Literature, recent

How Ideologues Captured the Canadian Publishing Industry

In 2016, when I enrolled in the Master of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver, B.C. campus, I had expected to find an industry of like-minded professionals who shared my love of the written word. And I did indeed meet many such colleagues. But I also got a glimpse into an industry that has become politicized to an extent that I scarcely could have imagined.

Publishing is not a career one chooses for the money. Nearly all areas of the industry are suffering economically. But since embarking on this course of study, I’ve found myself confronting challenges that have nothing to do with money. Regular Quillette readers will be aware that political and ideological forces have constrained the range of acceptable content in artistically and academically rarified fields such as creative writing (including poetry), media studies, music and performance art. What might be less appreciated is the manner by which these same forces are exerting pressure on the more mainstream area of publishing.

At Simon Fraser University (SFU), the MPub degree (as it’s commonly known) graduated its first class in 1995. Although the program was created within the university system, it was designed to operate at arm’s length from standard academic operations, and instead was structured as a guided exercise in professional immersion. During its early years, MPub program leaders not only looked to industry leaders for guidance, but also for funding. Publishers contributed financially to the program (as some still do); and, in exchange, used the program as a recruiting ground for new hires. The MPub web site boasts that it is “the only program in Canada to offer a postgraduate degree in publishing, and is the country’s premier training ground for publishing professionals.”

The publishing classes in those first years—largely book- and magazine-oriented project-simulation courses—were taught by industry veterans, some of whom had worked in publishing for decades without having obtained even an undergraduate degree. In keeping with the department’s pragmatic mandate, actual experience was valued at least as much as academic credentials.

After the founder and original department head retired, however, the MPub program turned away from a primarily industry-based approach, and is now run by staff and faculty—about half of whom are program alumni—mostly drawn from academia. Their influence is on clear display in the seminar classes, whose content struck me as being largely unrelated to any practical aspect of publishing, and instead seems designed to indoctrinate students in avant-garde theories of feminism, intersectionality and activism. Conversations in these classes frequently centred on the allegedly “ruinous” state of the Canadian literary scene (aka “CanLit”), a state of ruination that was traced specifically to the white male authors and staff who, we were told, dominate the industry for their own benefit. (This seemed strange to me since the MPub program itself is dominated by women. My own cohort, for instance, was 100% female. The banner photo on the program’s site suggests this imbalance isn’t unusual.)

In a 2018 Globe & Mail column, “CanLit Isn’t What It Used to Be,” critic Russell Smith noted that “humanities departments see themselves increasingly as having a revolutionary social-justice role that is just as important as—even inseparable from—their educational mandate.” Smith also noted that one of the reasons why CanLit has become so suffused with social-justice orthodoxy is that many writers can’t make a living on the basis of their published work, so they take jobs within bureaucratized (and often ideologically monolithic) universities, where faculty-lounge groupthink leaches into scholarship and art. My experience in the MPub program would seem to exemplify this trend.

One of the courses I took during my second semester required the submission of two essays, the second of which I wrote about the then-developing trend whereby non-fiction authors established podcasting platforms as a means of connecting with audiences while scaling up critical discourse. I drew on Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson as two cases studies.

When I initially met with my professor to discuss the scope and direction of my essay, he told me that he was not aware of Peterson or his work. Later, when prefacing his feedback on my essay, he declared “Oh, that Jordan Peterson,” followed by disparaging comments about Peterson’s Twitter feed. I was then specifically warned off writing “about personal pronouns,” or else “we’d be here a long time.” I had to remind myself that my essay was ostensibly about leveraging one medium (podcasts) to complement another (published books), and had nothing to do with ideology. The professor explained to me that another scholar, who recently had participated in a panel debate with Peterson on academic freedom and the use of gendered pronouns, had been his own PhD supervisor at the University of British Columbia. It seemed very important that I understand the extent of this person’s disapproval of Jordan Peterson and the ideas he stood for.

