open letter to james moore update #2

A letter to James Moore from Hamilton poet Marilyn Gear Pilling, after my challenge for silly open letters/submissions to the Honourable Member. This one is not silly, sadly, but a darn good letter nonetheless:

To: James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages

Dear Minister,

I know that there have been protests about your intention to cut off government grants to magazines with a circulation of less than 5,000, which would be every literary magazine in Canada. I am not sure whether anyone has explained the reason for the outcry, that is, the relationship between these magazines and the ability to become a writer.

There was a time when I did not know anything about this relationship, and there is no reason why you would be expected to know it, given the breadth of your responsibilities. Therefore I've tried to summarize it in this short letter, and trust that you will then see the effect this proposed policy would have. I do hope your staff will bring this letter to your attention.

There are steps involved in becoming a successful, published writer, and as you will see the literary magazines are a crucial element. The following is over-simplified in the interests of brevity:

Step 1 - The writer's work (fiction or creative non fiction or poetry) appears in the literary magazines of this country. Even this step is not easy for an aspiring writer. The literary magazines can publish only two or three submissions out of every hundred they receive, due to limited space. Many fine pieces of writing receive multiple rejections at this level.

Step 2 - Having built up a publishing record in the literary magazines, (and it may take ten years to achieve ten or twelve published poems or stories), the writer sends a full length manuscript of work to the small, independently owned Canadian publishers. If the writer has built up a track record in the literary magazines, he or she is much more likely to have work at least considered and read by these small publishers. The writer has a chance that his or her work may be published as a book. As well, literary agents and larger publishers look at these magazines to see what new talent may be out there. Another benefit is that writers read these magazines. The first level of success and the first level of encouragement for a writer is that other writers, as well as the editors of the literary magazines, read the work, respond to it , may encourage it, and become familiar with the author. A writer needs this initial recognition to be able to continue.

Step 3 - Having had two or three books published by the small, independent publishers, the writer, typically, uses these books to attempt to interest a larger publisher, such as McClelland and Stewart or Knopf, in publishing the writer's work. These larger publishers have budgets for marketing the book, and at this point, the writer may develop a name and find that his or her work is being read by the general public.

Almost all of Canada's name authors have followed this route. A handful of writers, due to a combination of luck or material that expresses the zeitgeist or winning a big prize will jump from obscurity directly to a position where their work is read and known by the general public, but the vast majority work fulltime at another job and follow the route I have described, which is long and demands a great deal of persistence and many years of slogging in the trenches.

If you effectively remove the trenches, over 98% of Canada's aspiring, developing writers will never get off the ground. A good analogy is the disappearance of the wetlands, which scientists now know leads to the disappearance of entire species.

The amount of money the government expends to allow these literary magazines to exist is so small that removing it will do nothing to reduce the deficit. However, allowing these grants to continue will mean that Canada continues, over time, to produce writers like Michael Ondaatje, Alistair MacLeod, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Yann Martel - writers who are giants on the world stage and have resulted in Canadian literature proliferating and being studied and read and respected in many countries.

Of course, it is not only for the purpose of developing Canada's image abroad that it is important to assist writers in getting a start. The work they produce will enrich and deepen the lives of readers for years to come, and provide an important contribution to the nation's culture.

Yours truly,

Marilyn Gear Pilling
Hamilton, Ontario


Zachariah Wells said...

Unfortunately, Pilling misses the point. It's unlikely that any affected magazines will fold as a result of funding changes. They will have to restructure significantly, but the funding being cut is only a portion of a magazine's funding and income. Pilling undermines her own argument by naming several older writers who rose to prominence before extensive arts funding existed. To say nothing of Carol Shields, whose first book was published by Random House in the US, as well as by McGraw Hill Ryerson in Canada.

I'm against these funding changes, but if we're going to make a case, we can't rely on factually dubious arguments.

Rob Taylor said...

C'mon, Zach. You're opposing making rhetorical, if somewhat "factually dubious," claims to a politician? Isn't it simply courteous to communicate with politicians in their own language?

A joke, of course, but don't you think your dismissal is a little much, especially when she goes out of the way to note that "The following is over-simplified" at the beginning?

You say she misses the point, but don't let us in on what the point really is. If not for the reasons Pilling lays out, why are you opposed to the cuts?

Zachariah Wells said...

Not opposed to making claims. Don't think one should use examples that, upon cursory examination, disprove those claims. Pretty simple.

If the changes go thru, I don't see many magazines folding--the publisher of the magazine I edit for has said publicly it wouldn't be the end of the mag--so arguing that they will is indeed beside the point. The point is that the funding is being reallocated for bad reasons and that the reallocation will negatively affect several magazines who don't deserve to lose the income. It will also, of course, affect several magazines who have do precious little to justify their existences. I'm not opposed to restructuring funding in principle; but if it's going to be done, let it be done for good reasons--aesthetic reasons and business reasons, evaluated on a case by case basis by people who are knowledgeable in the field--not for the arbitrary reason that a magazine doesn't circulate enough copies for James Moore's liking.