Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century

Clarence Karr

In describing the turn-of-the-century decades as "the golden age of hardcover fiction" in North America (p. 220), Clarence Karr expresses surprise that the leading Canadian authors of the period have not only been overlooked by Canadian literary critics but generally dismissed from serious scholarly consideration. For him, this is a travesty of literary justice that has been allowed to continue far too long. Popular fiction is enjoyable in itself, Karr asserts; indeed, he reads it enthusiastically. So strong is his admiration and so sharp his sense of its neglect that he has set himself the task in Authors and Audiences of "legitimiz[ing] the academic study of the popular" (p. viii) in Canada. Part of that process is to provide "a cultural history set within this framework of the international history of the book" (p. ix). The task is a daunting one.

The result is mixed - half full and yet half empty. As a student of the burgeoning North American publishing business as it affected Canadian-born authors and as a historian armed with plentiful, often fascinating data, Karr has succeeded in his efforts. He brings the period and the careers of his chosen authors alive in several ways not seen before, except perhaps in a couple of cases. As a literary critic, however, he brings far too little to the table; he disappoints both in his attempts at literary analysis and in his redundant uses of his material. That the book is so poorly edited and marked by far too many typographical lapses adds to the frustration already noted.

Writing as an intellectual historian, and taking his cue from Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, Simon Eliot, and others, Karr sets out to "investigate more fully the world of authorship, publishing, and reading" (p. x). In the process, he seeks a modest reconstruction of Canadian literary history, correcting the oversights and the egregious abuse of a group of the elitist, urban, male critics who first established the Canadian canon. It was scornful, high-brow critics such as J.D. Logan, Desmond Pacey, Frank Scott, and, more recently, W.H. Keith who deliberately overlooked, or (in Keith's case) continue to overlook, the merits and strengths of writers such as Ralph Connor (1860-1937), Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942), Robert J. C. Stead (1880-1959), Nellie McClung (1873-1951), and Arthur Stringer (1874-1950). These five comprise Karr's roster of the neglected. They interest him because, as writers, they were successful in the turn-of-the-century North American marketplace and because their work engaged in issues that can be seen as "the cutting edge of modernity" (p. x). They may not have criticized the modern, Karr notes, but they paid attention to it in ways with which their readers could identify. When Nellie McClung succinctly observed that "a bottle of hand lotion may save a soul" (p. 117), a critical reader is certainly right to look for more perspective than either the character or the author is able to provide. Karr's argument is that the five authors sought to help their readers adapt to the many changes affecting their experience of the new consumer society and its trappings. The problem is that probing cultural analysis goes missing in the process of establishing that declaration.

Karr seems weakly informed about the dynamics of canon-making. As well, he appears uncertain as to whether or not attention to contemporary issues in a writer's work can in itself establish an ample ground of literary merit. The question of inclusion in the canon is at any time a matter of debate and readjustment, and in Canada that battleground has never been secure. While in the early decades of the twentieth century highbrow critics did their best to project an air of command, they were fighting their own battles of taste and unexamined standards. Moreover, it has been common over the past half-century for literary critics to attack certain of the canon's bland assumptions, making a case and place for overlooked writing by women on the one hand or neglected subgenres of popular fiction on the other. Karr's study is a part of this latter process, but what is surprising is that, as an intellectual historian, he seems to see the exercise as almost new.

Also surprising is the narrowness of his coverage. Although five authors are in themselves a large undertaking for a book of this kind, there are too many missing authors to give the literary historian a sustaining confidence in Karr's perspective and, hence, his coverage. Where, we might ask, are the likes of Marshall Saunders (1861-1947) and Gilbert Parker (1862-1942)? They don't fit because, we are told, they were less concerned with the impact of social change than Connor and McClung. Where are more complex and, to contemporary readers, more compelling popular writers like Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922), Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), and Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961)? Karr offers no answer except to suggest that Leacock's relevance as an interpreter of the clash with modernity is limited. Yet Duncan, who wrote so illuminatingly of that clash, is mentioned in only one footnote. Karr instead is content with his fivesome. They played the popular game so well, he argues, that they have paid a grievous price ever since.

