Howard White


Address to the Canadian Authors Association, Victoria, June 19, 1993

When Frank Wade faxed up the program for today's events my 15-year-old son glanced it over and said, Oh-Oh, they mentioned Leacock, you're in trouble again.

My family you see, has always regarded my winning of an award for humour as one of the great miscarriages of justice of the 20th century, and are very understanding about the difficulties I have living up to the expectations it invariably creates.

If I had stopped for a minute to think about what the Leacock medal would do to my life, I don't think I would have let them give it to me. I can't take a flat tire into the local gas station anymore but everybody downs tools waiting for the kneeslapper of the year. It would be a great opportunity for somebody who was actually funny, but it's torture for someone whose nickname in school was "The Professor."

But I am honoured to be here, don't get me wrong. If you knew the kind of background I come from you'd realize what a triumph it is for me just to be in a room with 300 librarians and be allowed to stay.

I grew up in a logging camp. I always feel I have to make that clear at the outset, so people can adjust their expectations.

You've heard of one-horse towns. Ours was a one-book camp.

We owned it and until the age of twelve it was the only book I'd ever seen. It was called The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. My parents weren't religious, but their parents had been religious enough to do for the next three generations and my mother inherited when Gramma Carmichael died. Gramma Carmichael owned a large farm on Sumas prairie mostly by virtue of the fact she made all her kids quit school early and work like slaves. A lot of people in her place would have been tempted to will the farm her kids when she died, but Gramma was a woman of rare principal so she willed it to Phil Gaglardi's radio bible program. Instead of the farm we got The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. It was an act of generosity in her way of thinking because that farm was worth a lot of money and who knows what kind of sinful ways it might have led us into. And there was no way around it, The Great Controversy a pretty impressive book. A monster it was, all tooled leather and gilt edging. It held a place of prominence in our cookhouse for years. Everybody who came by ended up hauling it down at one time or another because it was the only thing in camp which wasn't directly connected to getting logs in the water. They would open it too, but just to admire the psychedelic marbelling on the endpapers. They knew better than to try reading it. I tried a couple of times but it made as much sense to me as Egyptian hieroglyphics. Dad used to refer to it bitterly as the hundred-thousand-dollar book, and it was regarded with uniform hatred by our entire family. Even the men in the crew joined in deriding it, I guess because they thought if Dad had inherited the million instead of Gaglardi he would have been able to afford some new chokers and put up a bit better grub. For a long time I thought it really was worth $100 thousand and it was years before I realized the full weight of my father's bitterness. To me the most interesting thing about that book was it had an actual bookworm in it which was diligently honeycombing the leather spine. It must have been lonely work. I'm sure he was the only bookworm of any kind in that part of the country.

I've often thought of that book and tried to figure out what part it could of played in my turning into one of the province's great waster of trees and ink, but I haven't been able to come up with anything better than to say, from some of the stoniest ground sometimes springs the most surprising--if a little twisted--growth.

When I think back over my involvement with books in BC, I think that image could apply to the world of BC books as a whole. Back in the sixties, when I decided I wanted to write about my home territory up the coast, I didn't get a typewriter, I got a bulldozer. Then I cleared a piece of land and built a building. Then I bought an antique press which had been first used by the Vancouver Sun and learned how to run it. Then I sat down started writing. In those days it was the only way to do it. There was no BC book scene so we had to create our own.

So it did my heart good this past year to pick up the Report On Business and discover Toronto journalist Val Ross writing about what she perceived as the booming book publishing industry on the west coast. It became a bit of a story in the national media, with long items on CBC and in Quill and Quire marvelling at how robust the world of books was out in that formerly barbaric province on the wrong side of the Rockies. Now we're hosting the CAA and next week it's the CBA. It's all a bit overwhelming.

Now as far as this boom thing goes, the fact is our boom finished up sometime back in the eighties. Went from $50,000 in gross revenues to 15 million practically overnight. Since then things have been in kind of a holding pattern. But depending on your expectations, I guess you could find yourself astonished that there is any literary activity at all out here among all the salal and salmonberries...

We're a bit like that ourselves. The review media here in BC, such as it is, is also under this impression that BC book production has been subject to rampant growth of late, but whereas Ross viewed this alleged fact with surprise and delight, our own press views it with a kind of weary resignation, like a kid brother who finally learned how to talk and now won't shut up. I had a book editor fuming that BC publishers must have produced 300 books last year, which to him seemed such an obscene excess as to justify every bit of disdain and neglect his large daily paper had shown BC books in that year. In fact he underestimated--BC writers and publishers had combined to produce over 400 books, but even at that accounted for only 4.2% of the new titles published in Canada. If we had produced our proper share, we would have put out 1200 books and what would the book editor have said then? And that is just our share of the Canadian titles, which as everyone knows is only 1/5 of all the books sold. So if we really producing books at the rate British or American writers do, we would have treated that poor book editor to 6000 review copies instead of 400. What would he say then? What would Val Ross say? Obviously they would consider such a possibility unthinkable. Yet, this level of book production is no more than most advanced western nations take for granted.

What this indicates to me is that in a very important way the shapers of public opinion, and politicians who take their lead from those opinions, have given up on the idea of Canada ever having a degree of control over its own culture which is simply seen as normal in most independent developed nations. They are no longer troubled by a Canadian movie industry which claims less than one percent of total movie sales in its own borders. In this province we have a culture minister in a supposedly progressive government who says she doesn't want to draw a line between Canadian and US productions when it comes to providing aid. We have a federal culture minister who sends proposals for propping up the Canadian book industry to Washington to be vetted by American trade officials before sending them to cabinet, and allows the Americans to veto them. The results of this kind of thinking are in the news every day--cuts to PLR, cuts to the CBC, abolition of Writers in Residence, abolition of National Book Week, an overall fifty percent reduction in constant-dollar support to the arts during the term of the Mulroney government.

Many might say, what do you expect from politicians, but the saddest fact of all is that there is virtually no outcry from the arts community when these things happen, the way there was in 1968 when McGraw-Hill took over Ryerson.

The problem is that I think a lot of us feel we have already done it. We justified the need for Canadian culture once, in the '70s and we shouldn't have to do it again. This would be a reasonable position if anybody out there was keeping track. Unfortunately, we live in the era of the two-week memory span, and principles that matter have to be repeated as regularly as Pepsi commercials or they lose their potency.

I hate to weigh our celebration down with doom and gloom, but it's time for those who feel a strong Canada is impossible without a strong Canadian culture to take the gloves off once more. The Czech playwright Vaclav Havel has said modern governments will pay a higher price for their neglect of culture than for any other shortcoming, and he proved it by taken down the Soviet empire with nothing but a sharp pencil. Political and economic strength can only be built on cultural strength. This is the lesson our leaders have forgotten, and it is up to people who understand that lesson, like those of us here tonight, to force our leaders to relearn it.

Thank you.