I can’t say I’m proud to be Canadian. Proud suggests I’ve achieved something by accident of birth. Pride of nationality is like being proud of being tall. I say instead that I’m lucky to be Canadian. It beats a lot of other possibilities. (I think George Carlin had a bit about that, I’ll have to look for it. Ah. Obviously I found it.)
Since Americans have more e-readers than Canadians, a Canadian author recently wondered aloud if Canadians had a chance of making any money in e-books.
It has always seemed strange to me how parochial many readers can be. Instead of seeing a story set in the Arctic as exotic and interesting, they tend to see it as too Other. In books, the wisdom has long been that people want “the same thing only different.” Americans want to read about Americans and Canadians are the only ones who will put up with sodbusters set in historic Saskatchewan.
This is true and it’s not. We generalize with confidence to familiar settings. New Yorkers enjoy reading about New Yorkers. But what’s true generally is not true in the particular. When Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, how many people could relate to lion-taming on a raft in the Pacific? For that matter, how many people can really relate to foreign spy thrillers and the intrigue of the Pentagon and State Department? Instead, they read to escape into the unfamiliar.
Can Lit is somewhat fetishized by many Canadians, especially if they are part of the publishing establishment or Canadian media. It’s not that I’m saying it’s all bad, but I would say it’s not the only game in town. I mostly read American authors and personally, I don’t have much patience for a lot of Can Lit. It’s a matter of taste. You can argue I have none, but the heart wants what it wants and I don’t think Chuck Palahniuk‘s artistic sensibility would have been nurtured as a hoser. In college I steered away from Robertson Davies and opted fro Mailer.
But e-books cross all borders. Publish an e-book and you can have english-speaking fans downloading your work in Sweden. Borders don’t mean much anymore. What’s more, come up with a good story—a really good story—and I don’t think it matters much where it’s set. And it doesn’t have to be high art conquering us all, either. Think of all those plot-oriented books English Majors are programmed to hate: Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, The Girl Who Played with Fire etc.,… A bunch of unfamiliar names isn’t deterring anyone from enjoying the Stieg Larson books.
So write a good story. In my novel, the protagonist has identifiably American goals. He wants to be a movie star. He live in New York but wants to live in Hollywood. He idolizes movie stars you know. He has to be American.
I can’t take that story and artificially transplant it so he’s a kid from Moncton who wants to make it big in Toronto. Canadian stars typically head south anyway, make it big in the States and only then are they recognized as talents. We’re Canadian. It’s what we do. Canadian celebrities are the equivalent of D-list celebrities. We’re really proud of them once they prove themselves elsewhere. In fact, Canadians don’t have “celebrity” per se. We just say they are “known” or “recognizable” or “familiar but…” or “Who’s she?”
There are other issues for Canadian authors. If you write SF, chances are excellent you deal with an American publisher directly or have an agent based in the US. Yes, there are some SF Canadian agents and publishers, but relatively few. That’s unfortunate, especially since three major SF authors are Canadian: William Gibson, Robert J. Sawyer and Spider Robinson. (Of those three, Robinson, the man named heir-apparent to Heinlein, is under-appreciated these days because his work is funny SF.)
The main issue is about the numbers. The USA has a huge population and Canada has a small one. Focusing your work exclusively on the Canadian market while ignoring the potential south of the border takes a special kind of focus. To sell more of anything, you have to go where the people are. Bands and authors hit as many cities across the US as they can. For many, if they come to Canada at all, it’s Toronto and that’s it. That’s just how the math works. Canadian tour dates are an afterthought. Authors in the United States may think of Canada kindly, but they’re not getting rich off us.
Nationality isn’t important. Story and marketing is.
- ‘Life of Pi’ author Yann Martel makes Memphis stops (commercialappeal.com)
- Writing Conferences: What we need (chazzwrites.wordpress.com)
- Review: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (fatbooks.org)
- George Carlin – AutoTuned! (bigalblog.wordpress.com)
- ‘Fight Club’ – They Told Me Not To Talk About It… (nervymike.wordpress.com)