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Anansi at Fifteen: A Spider's Life

By James Polk
Volume 11 Number 4

House of Anansi Press is fifteen years old this year, a fact which may send geriatric chills through those who thought the sixties were only yesterday and shock those who assume a small press is born but to die. Certainly there was a death-watch tone to the early media reports about the house, the headlines rich in tropes about rough sailing, crumbling supports, walking the tightrope, and mortal throes. Jack McClelland, of another publishing house, is said to have given Anansi eighteen months to live, and who can blame him? It was associated with unloved Rochdale College, bringing out slim volumes of experiments in a sub-arctic basement next to a funeral home. The staff was young and fearful, since the Anansi manual for draft-dodgers had made the press a famed stopping-off point for refugees of all sorts and an object of wire-tapping fascination for the FBI. A mis-print marred the title page of the very first book: House of Ananse Press. How could it last? And yet, Anansi beetled on, with 1981 one of our best years: a Governor-General's Award for an acid rain book, a new novelist, a new poet, a praised book of litcrit, and our healthiest American and foreign sales ever. Perhaps the story of a small press hanging in there is not of itself worthy of wonder, but Anansi's growth seems to me to speak volumes about the past decade and a half, and the incredible culture shift that has taken place in Canada, in writing, and in the uses of money.

When I started at the press in 1972, the very early days had already crystallized into myth, just as revolutions in places like Albania or Estonia immediately get shaped into legend by revisionist historians. Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee could not get published because their work failed to interest American branch-plant publishers, so, over a beer at the old Pilot Tavern (some say it was Grossman's), they forged a new order. The name came from Godfrey, just back from Ghana and CUSO: Anansi is an African spidergod, trickster, and story-teller. In 1967, to be a Canadian press was a political act, and the press's early achievements are revolutionary. Anansi took on American copyright law by sending the States Allen Ginsberg's Airplane Dreams in bulk. It refused, in 1970, to send Time review copies because of the preferential tax treatment given American advertisers. Dave and Dennis may have invented the first instant-issue book with The Bad Trip, which stopped the Spadina Expressway for a time. Anansi pioneered in publishing Quebec books in English and in herding other presses into a group which became the Association of Canadian Publishers. Behind the frontlines, eager underpaid workers put together books destined to become classics in CanLit: books by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Roch Carrier, George Grant. This was the Golden Age, when rebel writer-publishers stood up to the oppressor and invented a national literature.

The legend is true, and yet it wasn't entirely like that. Most of the staff wanted to write, not publish, and they wanted to make money to raise families and eat. The books were underpriced. In the basement, tiny hands got frozen and sensibilities flared. Godfrey left after two years to found New Press, wanting books with a firmer political bias, and then moved on again to found Press Porcepic, to teach at the University of Victoria and to pioneer, again, in the field of computer communications. Dennis stayed four years, and left to become Canada's leading children's poet, an influential critic, and an editor at other houses. Ann and Byron Wall, Americans come up to Rochdale on the underground railway, saved the house from one of its many near-collapses with a substantial fund transfusion, only to be accused of "American takeover" by the fanatics. Arden Ford, the staple of the production department, decided to live in the country instead. Then, in 1971, a warehouse fire destroyed half the stock, and although the literary community rallied nobly with hoses and money, it seemed that even God and the elements were tired of Anansi.

There were larger cross-currents at work. Canadian literary nationalism, a novelty in 1967, was becoming old hat in 1972. Being a Canadian publisher alone wasn't news any more: it is amazing to think that it ever was. Bigger companies, even the Yankee branchplants, were starting to go for Canadian books after being shown the way, especially when the government began to offer grant money for cultivating the native product. On another level, interpersonal relationships at the press were so involved by the summer of 72 that someone suggested we change the name to House of Atreus. The accounts ran crimson with red-ink deficits, and we prayed each night to Hunter Rose, our printer, who were remarkably kind and forebearing. But even the printers have to eat. Dennis, worn down, put the place up for sale]e, to be offered a dollar "for good will" by witty Macmillan's, then the dean of the independent Canadian publishers, itself recently bought by Gage for, one assumes, somewhat more. Anansi was staggering and was expected to fall. Indeed, it seemed as if many wanted it to fold, to justify some grim theory of the arts or national inadequacy. But it didn't. Why not?

