To: James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages
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.
Marilyn Gear Pilling
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: