Five years ago, Margaret Atwood reflected on the legacy (nay, survival) of her famous and startling book, Survival, in a special demi-memoir preface to the A-Listed version of the text. At that juncture, her concluding paragraph noted that "it's incredible that the House of Anansi has itself survived for forty-five years, and that it has gone beyond mere survival, and is now thriving." We can think of no better time, five years later and on the verge of our 50th anniversary, to revisit her reflection of working with House of Anansi in those early and trying days. Enjoy.
Survival is a book about surviving. Specifically, it’s a book about Canadian literature as I saw it forty-odd years ago. It’s also about Canada itself as I saw it forty-odd years ago – because one of the axioms of this book is that a literature has something to do with the people who create it, and that the people who create it have something to do with where they live. One of the characteristics of Canada, then, was that not much attention was paid in it to Canadian literature. So the creators of Canadian literature – the writers – were working in a society that, historically and collectively, hadn’t been much interested in them, except for the odd hit writer such as Ralph Connor, Robert W. Service, or A. M. Montgomery. Although there were a few academic studies at the time, there was no account for the general reader, and so infrequently was Canadian literature taught in schools and universities that many people assumed there wasn’t any.
When Survival was published in 1972, it caused an uproar. This was something of a paradox: it’s hard to imagine how a book about something thought either not to exist or not worthy to exist should have stirred things up as it did, and then – annoyingly – should have sold so many copies. But so it was. The raucous though unlikely success of Survival caused me to morph overnight from a lady poet with peculiar hair to the Wicked Witch of the North, accused of evil communism or bourgeois capitalistic sycophancy, though others greeted me as the long-awaited forger of the uncreated conscience of CanLit. I did not think I was either – I believed I was just writing a useful handbook to a little-known subject, a sort of early Idiot’s Guide; but screens onto which images are projected seldom get a say as to the nature of those images, and neither did I.
However, notoriety generates sales, and the House of Anansi Press lived off the avails for many years. Survival arguably saw the House through the near-extinction bottleneck that threatened it in the mid-seventies. In fact, had there been no Survival then, you would probably not be reading Survival now.
If you published a book called Survival today, the reader would expect one of the following:
• A novelization of a popular TV series in which people strenuously eliminate one another.
• A memoir by a person who was molested in childhood, had alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional parents, or escaped from a war zone, sinking passenger ship or natural disaster.
• A handbook for those who think the end of the world is near, and who want to know which roots are edible and how to roast a squirrel. The same handbook might be used for those interested merely in wilderness exploration.
• A fiction about how that very same end of the world is brought about by forces unknown, and/or climate change, and/or plague, natural or manmade, and/or widespread social meltdown caused by any number of things, and leading to warlords, atrocities, mutations, and cannibalism.
Survival stories – especially those about the end of the world – are popular at the moment: we’re in a millennial mood, and not without reason: several of the end-of-the-world scenarios are already more than possible, and much head-scratching and bullet-dodging is being done by way of mitigation or denial.
But forty-five years ago, as the House of Anansi was taking shape, the imaginative landscape was quite different. If we feared annihilation, it was by atomic bomb: the Cuban missile crisis was a mere five years in the past. We were unaware of the fact that a spilled shipload or two of the Agent Orange being transported to Vietnam in massive quantities really could have wiped out humanity, by killing the oceanic algae that produce 80% of the world’s oxygen.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy four years previously had drawn a line under Camelot idealism, but other idealisms were afloat: the Civil Rights Movement was in after-shock mode, the draft dodgers were flooding into Canada, psyche- delic drugs were being hailed as a shortcut to nirvana, and the supposedly liberating sexual free-for-all unleashed by the Pill was gathering momentum. The women’s movement had not yet unfurled, though there were mutterings. The mini-skirt was the fashion of the moment. Quite soon beards and love beads would sprout on hitherto buttoned-down men, and suburban housewives would try out lesbianism because, suddenly, they could, but that had not quite happened, such antics being still confined to a bohemian underworld that was not fully visible in the light of day.
Anansi was begun with the tools at hand, which did not include Xerox machines or instant transmission. There were no personal computers: typewriters and carbon paper were the norm. There were no answering machines. There were no cell phones. Long distance calls were expensive. If you wanted to communicate with someone elsewhere, you wrote a letter. There were no Canadian literary agents of the present kind. Canada thought of itself as a cultural backwater, and first-rate artistic items – books, films, music – were known to come from elsewhere. If you wanted to be serious about writing, back in, say, 1960, it was taken for granted that you had to leave the country.
But by 1967 it had become possible to stay. That was the year the House of Anansi was founded by Dennis Lee, poet, and Dave Godfrey, short-story writer. My own involvement with the House dates from the same year. Much to everyone’s surprise, including mine, my first full-length collection, The Circle Game – published in 1966 by the poet-run Contact Press, with a cover made by me out of Letraset and red stick-on legal dots – had won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. But by the time of the award, the modest print run of 420 copies was gone.
I was standing in Hart House Theatre in Toronto during the intermission of an unremembered play when my old college friend Dennis Lee appeared out of nowhere. He said to me, “We’re starting a publishing company, and we’d like to reprint The Circle Game as one of the first four books we’re doing.”
“How many copies were you thinking of?” I asked.