One reason was Survival, so aptly titled. Margaret Atwood, conned into doing a teacher's guide to Canadian literature as her civic duty and a bread-and-butter book for the company, was offered as her reward a lot of virtue and a year's membership on the board of directors. She also got a best-seller. This astounded everyone, perhaps because the assemblage of Survival had so many comic opera twists, with the cast finally assembling in a gothic house near Casa Loma in the pits of summer, armed with typewriters and note cards scrawled in Atwood's cuneiform handwriting. Shirley Gibson brought the gin, which helped a lot. Despite some fierce and agonized reviews, the book caught on. Quill & Quire announced it as one of the big ones of the year, though attributing it to New Press: well, who promised us a rose garden? At just this time, it seemed as if the nation at large was beginning to wake up to itself; Canadian studies programs began to be popular, with teachers caught unprepared and requiring material beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town we had that material: Canadian, literary, and teachable To name only one other title Roch Carrier's La Guerre, Yes Sir!, in translation by Sheila Fischman, almost overnight became the book a student first reads to learn about The Other Solitude.

Prestige and sales shot up, and the task of consolidating Anansi's scattered strengths into a workable order fell to Shirley Gibson, who took over the management from Dennis in '72. With an Arts Canada background and a gift for pleasing the media, she gave the place some much-needed class. The books looked better. The office, no longer a basement, looked better. Shirley looked blondely better than most at the committee meetings that had started to ensnare the brightest creative minds of the period. Publishing in English Canada is scarcely its own reward, since the books have to compete with a glossy and aggressively touted American and British product. A third of Canada's population does not willingly read English. A lot don't willingly read. Our huge landmass and ever more bizarre economy bring to the book industry problems that cast into the shade the solution to Rubik's Cube and the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Shirley tried to solve the problems by entering into a co operative sales group, re-pricing the stock, expanding the lists, and escalating promotion. But she was working without a net given our giant debt from the Golden Age and the unexpected, unbelievable skyward zoom of production costs. Toughly and imaginatively, Shirley kept Anansi running, although at times there was a quality to it of Eliza crossing the ice.

I had started at Anansi in '72, reading manuscripts for $3.50 an hour between (I thought) teaching jobs. By rare good luck, my first editing venture was Helen Weinzweig's first novel Passing Ceremony, and I was hooked. So this was why people went into publishing! To converse, with scotch and a blue pencil, about literary form and the right word with a first-rate writing talent. And Helen wasn't the only perk. Soon I was exploring the appeal of ladies in rubber bathing-caps with John Glassco for The Fatal Woman and the mores of the middle class with Rachel Wyatt, the shame of our schools with Loren Lind and the shame of Canada in Vietnam with Charles Taylor, Rabelaisian Trinidad with Harold Ladoo and markedly less Rabelaisian Saskatchewan with David Williams. I went into the sorrows of a Catholic education with Roch Carrier and, in fractured franglais and inconclusively, the ultimate meaning of lust with Hubert Aquin. What a job! Even the supposed chores, the reading of unsolicited manuscripts in the slush-pile, brought forth from time to time a poet like John Thompson, or Don Domanski, or Erin Moure. Somehow I could hear the cash-flow dry to a trickle around me, but that was not my department. Then came that July day in '74 when I arrived at the office to find no money in the postage meter, invoices in sheaves stuffed in the door, and all the rest of the staff home with sinus infections. While I had been doing Art with the writers, the times they had been changing.

Surely some social historian has now explained why the sixties stopped so very dead so quickly. Even by '73, it was strange to see the beaded and bearded appear from the beyond, their women patient behind them in Earth Shoes, papooses, and militant macrame. They showed me poems of grass and spaced cool, by then as relevant as Little Women, and six-hundred-page novels with no punctuation whatsoever, Mr. Polk, and let's smoke up and rap. Since our African name suggests a black-power press, I also got a lot of burn-whitey-burn poems for a time, accompanied by giant dudes from Detroit with knives. They were nice, though. "Relax man," said one, patting my whiter-than-white face, "I can handle rejection, I grew up in the ghetto, baby." Even today, from hidden vales in British Columbia, I get the occasional letter on homemade paper that begins with "hi man" and ends with "peace." But in general, the 1960s got dumped one Thursday afternoon at maybe 3:20, August, '73, without the transitional period allowed most changes of pace and public taste. Suddenly, Canada got serious.

