Reviewed by Eli MacLaren
“Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun”: Canadian Publishing and the Correspondence of Sinclair Ross, 1933–1986. Eds. Jordan Stouck and David Stouck. U of Alberta P, 2010.
This selection of letters presents James Sinclair Ross’s (1908–96) struggle to be an author. The baggy title comprises the complexity of the theme: authorship is somehow both an individual feat or failure (as quixotic as collecting stamps) and a social product determined by circumstances such as the state of a country’s publishing industry. As these letters show in their relentless alternation between hopeful vision and retrospective disappointment, Ross was deeply ambivalent about his accomplishments as a writer and never really enjoyed a close ally in any publisher; yet the critical attention that ensued from McClelland and Stewart’s 1958 republication of As For Me and My House in their New Canadian Library has lodged him firmly in the canon. David and Jordan Stouck have made a fine contribution to Canadian literary history by presenting these archived and privately held documents. A deftly annotated, illustrated supplement to the former’s 2005 biography (As For Sinclair Ross), “Collecting Stamps” plunges us into the mind of a talented artist baffled in his prime by the Canadian book trade and finally unable, as an old man, to agree with his own fame.
Ross exhibited the austere self-reliance typical of those who lived through the Depression, and when it came to his writing this manifested itself in a readiness to blame himself instead of the world. “Not one damned thing stands between my typewriter and a best-selling G.G. winner but me,” he wrote to Margaret Laurence in 1978, rebuffing her second and final attempt to secure him a Canada Council grant (233). With equal adamance he refused Doris Saunders’s 1969 invitation to contribute to a special issue of Mosaic on Prairie writers. “When it’s a Proust or a James or a Kafka exploring the sensibility and creative processes the result is interesting,” he wrote, “but for someone like me – not just a minor writer, but minorissimo – well, I think it would be somewhat pretentious” (124). Upon submitting the manuscript of his third novel, Whir of Gold, to John Gray at Macmillan of Canada in 1966, he extolled it thus: “It is an ugly story and probably a very depressing one. In other words, I don’t want to embarrass you with it” (92–94). There is a tough and lonely dignity in being one’s own harshest critic. There is also the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy: Macmillan rejected Whir of Gold. (Ultimately it was published, by McClelland and Stewart in 1970.)
Notwithstanding the artist’s self-reliance, it is plain that the world deserves blame. Ross might have been a greater author had he received, at age 33, the grant he refused at age 70. Although most of the letters are from the latter half of Ross’s life, a valuable early one is included – his 1941 application for a Guggenheim award, in which he quotes the praise and advice that Reynal and Hitchcock, the small New York publisher of As For Me and My House, accorded him: “It seems to all of us here that you have great promise as a writer, and that if you do not try to push yourself too fast, you have a real future ahead of you” (14). Ross failed to win the award, however, and Reynal and Hitchcock rejected his next manuscript. Jordan Stouck’s concise bio-bibliographical introduction connects these disappointments with the stark move Ross made next: without an equivalent granting agency to turn to in Canada or any real literary publishers either, he spun around and joined the army. Within weeks he was on a train bound for Ottawa, “ready for service in the Second World War” (xiv). Seventeen years would elapse before Ross saw another novel published. Nothing but “me” between typewriter and GG?
Do writers transcend their material circumstances? Every one of them wishes to, and every act of reading feeds the wish, in that it discovers meaning here and now in texts from there or then. “Collecting Stamps” includes letters from many admirers, including Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaeghe, each one attesting to the remarkable popularity of Ross’s writing beyond the Prairie town of its birth. If the canonization of Sinclair Ross is one overall impression left by these letters, however, it is more than matched by another – that of a dying man, whose authorial growth was from the beginning warped and stunted by inclement conditions. Here is career-sized proof of the negative effects that the agency system of book publishing wrought on Canada. From the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1960s, Canadian “publishers” were in fact mostly publisher-agents whose chief business was exclusively to distribute foreign books to the Canadian market. This manifested itself in Ross’s need to be published in the United States. Perhaps nothing demonstrates better how injurious such dependence on the foreign publisher could be than the progress of his second novel, The Well. In the summer of 1955 Ross wrote to John Gray that he had finished it and hoped to see it published in New York. Gray offered to distribute the American edition in Canada (“If it is a case of our buying the American publisher’s copies being a condition of our handling the book we should normally be content to do things that way” ) and recommended the New York literary agent, W.K. Wing. Gray also directed Ross to Maclean’s magazine, who presented him with an infernal offer: they would award him their $5000 novel prize and publish The Well serially, if he slashed it down to 70,000 words and if the final draft appealed to “mass tastes and mass prejudices” (72). Ross refused, but then reconsidered, pounding out a revision that fall. He soon learned to his dismay that the Maclean’s award had gone to a competitor; at the same time Wing, who had initially expressed unqualified praise for the manuscript, now judged it fundamentally flawed and refused to promote it. Gray remorsefully offered to publish it himself, but his readers demanded so many revisions that when at last The Well appeared Ross saw that the conflicting views had irretrievably mangled it: “I realize how changing the ending has thrown it all out of line” (84). If Ross had had less circuitous dealings with a single, bolder publisher, surely he would have been able to execute his artistic vision; as it stood, his second novel left him utterly discouraged.
The cover photograph of “Collecting Stamps” shows an octogenarian Ross in a wheelchair in his retirement home, leafing through Tim Struthers’s anthology, The Possibilities of Story. It is a portrait, as is this entire book, of Icarus in the waves, giving his ruined wings one last look. “A few years ago I was asked what it was like to be an author working in a bank during the depression years: I replied that I never thought of myself as an author working in a bank, but as a bank clerk trying to do a little writing on the side. A farm boy – incredibly ‘backward’ – with Grade XI and responsibilities, I was lucky to have a job. Making my living as a writer was out of the question” (225).
At press time: Eli MacLaren is an assistant professor of Canadian literature at McGill University, on leave until 2013 as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University. He is the author of Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867–1918 (University of Toronto Press, 2011), which explains the origins of the agency system of book publishing. Like Sinclair Ross, he is a Prairie boy transplanted to Montreal.