How is the received picture of Canadian letters handled by Karr? Though social and cultural "context" is his particular forte, his command of the dynamics of Canadian literary history and his capacity to grasp what passes for merit and skill among literary critics appear limited. The fact is that several of his chosen authors, notably McClung and Montgomery, have received considerable scholarly attention as vanguard women writers in recent years. Robert Stead and Arthur Stringer have been positioned and reassessed by scholars of Western Canadian literature such as Laurie Ricou and Dick Harrison. Surprisingly, however, those important studies are not mentioned. As well, despite Karr's concern, Ralph Connor's "Glengerry" novels, like Montgomery's "Anne" novels, continue to attract regional and historical interest and are included in at least a few current university courses across Canada.

At the same time, despite his enthusiasm for his popular quintet, Karr cannot evade the recognition of basic problems with the texts he seeks to redeem. Sounding at times all too much like the kind of highbrow literary critic he skewers, Karr admits that Nellie McClung's novels have a "Sunday school ambience" (p. 112) about them and that her heroine, Pearlie Watson, seems "too good, too perfect" for her age. Plots are deemed too melodramatic or overly conventional. Happy and uplifting endings are ruefully acknowledged. Karr quotes a grateful Connor reader who praised the author for his ability to present "the beauty of just being good" (p. 87); to another admirer, his novels were "better than medicine" (p. 89).

But such concerns should not be allowed to obscure the substantial merits of this book. While Authors and Audiences has evident weaknesses, it is foremost a study that gathers together and makes available a great deal of important material about the book trade and its remarkable expansion in this "golden age" of publishing in North America. It is in gathering this data that the study excels and it is for this reason, evident in so many ways, that the book will serve as a valuable resource for future students. Karr documents the evolving conditions of "the modern" in Canada (focusing on consumerism, liberalism, mass market advertising, urbanization, and materialism); he offers a striking amount of primary research into the literary and commercial struggles of his authors; he investigates the cross-border book-trade traffic that was necessary for any substantial degree of popular success for a Canadian writer; and he examines the five individual careers from many useful perspectives. In addition to a chapter on each writer, he offers specific analyses of their respective interactions with advisors, agents, publishers, filmmakers, and ordinary readers. The information on literary agents and early film entrepreneurs is new and particularly interesting.

The resulting record is a treasure trove of detail for the reader eager to understand both the conditions of cultural production in the pre-First World War years and the ups and downs of the individual careers of the chosen five. Indeed, in this comparative sense the juxtaposition of the five has many advantages. It is, overall, a considerable service to document in a positive and favourable manner the careers and the individual novels of these often-overlooked writers. Such is particularly the case with Arthur Stringer, whose long writing life and range of fictional subjects (Prairie life, modern marriage and divorce, and crime fiction) have been forgotten by all but Western scholars. At the same time, given Karr's emphasis on the changing conditions of the publishing business, he has time to consider only a few novels by each of his writers. But perhaps, given the repetitive and predictable nature of many of these books, this limit is a blessing.

Karr's thesis is that his five chosen writers earned large popular audiences as a result of improved means of book production, publicity, and distribution that utterly changed the book business in the late nineteenth century. It is the book business itself that rises above and effectively dominates the five individual narratives in Authors and Audiences, though Karr plays out a personal engagement with each of his chosen authors. They make up the warp to the book business's woof. In his view, they not only deserved the audiences they won (Connor's sales figures for his first two books remain a stunning success) but also, as writers, they helped to create the new markets of "the golden age" in which they prospered, at least for a time. Different as they were individually and only partially understanding the forces in which they were working, they spoke to their readers in positive and emotional ways; they offered hope and spiritual direction to readers in an age where so much seemed to be in flux and in question. The message was a kind one, in no sense matching the force and momentum of the medium in which they practised.



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