I should note that this professor had been brought in to evaluate my previously submitted essay for the course—after another professor, who’d originally been assigned to mark it, had signaled ideological disagreement with my premises. That essay explored the contemporary publishing industry’s fixation on pre-empting complaints about offensive content through the use of “sensitivity readers.” I also discussed the controversial Milo Yiannopoulos book deal with Simon & Schuster, news of which had just broken (this was late 2016).

Sensitivity readers are consultants who, in theory, possesses expertise in regard to certain communities—people of colour, gay, trans, disabled individuals, etc.—and thus (again, in theory) can provide publishers and authors with valuable insight regarding the treatment of such groups in book manuscripts. In my essay, I described how skeptics of this practice, such as best-selling author Lionel Shriver, have been met with criticism—including the backlash that followed Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

A recent article from The Guardian describes how manuscripts sent to sensitivity readers are vetted for “stereotypes, biases and problematic language,” with some sensitivity readers, such as Dhonielle Clayton, going so far as to highlight “everything from micro-word choices and phrases, to bigger meta-narrative and structure elements.” In my years as an English major, I had never heard of so-called “micro-words.” My suspicion—to which I gave voice in my essay—is that such terms may operate as pretexts for the prosecution of ideological grievances through the editorial process.

To bookend this portion of my essay, I asked whether “the publishing industry [is] responsible for the potential offense experienced by readers of a text?” and whether “this level of moral judgment [can] be fairly extended to fiction, where characters and many settings are made up by authors?” My professors disagreed—not only with the positions I took, but in fact with the validity of even asking these questions.

As part of the feedback process, I was told that MPub students should be striving toward a “higher level of social conscience: one where we don’t just ask what the publisher’s responsibility is to hold itself to account, but rather where our collective responsibility as a society is to hold the publisher to account.” My own view is that publishers should operate with their customer in mind. But my professors repeatedly emphasized the manner by which such a mindset could hurt the “collective.” In one feedback note, I was told that “appealing to ‘market logic’ or ‘business decisions,’ or any other facade is to do an injustice to our future.” The word “diversity” was flung about liberally.

The Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing, which is the research arm of SFU’s publishing department, has a research objective labelled “Publishing as Social Change.” The two key questions posed, “How can publishers contribute to advancing and supporting social change?” and “What issues and considerations must be addressed in order to create a publishing industry that is fair, inclusive, and accountable?” serve to parrot the above feedback from my professor. Thus, the activist bent of the program is rooted not only in lectures and seminar discussions, but also is baked into the department’s research mandate.

(Last year, independent publisher BookThug released Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, a collection of essays co-edited by MPub Assistant Professor Hannah McGregor that purports to lay bare “the accepted injustices” that define CanLit. SFU’s publishing department publicly promotes the book as one of three “recent projects focussing on publishing from a social change perspective.” Strangely, it would seem that the same program that markets itself as “the country’s premier training ground for publishing professionals” is also taking the position that this same industry is so plagued by injustices as to now lie in a state of “ruins.”)

SFU’s MPub program is just one tiny slice of the Canadian academic landscape. And it employs just a handful of academics in a boutique department. But out of this small operation comes many of the professionals who staff a wide range of positions within a culturally influential industry. Examine the mission statements or taglines from Canadian independent publishers, and you find specimens such as “Canadian indie literary press committed to publishing contemporary & diverse voices” and “Publishing dynamic new voices in #CanLit, #poetry, #fiction. Collaborative, inviting, diverse & vital community of #literary #writers & readers.” As in my courses, “diversity” is the word that comes up most commonly. But as you might guess, that doesn’t mean a diversity of actual ideas or perspectives.

Canadian book publishers receive a significant amount of government funding every year. A primary source comes in the form of grants issued by the Canada Council for the Arts, a federal Crown Corporation whose mandate is “to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.” The organization reports to Canadian Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage, as well as through the submission of regular reports to various departments, which include action plans and updates in regard to program requirements mandated by the Official Languages Act, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, the Employment Equity Act and so on.

