What To Do With the Writers’ Union of Canada

June 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured, Book Publishing

About a decade ago, at the end of a particularly stultifying Annual General Meeting of the Writers’ Union of Canada, I suggested to a fairly large group of members that the organization should disband itself.

My suggestion was greeted with stony glares, but I hadn’t made it simply to be a smartass. I’d been thinking about the Union’s growing futility for some time. It was mired at the time in a longstanding wrangle over the need to represent and be represented by minority writers that couldn’t be resolved without abrogating the most fundamental tenets of egalitarian democracy, and it was leaning, it seemed to me, the wrong way on nearly every issue it faced in its attempts to be more inclusive and comforting to the sensitivities of writers who were feeling victimized. I was also wondering why what had been, just a few years before, a prestigious and effective organization that got things done and partied hard, was increasingly being ignored by governments and internally, and internally seemed more interested in dental plans for its members than in human rights, the conditions of culture in a rapidly marketizing world or good writing and excellence in publishing.

It struck me, during that AGM, that the participants were, well, getting long in the tooth. To test this, I made a windscreen survey of the people there, and discovered that there was just one female there in child-bearing condition—and no males with detectable—or relevant—sperm counts. The Writer’s Union of Canada had, to be blunt, gotten old. Its staleness, therefore, wasn’t just accidental: it was turning into the Canadian Authors Association. The CAA, started in 1924, was Canada’s initial organization for writers. But over the years, it had devolved into a group of ascot-wearing pensioners most interested in afternoon gin-and-tonics and giving overly-encouraging advice to career amateurs.

When I thought it all through, these devolutions seemed both logical and natural: most organizations emerge as a response to specific conditions and remain relevant and vital only as long as their issues remain current. The Canadian Authors Association emerged in an era when Canadians who wrote books were the cultural equivalent of unicorns. Canadians who wrote books were either oddball professors or scions of wealthy families who’d decided that a Canadian might just be capable of writing a real book. So they wrote and published some books, usually to overwhelming indifference from Canadian readers. But they persisted, and eventually succeeded in bringing Canadian authors a small degree of prestige, and Canadian books to the edge of cultural consciousness.

The Writers Union of Canada emerged from the consciousness of the 1960s, when a few far-sighted Canadian politicians began to recognize that if Canada was going to remain a sovereign and viable country, we’d have to defend ourselves culturally against the avalanche of American media, and politically against both Soviet and American imperialisms. Thus they set out to create, without much cost or fanfare, the conditions for a confident national identity. They set up subsidies, at first tentatively, to nurture a whole range of indigenous artistic activities, including a publishing industry that would be able to publish more than the Farley Mowats and Hugh McLennans, and do it in the locales in which the new writers lived and worked.

The Writers Union, according to legend, emerged from an Ontario Royal Commission on culture in 1971 that didn’t see any need to talk to any of Canada’s writers.  A few insulted writers—including longtime Dooney’s Café patron Ian Adams, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Atwood and June Callwood, met in a Yorkville bar after Farley Mowat organized them to appear before the Commission, and their barroom grumblings set the stage for what was to become the Writers’ Union of Canada.  The Union was founded formally in Ottawa in November 1973, with Marian Engel as the chair.  The organization’s mandate, whether we now like to admit it or not, was to co-operate with and lobby the (mostly Federal) programs aimed at building a viable national culture. This was no small matter. In the years that followed, the arts were a major contributor in building a politically strong identity for Canada. Canadians gained a self-conscious sense of the country’s worth, a vibrant if sometimes amateurish scene blossomed across the arts, and some very good books were published in Canada by Canadian writers and their Canadian publishers. Until about 1990, both the Union and the federal cultural subsidy programs were, in other words, wildly successful.

The precise point at which the game began to change and the Union’s decline set in was, I think, the 1988 federal election. The lynchpin was the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The Union and its members campaigned vigorously if ultimately unsuccessfully against the Agreement, focusing partly on preventing the Agreement from going forward, but also, and with some success, on getting cultural exemptions enshrined in the proposed Agreement should it go ahead.

Conservative Brian Mulroney won the election when NDP leader Ed Broadbent opportunistically decided it was more important to attack the sincere but slue-footed Liberal leader John Turner—who had traveled around the country listening to enough cultural lobbies that he understood what was truly at issue in the election—than to prevent Mulroney from imposing IMF trade rules and market values on Canada. NAFTA followed, coming into force in 1994, and cultural organizations have been fighting rear guard actions ever since, defending a decaying status quo that wasn’t good enough in the first place.

The Union was a less effective lobby in the NAFTA runup, and seemed not to notice at all when, around the same time, market-modeled Chapters and then Indigo began the WalMarting of Canada’s independent bookstores into oblivion. The Union’s membership had always been overwhelmingly white and middle-class and now came under attack by its few visible-minority members for being insufficiently multicultural. The Union had no answer to the attacks except to squirm uncomfortably and to start membership drives that would attract minority writers. Unfortunately, its membership rolls seemed to swell mainly with childless but sensibly-dressed children’s authors, and I found myself helplessly referring to the Union as the “Writhers’ Union”—and losing interest.

This is not to suggest that the Union has been useless since 1994. It has done excellent work on aspects of copyright and contract law, and on other issues that I confess didn’t capture my imagination. But its organizational psychology has remained constant: it is an organization designed to cooperate with governments on intellectual and artistic expansion in an era where very few governments see any of the things writers do as more than a small and slightly irritating industrial activity connected with entertainment and tourism that would be better left to sink or swim in the currents of the global economy.

Eventually, I found myself muttering about banning polyester leisure suits, instituting mandatory drunkenness at the AGM banquets, and finally, I made the suggestion that the Union might want to disband itself. I ended up disbanding my own active membership instead.

