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InRe: Jack McClelland (1922-2004)
Cc. Forgetmagazine
from Kent Bruyneel


The news: Jack McClelland is dead. He died at 81 years old.

Now, if I were going to choose the location for him to spend his last days, I'd pick a swimming pool in Florida, and why not? Why not let his story find its end amidst the perfectly clean pool-water, under the iridescent lights of Boca, or Lauderdale, or Tampa? Why not let it be warm all the time in his twilight? Hadn't he earned it?

I invent him there before he slips into the water: his skin is toughened and browned by age and sun, his face has the lines of an aging bible, his smoking fingers are yellow, like old newspapers; but he is still a relentlessly handsome man, who in all manners of his carriage defines the word gravitas. I watch as he evaporates out of that Florida pool until all that remains of him in this the world-proper are the works of the authors he published from all across Canada. He's in Moredecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley; in Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy and Irving Layton; and the myriad others from the books that tumble off my bookshelves in Saskatoon and the stacks that surround your bed in Japan. All the books that would not exist save Jack McClelland.

Yeah, Jack McClelland did enough, far more than one lifetime demanded; and he did it all in and for this sometimes cold, sometimes fractured country. Why should he have to endure Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg anymore? Let his life pass before his eyes in warmth, let it roll by like the stories one finds in the books he championed. I imagine him thinking about a story he published or didn't; it all still matters so much to him. But, then, I let time fall apart slowly & comfortably around him, like a book in water, and let him end like a great novel: with nothing left to see or say. I make him all this for me too, you know that right? I make him as something to stand against, to be bold like, to live up to. I invent him like his books invented us, in almost exactly the same way.

He was not the McClelland from the McClelland & Stewart publishing concern. His father started the business, but it was the younger John McClelland who made it The Canadian Publishers. It was also the younger McClelland who made something more ethereal than money & books: he, more than any one person, is responsible for there being a "Canadian Literature" at all. He did so by recognizing that the works of Canadians deserved to be read by Canadians and committing unwaveringly to facilitating that.

(You could look at it another way too. There is a legitimate question as to whether it is McClelland and his initial flame, or the writers that gathered around him like moths, who deserve the bulk of the credit for the birth of CanLit—the fact that McClelland merely recognized and capitalized on the works of say, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat, may seem a devastatingly minor contribution compared to the work itself. But there can be no argument that McClelland ignited and became that flame for CanLit. And that the bulk of the credit has properly gone to the authors, the moths, who no doubt deserve their share, but surely not all because, well: no flame, no moths. Dig?)

He has stated that nearly 50% of the books he published lost money, but he saw this as his responsibility: the price he paid for prestige, and success in a non-fiscal sense. He invented this category for Canadian publishing by acknowledging its existence: that the prestige and success garnered by publishing this Canadian author or that would be sufficient to consistently lose money on his or her work was a foreign notion before McClelland. Imagine this idea in the context of the modern publishing business (and in the face of the notion, certainly more alive in 1967 than now, that Canada should skulk about the world averagely and go about its art in modesty and reverence to other, more important, producers): that Canadian authors & books were important enough to lose money on, that they had to be published despite the costs. His famous maxim, "authors not books" is as purely Canadian a notion as you will find in the publishing business, and to me says a lot about what Canadian literature is. If that seems facile and obvious (it is), then the process of getting that work of those authors in books to the readers spread across this country is difficult, challenging and nearly impossible (from a logistical sense). So, in some ways it is not only the writing that defines "Canadian Literature" but the marketing and selling; the publishing that makes those insufficient labels, justifiable critiques and inevitable comparisons that rally against any unified notion of "Canadian Literature" even possible. Therefore, maybe it is mostly McClelland's genius for marketing that should be celebrated. Fair enough then, let us celebrate it: these authors, these books, and this culture needed his unique form of harangue, as do the authors, books and culture of today and tomorrow. That is at least part of what publishing is about. I would, however, argue that publishing is about conviction & commitment at least as much as selling, and that that is what we should celebrate in this man: his unwavering belief in the talents of Canadian writers.

If it is at all so that my piss and vinegar resembles Mr. McClelland's (link), I hope it is manifest mostly in the ability to communicate enthusiasm (that's what piss and vinegar is, right? enthusiasm anchored by conviction) to writers & readers; to cultivate that enthusiasm—with a curiosity that leaps always into new directions, is easily led, if not easily convinced— for writers & writing and readers & reading. And to care about them all, and about publishing. And, importantly, to know that all publishing decisions are not as simple as a matter of an individual's particular personal taste, lest they be ascribed to the capriciousness of any one person. McClelland's authors were so disparate and dissimilar, the only things to truly connect them were their talent, their publisher and their nationality. And it was definitely not about Jack McClelland. See this on his decision as to whether to publish Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers:

You are nice chap Leonard, and it's lovely knowing you. All I have to decide now is whether I love you enough to want to spend the rest of my days in jail because of you and even though I don't understand your goddamn book, I do congratulate you. It's a wild and incredible effort. (James King, Jack, P.157)

The answer of course was: Yes, he did love him that much. Or at least understood the value in offering that work to the general public, despite his own hesitations. Respect. I don't understand your goddamn book. But I will go to the wall for it anyway.

And so, on this normal Tuesday, with world spinning on and on like nothing at all is different, we Canadians who care about our identity—as loaded and as a maligned as the phrase Canadian identity has become (the folks at The Walrus won't even touch it for two dollars a word)—should bow and nod our heads in appreciation of this man.

So head bowed, here is to an enduring commitment something like his; and to the well-travelled path between Jack McClelland and us; and to a continual beating back of the bushes on that path he so adroitly carved.


PS—One of the great regrets of my life, Miki, will be never having met Jack McClelland. What do you think we would have talked about? You think he would have liked Forget? Grain? You think he would have maybe seen, in me, the makings of a spark? Do you think he could have listened to me tell him how every night I can stay up all night and do this, like him, because it feels as natural as breathing, without smiling like he knew what I meant? Do you think I could have properly and modestly explained to him how I am unafraid, made even more bold by company and experience, by his legacy? Could he have seen me full of ideas and directions and the names for things that do not yet exist but will soon and seen, maybe, something familiar? Could he see that we shared in the knowledge that publishing can be like saving people? Do you think one room could have held us both? Do you think I could have told him subtly what it was to edit someone as talented and as gracious as Yann Martel? And do you think he would have said confidently, "yeah, I know exactly what that is like"? Do you think he would have understood why I put in all this/that time for nothing? Do you think he'd think we are inventing things too?

Kent Bruyneel was born for this.






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