“Twenty-five hundred,” he said. I thought he was mad. But as it turned out he was onto something, and that something was the growing idealism about the possibilities for Canadian writing among the young writers of that time. The first four Anansi poets each got a grant for $650 – Dennis somehow arranged it – and we rolled the money back into the company in return for shares. (I did not at that time know what a “share” was.) And so, with less than three thousand dollars but a lot of sweat equity, Anansi was born.
In Canada, most of the published younger writers were poets or short story writers, because it was hard to get such a long and expensive thing as a Canadian novel published then – we were told – without the participation of an American or British partner. So Anansi – like the other small publishers that appeared then – was at first a poets’ press. Poetry readings had begun in the coffee houses of the early 60s and had spread to universities, though not yet to bookstores. Literary festivals were in the future. Still, there was a growing readership for Canadian writing.
There was a lot of interest in Canada itself that year. The focus was the world exhibition, Expo 67, held in Montreal over the summer and fall. This was a high point for Canada. After its excellent army record and its respected honest-broker position during World War II, Canada had lost the plot some- what, despite the visionary rhetoric of John Diefenbaker, and Expo 67 was a chance to prove that Canada could get the plot back. Expo showed that Canadians, working together, could pull something off on the international stage, and do it not only with flair, but bilingually.
What a bright future shimmered ahead – illusory, like many things that shimmer. In four years Separatism would be upon us, the women’s movement would be exploding like a water bomb, the West would be on the road to alienation and oil- fuelled power, and cultural regionalism would begin to resent what it would define as centralist cultural nationalism.
Over the same four years, between late 1967 and early 1972, I myself left Montreal, spent two years in Edmonton, published my first novel, wrote my second, published three books of poetry, spent a year in Europe, collaborated on a screenplay, moved back to Toronto, taught at York University, and devel- oped the central argument at the core of Survival.
I kept up with Anansi through all of this by letter – advising on some of the books, editing a couple of others. We poets had the habit of dabbling in one another’s manuscripts, just to be helpful. It was a very informal arrangement. The first time someone suggested to me that I should get paid for this kind of work I was taken aback. Would you charge for helping to push someone’s car out of the snow?
While I was in Europe over 1970-71, Dennis wrote to ask me if I would join Anansi’s board. I didn’t know what a board was, but, perhaps foolishly, I joined it anyway. Then, upon my return to Canada, I found myself taking on most of the poetry list, and several works of fiction. (Anansi was doing fiction by then, having started with Graeme Gibson’s runaway bestseller, Five Legs, which was copyedited by students at the shortly-to- become-notorious Rochdale College.)
Because of my board position, I participated in the regular handwringing and bloodletting angst sessions that substitute for board meetings among small publishers. How to pay the rent? (Not that the premises were palatial.) How to distribute? (We often sold our own books then, in high school gymnasiums, taking cash; credit cards were not yet widely deployed.) How to promote? (We crept around at night, stapling up posters on hoardings and telephone poles.) How to keep the price of books down? (Anansi was a pioneer of the split hardcover/trade paper run.) What to pay employees? (Never enough. Everyone was overworked and underpaid.)
As described in the Preface that follows this demi-memoir, Survival was initially proposed – and then composed at breakneck speed – as a stopgap solution to the rent problem: a grownup version of selling Girl Guide cookies. It would not have occurred to me to write such a book, otherwise.
What does Survival mean for today’s readers, as they ask on radio shows? And – a separate question – what does it mean for me, its long-ago author? Is it a piece of nostalgia, like the photo of me in my Grade Twelve waltz-length formal – sweet, but a little embarrassing? The “Canada” it describes has changed a lot; in fact, it’s changed even since I last wrote a Preface to Survival, back in 2003. For the most part, it hasn’t gotten better.
Survival concludes by asking, “Have we survived?” We have, more or less, though the emotional space we call “Canada” is fraying at the edges and the institutions we thought of as being Canadian are being dismantled as quickly as the busy decon- struction crews of Ottawa elves can dismantle them. On the global stage – a stage where weird weather caused by climate change is in the spotlight – there’s the sense that we’re cling- ing on by our fingernails. Nature as Monster – a trope that preoccupied the writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that therefore features in Survival – is still with us, though we no longer fear that the monster will kill us. Now the situation is reversed: we will kill it, and in doing so seal our own doom, because you are what you breathe, and we and Nature were joined at the hip all along. In the forty years since Survival, the word “survival” has taken on several newer and more ominous levels of meaning. It isn’t dreariness we fear now, as much as irreparable and self-inflicted disaster.
It’s incredible that the House of Anansi has itself survived for forty-five years, and that it has gone beyond mere survival, and is now thriving. I hope it will persist for another forty-five years, and that Canada will persist as well – and that the reading of books will still take place then, and that readers will continue to find such reading an enjoyable and meaningful way to spend time. For if so, the human race will also have survived. And why should it not? Incredible things do happen.
Now for an upbeat ending. While re-reading this little book, I remembered that I had fun writing it – fun in the largest sense of the word. It was strenuous fun, like trying to roll a huge and unwieldy snowball uphill through a red-hot lava flow, but it was fun nevertheless; and fun is never to be sneezed at, especially in Canada.
Thank you, House of Anansi. You made me do it.