Canadian writers and exotic locales

Nice blog post by Linda Wiken on Mystery Mavens Canada discussing how Canadian authors who have set their novels in exotic locations outside of Canada are doing very well. She mentions my Norwegian deal as well as a number of others. (Thanks, Linda – more news on that front soon.)

When I first wrote The Beggar’s Opera, I had feedback from a Canadian publisher (referred to me by another author) who liked the story but not the Cuban setting. He said he’d be interested in reading anything I wrote a little closer to home.

I started working on a different story, one set in northern Canada. And the feedback I got from the Canadian agents who heard about it was ‘don’t set it in Canada – nothing about Canada sells.’

(That changed somewhat when I mentioned it would involve an Aboriginal detective. I’ve  spent twenty years working with First Nation communities on treaty rights and have a doctorate in the area.)

Then there’s Victoria Glendinning’s take on Canadian fiction .

“The Canadian for ‘gutter’ is ‘eavestrough,’ which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a ‘tuque,’ or ‘toque,’ which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)”

Glendinning was a Giller Prize judge at the time. She argued that Canadian fiction was mediocre generally,  in part because of the subsidies for Canadian publishers producing Canadian content.  Indeed, she seemed to think that anyone could get published in Canada because of them:

“… many of the submitted authors, and their rugged subject matter, hail from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsidised, and they proliferate. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.”

I have to disagree. It’s no easier to get published in Canada than anywhere else. And there are very few Canadian publishers, but lots of aspiring authors.

Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Canadian setting: I live in a gorgeous country, after all, and yes, we do wear tuques in the winter. Because we have to. (Try getting through a -30 Celsius winter without one. It would be like a guy playing hockey without a jockstrap.)

But while she was sarcastic, or perhaps trying to be funny, I think there are more practical reasons to step outside our boundaries. A bestseller in Canada is only 5,000 books. In a country of 34 million, that’s not a lot. If the market is only Canadian, that limits sales considerably, unless the book is an absolute standout.

Sure there are exceptions: Joseph Boyden (whose character is Aboriginal) comes to mind, but most of our best-selling authors have set their stories elsewhere. Linwood Barclay, the U.S., Kelly Armstrong, the netherworld, and Alan Bradley, an English village. Louise Penny writes about Canada but sets her cozies in Quebec, which in many ways, is like a foreign country, although her Eastern Townships setting more closely resembles the English countryside.

But I absolutely think there’s a place for Canadian writers to write about things that aren’t Canadian: at least I hope so. Where I disagree with Glendinning is that I don’t think we need to give up our Canadian sensibilities, whatever we write about, wherever we choose to set our stories.

Certainly, those of us who dare to venture into foreign locales take some risks. We’re not from there, after all — it’s easy to get things wrong. 

But we shouldn’t be restricted only to writing about Canada because of grants or subsidies or out of some perverse sense of nationalism. I had this discussion as a judge on a literary panel once. One member argued that a Canadian author writing about Canada should get the nod over a Canadian writer who’d set their book elsewhere. Whereas I thought it should all come down to the quality of the writing.

The winner the year that Glendinning judged the Giller, by the way, was Linden MacIntyre’s book, The Bishop’s Man. It has sold around 150,000 copies in Canada. I don’t think there’s a tuque to be found in it. (But I could be wrong.)

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6 Responses to Canadian writers and exotic locales

  1. Ava Homa says:

    It’s interesting that my impression is quiet the opposite. I have published a collection of short stories “Echoes from the Other Land” which happens in the “exotic” land of Iran, a frequent topic of media. 😉 The setting has been a drawback rather than a memorizing seducer. 🙂 So, maybe exotic has to be part of the golden side of the planet “Europe and America?” or… maybe what makes a book known and admired is a complex set of “mysterious” connections/things? lol
    I agree Peggy, I really wish our judgment was just based on quality of writing. Readers (including judges) brings into the book so much bias, sometimes at the expense of literary value of the work! But, really how can we objectively judge a subjective matter like art and literature?

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      I’m surprised to hear that, Ava. I would have thought that Iran would be a terrific setting for fiction. Kite Runner did well, and it’s set in Afghanistan. Did you have an agent? I think a lot of good books simply disappear without an agent to make sure that the publisher is engaged in marketing and promoting the author’s works.

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  2. Canada’s best-selling SF writer (and one of the most successful in the world) Robert J. Sawyer sets many of his novels in Canada. And deals with many Canadian ‘issues’ in his books.

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  3. Ava Homa says:

    That’s what I thought too, Peggy. Didn’t turn out to be true. At least not for me. I know Kyte Runner did very well and I don’t quiet understand why. I did not like the dialogues at all.
    I don’t have an agent. Would I be able to get one after the book is published?

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Hello, Ava,
      You can get an agent for your next manuscript, certainly, and if you’ve already been published by a reputable publisher, that won’t hurt your chances. But it’s a tough slog to find one these days.

      If you already have a publishing contract for your current book, you might be able to find an agent to sell foreign rights (if the publisher doesn’t already have these under contract from you). But once the book is published, you wouldn’t be able to find an agent for that particular book (except as noted) because the deal’s already been done and they make their commission on advances and royalties. Cheers, Peggy

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  4. Ava Homa says:

    Thanks Peggy. That was helpful 🙂

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