canadian literary real estate.” And to their credit, I suppose, he and David nearly pulled it off, using their own sweat and sizable chunks of taxpayers’ money to fund a journal and a publishing house that between them quietly acquired more CanCrit content than any other publisher.

The problem, of course, was that cornering the market on Canadian literary criticism is like cornering the market on dandelions: hard work, maybe even useful, but with a limited resale value. David and Lecker tried everything they could, from the core idea of publishing books in series, designed to turn libraries into addicts, to recycling published work in repackaged forms. One year, Lecker pitched a special issue of ECW on the family to McDonald’s. Another, he dreamed of a series of notes on tape for students, a Coles Notes for the Walkman generation. (McDonald’s said no; Coles beat them to it.) At heart, David and Lecker were entrepreneurs: a monograph on Hugh Hood in the same catalogue as WrestleCrap seems bizarre to their potential buyers of both, but not to the seller who sees them both as content, as “real estate.” Real estate agents don’t care what they sell or to whom, so long as they sell. And neither, really, did David or Lecker. “I had become a publishing pimp,” writes Lecker, a title that suits himself and his book far better than Dr. Delicious.

Today, Lecker believes that the house he and the other Jack built failed to achieve its public agenda, “to broaden and encourage the study of Canadian literature.” As he sees it, the government has failed to support publishers of Canadian criticism, critics have failed to write provocative books or buy each other’s boring books, and publishers have found it easier to pursue books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “We have entered a period of exhaustion,” says Dr. Delicious. “The really good critics have retreated as the publishing venues available to them have disappeared or been cut back.”

Lecker is less outspoken about how well ECW achieved its private agenda, “to put some cash in my pocket.” He talks a lot about ECW’s debts, and he is surprisingly open about the company’s questionable tactics for securing grants and loans, but all he will say about the bottom line is that he sold his share in the business to David for enough to pay off his “massive personal debt” plus “a reasonable amount of cash.” As for the journal, which was left in his hands after the sale but has since moved to the University of Saskatchewan under the editorship of Kevin Flynn, Lecker will say only that it paid off “like good real estate.”

All of this would be nobody’s business but David’s and Lecker’s except for the fact that ECW was publicly funded from the start. In the case of the press, that is completely normal: every Canadian publishing company is subsidized to some extent. The journal, though, is a different matter. Most Canadian academic journals are not just subsidized; they are completely supported by the public, who pays academics to write and edit them, universities to support them and libraries to buy them. With the help of grants, a well-run journal breaks even or allows a small profit for rainy days, exactly what Lecker says Essays on Canadian Writing consistently managed. Until now, I had assumed that ECW was run on this model: certainly they never offered to pay me for the work I have published in it, or for the reports I wrote for them on other people’s work. I never expected to be paid for my work, and I do not expect to be paid for it now. But if that work paid off for Robert Lecker “like good real estate,” then as a taxpayer myself, I would like to know how and for how much.

Lecker clearly means Dr. Delicious to provoke serious questions about the problems with publishing literary criticism in Canada. But complaining about the inadequacy of government funding for publishers alongside stories about ECW provoking million-dollar lawsuits, paying for “romps through the sex capitals of the world” and supporting its Montreal owner’s preference for upscale restaurants may also invite questions Lecker did not intend, equally serious questions about the public support of private publishers. It is Lamp Man in the chat room all over again, saying the wrong things to the wrong audience. Or maybe it is not. If Lecker believes what he says repeatedly, that very few people read Canadian criticism, then perhaps he thought very few people would read the memoirs of a Canadian critic, so he—or Dr. Delicious—might as well amuse himself. Make some things up, exaggerate others, light some fires on the way out the door. Maybe Dr. Delicious is a book-length version of the prank he and David pulled years ago in the journal, inserting these words in the middle of an issue: “Screw you. We don’t think you will ever read these words, but if you do, write to us and we will send you $25.” Consciously or not, Dr. Delicious might be the best proof of its own thesis.

Nick Mount is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

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