I attended several events at this year’s Writers’ Union AGM, mainly because I was hosting some friends who’d flown out from Northern B.C. to attend.  One of the events I attended was a panel on “The New Realities in Publishing” which featured, longtime editor Anne Collins, Owen Sound bookseller Charlotte Stein, and Michael Tamblyn formerly of BookNet, now Executive Vice President of Content, Sales & Merchandising for Kobo, which is the proprietary electronic reader fronted by Chapters/Indigo.

Collins was charming and articulate about the difficulties book publishers are currently facing without being particularly forthcoming; the likeable Stein, who operates in a town with an area population of about 35-40,000 and has to face competition from Indigo, was extremely candid about the conditions of bookselling (dire), almost pleading for writers to support independents, and she was pointedly clear about how many booksellers we’re losing and what it means. Neither directly mentioned what Gordon Lockheed has called the 800 pound gorilla who sits in on every discussion of literary culture in Canada, and no one in the audience seemed to be aware of its presence. Then Tamblyn got up and slung a plethora of optimistic generalities about the inevitability of electronic readers. Not a single writer present asked a question about how writers incomes will be affected by 10 percent royalties on $3.99 electronic downloads of their books, why the royalty schedule has remained intact even though the overhead ratios have been radically altered, or why the download portals deserve 30-50 percent of the take when all a portal requires to serve the entire continent is a one-room bank of servers somewhere in the U.S. and a PayPal apparatus.

In a brief conversation with a younger writer after the panel, I was asked which aboriginal tribe I was a member of—I suspect because I was wearing a medallion based on a Joe David buquis mask I’ve owned for 35 years, and because my white hair makes me look a little like Chief Dan George. I made a mental note to get a haircut, pointed out my blue eyes to the younger writer, explained that the medallion was designed to ward off childrens’ authors, and got the hell out of there before something worse happened.

But the next night I attended, out of respect, the Margaret Laurence lecture, given this year by founding member Graeme Gibson, a man I respect and like. The lecture went 40 minutes over its scheduled time, and Gibson, as always, managed to be modest and avuncular at the same time about the way we were, but had seemingly little perspective or useful advice for the future. There was supposed to be an hour of drinks and conversation after the lecture, but most of the attendees, already past their bedtimes, scuttled away immediately, and half an hour later only a few dozen diehards were left in the room. Not one of them, as far as I could see, was getting drunk or wanting to party.

So, what to do about the Writers’ Union?

It has become an elderly organization dominated by elderly writers (a perceptive ex-chair complained to me over dinner a few nights after the AGM ended that even though the Union has twice the number of members it had fifteen years ago, the same familiar faces and numbers show for the AGMs) and it has major structural and demographic problems. The Union’s constitution is part of its problem: those who serve on the national executive (particularly those who serve as chair) are given de facto emeritus status, and are, for all intents and purposes, grandfathered and put out to pasture, thus depriving the organization of both its intellectual credibility and prestige and a powerful portion of its natural leadership. The organization, meanwhile, remains loyal to its social democratic (or Trudeau Liberal) origins: almost by instinct it continues to seek liason with government, and distrusts publishers, who it treats as the exploiting class even though a more real danger to its individual members and their incomes lies with the 800 pound gorilla, Amazon.com and other high-discount wholesalers.

There’s a schizophrenia to this: Brian Mulroney’s ghost has writers hoping for the Big Global Score, and they hope against hope for it as they watch individual income and publishing opportunities open to writers dwindle as the collective pie shrinks and the market doors close. They’ve ingested the Koolaid of the Entrepreneurs, in other words.

When I suggested, a decade ago, that the Union disband itself, I’d argued that a new organization for writers would appear within six months, spearheaded by younger writers who could cherry-pick the best of their elders for advice they’d be free to ignore without disrespect. I imagined—or maybe just hoped—that such an organization would be more focused on the conditions of writing as a political and cultural-building activity and less interested, as the young can afford to be, on the welfare of the individual writers. (The Writers’ Trust, meanwhile, with its Woodcock Fund, would be there to bail out those who crash and burn).  I also suggested that writers needed to make an alliance with publishers, who the Union has always treated with distrust, and stop hoping that governments are going to be our friends.

Today, I see things only slightly differently. A decade ago I was just half serious about the Union disbanding itself. Now I’m 75 percent serious. But I’m officially elderly myself these days, so I’m obliged to be wiser and more polite. So here’s my carefully-phrased opinion about what the Writers’ Union of Canada should do with itself:

1.)    The Union needs to conduct an open debate on its constitution, to see where and if its goals are still relevant. The wisdom of pasturing out its leadership ought to be part of that discussion, as should be the tightening (or loosening) of membership requirements.

2.)    In the face of the electronic publishing onslaught, the Union needs to make an alliance with Canada’s book publishers and their associations with a redistribution of royalty incomes and discount structures at the top of the agenda. Gordon Lockheed, here, has suggested a Canadian download portal under the umbrella of the National Library, a schedule of download pricing that isn’t going to bankrupt publishers and/or end the editing of books as we know it, along with a program to format Canadian backlists for electronic sale.  I concur on most of these ideas, even if they’re fairly distant from practical reality as currently understood.

3.)    A wide-ranging and open discussion of the likely future of cultural subsidies needs to be undertaken, and a renewal of arguments for them is a crucial element of that discussion.

4.)    Finally, I think we’ve reached a state of things where the Writers’ Union of Canada needs to become a political organization again, one that vigorously raises and articulates the relationship between free speech, open cultural activity, the education of the public, and the necessary conditions for democracy—before all of these things disappear beneath the stifling blanket of the marketplace and its neoDarwinian fantasies.

2347 words,  June 6th, 2011

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.