The Art of Book Balancing
Readers lose out in the fight between pulp and purpose in Canada's literary pages
During the fall of 1990 a memo was sent by Montreal Gazette entertainment editor Brian Kappler to associate managing editor Michael Cooke regarding the book section. It read, in summary: Feature novels closer to public taste (Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum). Scrap the French best-seller list. Limit commissioned reviews to five a week. Shorten reviews. Use wire services for US and European reviews. Put more emphasis on color art for break pages, including photos of coffee-table books.
The memo reads like a sabotage of homegrown Canadian book reviewing, USA Today style. In reality, it represents one extreme of a spectrum of views held and implemented by Canadian newspapers regarding what books to review and how to review them.
Only one or two per cent of the roughly 54,000 books published annually in Canada ever get reviewed in Canadian newspapers. Papers have few book pages (the best have about three), usually published only once a week, and review only 7 to 14 books per week on average. Therefore, decisions about what to review become crucial, not only to book-page editors, but also to authors and publishers. The Gazette memo was never implemented in its entirety. It was intercepted on the computer system by a friend of then-book editor Mark Abley, who later quit, blaming his problems on middle management and overwork. “I was told I was elitist,” Abley says. “I wanted books of quality. I wanted the section to appeal to people who love books, like sports written for sports lovers. But they wanted no section of the paper inaccessible to most readers.”
Mel Morris, former managing editor of the Gazette, worries that Cooke and Kappler were trying to lower the target audience by featuring “shit books,” by writers such as Danielle Steele, which he says should be given only a one paragraph review in the book pages. And while the memo is shrugged off by some staff members as meddlesome, and pressures from middle management to change have abated, it does encapsulate the threat to book reviewing posed by editorial interference. Abley cites a list of reviews that were pulled by his seniors, including a feature on black protest poets in South Africa. This kind of censorship, which the public knows nothing of, hinders the critical purpose of book reviewing. Granted, the selection of books for review depends on taste, but on whose taste? The book editor’s taste or that of Danielle Steele fans?
A November 11, 1991 article in The Toronto Star claims that only 50 per cent of Canadians read one book or more per year, and the fact is that Canada has become a dumping ground for US and British books. Therefore, the scant Canadian reviews that are published are precious. But some treat them as almost too precious. At the other extreme of Canadian book reviewing are book editors who would rather boost Canadian books than relegate them to inferior status behind the latest US best-seller.
Ken McGoogan, book editor of the Calgary Herald, has been doing just this for 11 years. McGoogan is not only geographically, but also ideologically, isolated in southern Alberta because he believes writers, including Canadian writers, should be boosted in reviews. “I prefer to err on the side of generosity toward writers. I have a great deal of empathy as a writer and it extends to Canadian and other writers as well,” says McGoogan. He says it is appropriate to pay special attention to Canadian books and regional (Albertan) books, but stresses that he doesn’t force his views on reviewers of the books he chooses; in fact, he sometimes disagrees with them. Controversy over his views has heated up since the publication of his book, Canada’s Undeclared War: Fighting Words From the Literary Trenches, detailing his ‘booster’ philosophy of revlewmg.
Toronto Star book columnist Philip Marchand, a relatively hard-hitting reviewer, says mischievously that he has a great deal of sympathy for an author he rakes over the coals. But he stresses that reviewers have a duty to be firm in their views: “If you really think a work is flawed or failed, then you owe it to your readers to say so clearly at the risk of offending an author or publisher.” Most book editors concede that there is a place for some boosterism in the Canadian context, because only big-name Canadian authors get reviewed in the US or Britain. But boosterism should be restricted to paying attention to Canadian books, not pampering them.
The Globe and Mail is relatively middle-of-the-road compared to the Gazette and the Herald, neither boosting Canadian volumes nor stooping to feature mass-market books, but its book section has been criticized for deliberately setting up provocative reviews-for example, having academic historians review popular histories. Professor Duncan McDowall negatively reviewed Peter C. New~ man’s Merchant Princes, the last volume of his trilogy about The Hudson’s Bay Company. In the Oct. 12, 1991 review, McDowall criticized S Newman for “seldom resorting to the nitty-gritty of history-the primary documents.”
Newman has three words to say about book reviewing: “It’s all politics.” He maintains that having academics review popular histories leads to “a crossing-over of different disciplines and different audiences.” In his stinging rebuttal to the Globe’s review, he called McDowall’s criticism a “defensive diatribe disguised as a book review” and the man himself, “a crusty academic.”
Still, no book editor wants to commit the sin of having a boring book section. The book pages are written for the public, not for the authors. And because reviewers with extensive knowledge in some disciplines are rare, most editors say it’s okay to use academics as long as they understand the purpose of the book and judge fairly whether the author succeeds in his or her intention.
But the Globe has also been criticized for assigning books for review to an author’s ideological opponent. Last October, its editors printed a review by David Olive of Mel Hurtig’s anti-free trade book, The Betrayal of Canada. Olive is the editor of Report On Business Magazine and a known supporter of free trade. He panned the book, put off because Hurtig paints supporters of free trade as “traitors” to their country, “antiCanadians” and “pimps.” Olive took the book’s main attack all too personally. He concluded his review with: “Now if only his strident followers can break their habit of labelling those who sometimes disagree with them as ‘traitors’ to their country, it is likely that Hurtig’s message will receive a charitable hearing.”
Hurtig angrily wrote the Globe that assigning reviewers who perspectives guarantee a book will be trashed is hardly fair to atuthors, publishers or readers, “and it certainly doesn’t help your reputation for objectivity.” June Callwood opposes such provocative reviewing, saying there’s a spirit of mischief in it. “An extreme illustration would be giving a pro-choice book to a right-to-lifer to review.” The charge that the Globe sets up provocative reviews doesn’t sit welpwith arts and book editor Katherine Ashenburg. “People always read the entrails of the Globe as if a lot more Machiavellian, bizarre planning were going on,” she says. Yet bizarre is an apt word for the twin reviews commissioned by the Globe of Robertson Davies’ Murther and Walking Spirits. Ashenburg denies that the Globe ran the dual reviews because it knew it would get a negative review from Canadian novelist and critic Janice Kulyk Keefer. Yet she says she knew that Kulyk Keefer had written negative reviews of Davies in the past and that the American reviewer Michael Dirda would gush because “Americans love Davies.” Philip Marchand says this practice arouses suspicion. “Why do you need it?” he says. “Was the first one not good enough? Robertson Davies doesn’t need to be handled with kid gloves, he is a wellestablished and well-read author.”
The Canadian book industry and newspaper reviewing have greatly improved in the past 30 years. But in these hard economic times reviewing is suffering. When newspapers import American culture and bias cheaply via wire services, or deliberately set up provocative reviews, or feature American mass-market books, or insult authors and their readers by handling Canadian books gently, the Canadian book industry, book reviewing and the public are not well-served.
Sarah Ortlieb Fraser was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.