For many writers, Anansi got to be a sin of their youth, and they entered the mainstream. The big houses took them joyfully, they taught creative writing and got the big grants, and a group of them, with flawless timing, formed a writers' union to put the squeeze on us fat-cat publishers It was nice to see writers prosper, though one sometimes wondered. Canadian was not always beautiful. Had we suffered so much only to see the market flooded with salt bucket Maritime humour and thrillers of oil and paranoia? The bookstores turned lean and hungry: smuggling a new poet onto the shelves or getting the last serious novel reviewed was starting to be a terrorist act. "Oh Anansi, is that still going?,' asked otherwise decent people who had not noticed our lists, our awards. Just plain publishing wasn't news anymore, and somehow torching the warehouse for media coverage seemed too deja vu. "Oh, I didn't know Anansi published that./," folks would say as I frothed at the mouth and fell. "Why isn't it at the Coles in my shopping mall?"

In late 1974, Shirley was awarded a grant and a year off for her own writing. Ann Wall, the major share-holder, in and out of Anansi from the beginning, decided that the humane thing to do was sell. Selling out, I should add, was the key theme in mid-seventies publishing; places like Gulf and Western and RCA formed conglomerates. RCA didn't want us, though. As Ann pondered offers of more than a dollar, I dusted off my PhD and wrote off to colleges, only to find that jobs in English departments were another vanished relic of the 60s. Poring over the finances, Ann got bitten by the Anansi bug, although she of all people should have known better. The backlist was great. We had a good reputation. We served a purpose. There was no reason why Anansi shouldn't work. Finally she rejected all the offers and stepped in as managing editor herself.

If Dennis was the visionary, Shirley consolidator, then Ann was and is the realist. Keeping me on for tradition's sake, she fired everybody else. She plugged us into the 80s with new production lines -- no more typesetting by ashrams -- and professional distribution, first from Burns and MacEachern and then from University of Toronto Press with its giant complex of blinking Star Wars computers. A new sales force, Cariad headed by Rex Williams, took over the road work. Ann, now a Canadian citizen-so much for U.S. take-over -- turned out to be a workhorse in the committees who compose briefs to Ottawa, letters to the Secretary of State, proposals for further proposals, the horror, the horror. She saw that publishing in the eighties, even for a small press, has to be light on its feet, fast, computerized, and international. It means a booth at American bookseller conventions, dragging in librarians by brute force to sell Canada. It means finding ways to sneak into the United States and the Commonwealth with the books and selling rights to such as William Morrow and Marian Boyars and McGraw-Hill/New York. It is not a gentleman's profession. The archaic charm of the basement press doesn't contribute much to the bottom line.

Non-fiction sells best in the sharky eighties, and I scout out a lot of good journalistic and critical writing on Canadian issues, as diverse as acid rain, children's law, divorce and welfare, Canadian grammar, or an overview of Atwood, to pay the way for a fine new poet like Kristjana Gunnars, or a "difficult" novelist like Janet Hamilton or David Williams. On the other hand, there's no point to Anansi if we do sleaze quickies on cooking, car repair, or sex (the pornographic Bed Bug Series never got off the ground for lack of quality sleaze). I am often asked by foreign presses what Anansi is like, since a small press elsewhere usually means gestetnered chapbooks with art photos of the poet's girlfriend. I've been told we are the Hogarth Press of Canada, after Virginia Woolf's firm, but Anansi is not nearly as Bloomsbury as all that. David Godine in Boston has been cited as an American counterpart, but their massive catalogue, jammed with expensive art books, makes the comparison pale. I think Anansi is an archetypal quality Canadian press and is most "like" Oberon, Talonbooks, Women's Press, Press Porcepic, Coach House, and a number of other Canadian houses who have found their focus and their limits. We may all specialize in certain genres or themes, but the books are the best going, and we're smart about the business end. As far as I can see, this kind of press does not really exist in other countries, though it may be the kind of press best equipped to survive the ice-age climate to come. Once again, Anansi thought of it first.

Times are tough, but surely the Canadian cultural scene is not as gormless as it was fifteen years ago. The Lee and Godfrey of 1967 could not get published, but their counterparts are offered a wide range of presses from St. John's to Victoria. There's an arts bureaucracy and an assumption that government should and must help. Such was not always the case. Anansi didn't do it all, but it did its bit. Fifteen years old-traditionally the age of puberty, when you have seen the best and the worst, and you know a few things but not a lot, and you kind of have your act together but not entirely, and you itch for what the future will bring. That says it. Not such a bad age for a publishing house to be.

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1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


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