On Canada’s literary landscape
In 1980, the Beat writer William S. Burroughs gave a public reading at the Centennial Planetarium, in Calgary. Eight years later, another counterculture icon, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, attended a gala as part of the Olympic Writers Festival. In 2009, the humorist David Sedaris grabbed one of those famous milkshakes at Peters’ Drive-In. Spider-Man once attended the Stampede, as did Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. And when he stopped in Calgary for “one lively half-hour” in 1907, Rudyard Kipling declared it “the wonder city of Canada.”
These and other tenuous associations with Cowtown are captured in A Literary Map of Calgary, a new interactive exhibit curated by the local public library’s outgoing historian-in-residence, Shaun Hunter. To be sure, the online map, which seeks to capture “the extensive and surprising dimensions of Calgary’s literary landscape,” charts scores of bona fide connections: Esi Edugyan’s childhood home, W. O. Mitchell’s rosewood writing room, Aritha van Herk’s Hawkwood haunts, Grant McEwan’s final resting place. But many of its pins — the milkshakes purchased, the superheroes spotted, the whistle-stop book tours noted — bring to mind those faded celebrity headshots that greasy spoons and mom-and-pops tack to their walls: Catherine Zeta-Jones loves our peameal bacon sandwiches! Paris Hilton once shopped here!
On the first literary map to detail these parts, Paul Mayo Paine’s The Northward Map of Truthful Tales, from 1926, Calgary is decidedly Sidney Groves Burghard country. The British writer and Yukon-gold-rusher set many of his Westerns in the area, including The Trail of the Axe, one of several oaters adapted by Hollywood. Poor Burghard doesn’t have a place on Hunter’s map (nor does his alter ego, Ridgwell Cullum). Another absent cowpoke: Everett C. Johnson, who retired to Calgary after working the nearby Bar U and inspiring Owen Wister to write The Virginian. Wister, who spurred on an entire genre and who joined his muse for the Stampede in 1912 (the first year it was actually called that), doesn’t make the cut either. Considering the boosterish cupidity at play in A Literary Map of Calgary — that time the writer and physician Arthur Conan Doyle gave a talk, that other time the novelist and screenwriter Leon Uris booked a hotel room — such omissions are striking.
Literary maps are a lot like anthologies. With shorthand references, they gather together the stories and voices that an editor deems worthy; they guide a reading public that seeks to understand the character of a people or place; by necessity, they exclude as much as they include. “No kind of book is easier to attack than an anthology,” Northrop Frye wrote, in 1943, as he reviewed A. J. M. Smith’s The Book of Canadian Poetry. I take his point, and I’d say, on the whole, that Hunter has done an admirable job.
In that same 1943 review, Frye observed, “The patriotic avarice that claims every European as ‘Canadian’ who stopped off at a Canadian station for a ham sandwich on his way to the States is, no doubt, ridiculous.” But at least there was a bit of agency in such claims; ridiculous or not, Canadians were the ones making them. Now, with the potential sale of Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House’s parent company, Bertelsmann, for more than $2 billion (U.S.), we may soon gaze upon a literary landscape that doesn’t offer much of a choice at all: Where a single publisher controls some 40 percent of this country’s book business. Where what passes for Canadian print culture is reduced to the courtesy flybys of a smaller and smaller coterie of authors, the lucky few who manage to land lucrative deals and who occasionally touch down at the Palliser hotel. Where we are left to celebrate the trivial celebrity sightings, because the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that actually says something about who we are and where we live is increasingly drowned out or rendered undiscoverable in our bookshops and libraries.
Penguin Random House tells us not to fear. “The industry is healthier than it’s ever been,” the company’s chief operating officer explained to the New York Times in late February. There will be plenty of benefits for authors, booksellers, and readers. But the Association of Canadian Publishers and the Writers’ Union of Canada are not so sure; the latter has called upon the Department of Canadian Heritage to “tighten regulations over publishing in Canada, and to better protect the rights of Canada’s authors.”
If the heritage minister hears those calls and does review the potential merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, he may also want to explore Shaun Hunter’s literary map — and listen closely to the cautionary tale it whispers.