By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Having toiled in the fiction-writing trade for about seven years now, I find myself from time to time perusing the bestseller lists. Of course, these coarse statistics have no bearing upon my devotion to the art, nor do I envy more successful (luckier) colleagues. No way. Really.
Determining bestsellers is not so simple as it sounds. Unlike the Top 10 tunes and the Top 10 movies, no two lists are alike. In American hardcover, occupying the No. 1 spot this week we find either Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (14-year-old narrates the aftermath of her own kidnapping and murder) or The Murder Book,a crime novel by Jonathan Kellerman. In paperback, depending whom you check, most Americans are reading either a mystery by James Patterson or a romance by Danielle Steel.
Still, one detects an overall tendency toward what we condescendingly refer to as "genre fiction" -- story-driven accounts that deal in suspense, whether physical or emotional or both. Similarly, in the bestseller rack at the local Shoppers Drug Mart, I encounter a comparable list with the same American names.
Check The Globe and Mail, however, and the eyes nearly pop from their sockets to find The Lovely Bones playing second fiddle to Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing, a Canadian novel about a 19th-century quest to find a missing brother by a disillusioned artist and a disgraced military captain. Meanwhile in paperback, Kellerman's Flesh and Blood cedes pride of place to Clara Callan,the Governor-General's Award-winner in which two sisters exchange letters during the Depression.
The moral? So long as we stay out of drugstores, Canadian readers prefer at least one Canadian writer at any given time, and we prefer it to be someone whose work is more, shall we say, sensitive than the Americans -- sensitive, both in its lack of violence and sex, and in the fact that the story turns not on how people act, but on how they react.
Check some backlists and it's the same story: Hannibal Lecter trails Alistair MacLeod's doomed Maritime family; Danielle Steel proves powerless against the Carol Shields juggernaut.
The heart wants to burst with national pride.
For a beginning novelist, the lesson is obvious: If you are Canadian, the key to success is spider-web sentences, resonant characters, and a fund of trenchant observations about historical and contemporary life.
On the other hand, if we go by the contents of both the books section and Shoppers, Canadian mysteries and thrillers are at best a marginal enterprise, and for a Canadian to stoop to the grubbiness of crime and the stickiness of sex would be not only crass but futile. Genre fiction is for Americans, who have so much more experience at being American.
Fine. So our enterprising beginner is 20,000 words into his intergenerational saga about a women in a small town in Saskatchewan, burdened by a terrible family secret, still hopelessly in love with the son of the local undertaker, who was conscripted into the army in 1914, died in the trenches and was secretly gay.
Then, while taking a sensitivity break perhaps, our scribe happens to check the entertainment Web sites, and behold: Warner Bros. (an American firm known to produce movies) has just purchased the rights, on behalf of Angelina Jolie (an American actress), to Bitten -- a novel about a female werewolf who becomes a journalist, written by one Kelley Armstrong from Southwestern Ontario.
This bit of industry trivia appears amid sonorous éclat in People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, The Wichita Eagle, The Melbourne Sun, all of whom take note of the fact that the author is from Canada -- except for, well, Canada actually, where it eventually appears on the Canoe Web site a couple of days later.
God bless the restraint of the Canadian press, for in the material world this deal will net Ms. Armstrong a good deal more than the G-G and the Booker combined. Not, mind you, that literary awards have anything to do with money. For a serious writer, it is enough to know that a jury of one's peers has declared one to be almost as sensitive as they are.
In fact, if it weren't for the sensitive proclivities of our books editors, we might one day see more valuable column inches devoted to narrative-driven, popular fiction such as Bitten -- in which characters act, as opposed to being acted upon; in which key events occur in the present, not the past; in which trouble does not come from a defect in character but, rather, shit happens no matter who you are. In which a person can be shot by a complete stranger at random, while reading a book outside a drugstore.
Writers write what they can, about the way they see things. The difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is really a matter of world-view -- though one is far more respectable, and appeals to the better sort of reader.
Were the books sections of Canadian newspapers to devote a bit more space to Canadian efforts at this sort of crass commercialism, we might see a Canadian occupy that coveted No. 2 spot presently occupied by a Kellerman or a King, resulting in tax revenue sufficient to fund a hundred Governor-General's Awards.
We might even find a Canadian in Shoppers.