Curious about what it takes to get Canada Council funding, I read through a preview version of the latest Program Guidelines and Application Form for the funding stream designated as “Supporting Artistic Practice.” Eligible book publishers can be awarded up to $250,000 per year, and eligible literary magazines receive up to $120,000—in both cases, “toward activities that develop and promote Canadian literary writers through the publishing process.”

A major component of the assessment, comprising 30% of the total score, pertains to the expected “impact” of a publisher’s output. To score high in this category, publishers must demonstrate that their publishing programs contribute to the advancement of Canadian literature. They also must demonstrate “a commitment to reflecting—through [their] editorial choices, organizational make-up and development of [their] readership—the diversity of Canada, particularly with regards to the inclusion of Aboriginal Peoples, culturally diverse groups, people who are Deaf or have disabilities, and official language minority communities.” Moreover, publishers receiving Canada Council funding should demonstrate “a commitment to advancing gender parity” (an odd point given that, according to the industry data I’ve seen, almost 80% of publishing staff are women).

There are a small number of large Canadian publishers that produce mass market books, and would survive without government funding. But the majority of publishers in Canada are small. Especially in the case of those publishers specializing in poetry and literary fiction, government subsidies represent the lion’s share of income. Indeed, the revenue streams these publishers get from the Canada Council and its provincial counterparts often dwarf actual sales revenue. And so I cannot just blame the academy for what has happened to this industry: A tendency toward social-justice groupthink and bureaucratically imposed notions of diversity has been baked directly into the defined funding requirements that keep most Canadian publishers solvent.

This trend is not isolated to Canada. And even those companies that don’t rely on government funding are imposing their own litmus tests, as the British offices of Penguin Random House demonstrated when a company official declared recently that “we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.” Never one to shy away from a fight on these issues, the aforementioned Lionel Shriver noted in the Spectator: “Literary excellence will [now] be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes.” Shortly after Shriver published her thoughts on the issue (which I believe are widely shared, even if few have the courage to signal their agreement publicly), the British literary magazine Mslexia rescinded an invitation for her to judge a writing contest.

In some cases, writers whose voices are deemed to be marginalized according to official quota keepers are themselves faced with scrutiny or even backlash if their views are deemed controversial by some members of their own community. Most of the same Canadian publishers who claim they want to recruit more writers of colour, for instance, would be horrified if one of their editors signed up a black writer arguing for, say, smaller government, or an outspoken female writer who attends pro-life demonstrations. Ditto a trans writer who wanted to make the case against stricter hate-speech laws.

Yasmine Mohammed is an Arab-Canadian college instructor, activist and writer who grew up in a fundamentalist Islamic household. Her unpublished memoir—titled From Al-Qaeda to Atheism—is about her upbringing, her forced marriage to a member of al-Qaeda, and her eventual escape with her daughter. Two years ago, Mohammed began submitting her manuscript to publishers and literary agents—totalling over 100 submissions to date.

Mohammed has over 100,000 followers on her combined social media platforms, and has written for national newspapers. Videos featuring her interview on the popular Rubin Report podcast have been viewed over 250,000 times, and her commentary has been featured in media outlets around the world. Mohammed also comes with a glowing recommendation from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a best-selling Somali-born activist who founded a US-based non-profit that leads programs to protect women and promote reform in the Muslim world. All of this makes her orders of magnitude better known than your average Canadian first-time book author. But as of this writing, she still can’t find a Canadian publisher. One agent, I am informed, said he “doesn’t want to be bothered” dealing with a new author writing on “a controversial topic.”

“I do not think there is [actual] diversity,” Mohammed told me during a recent email exchange. “I think the publishing industry is interested in many different coloured people all regurgitating the same approved narratives…books [like Muslim Girl by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, which tell] of how America is so Islamophobic and how [Al-Khatahtbeh] is so oppressed by the American people, and her book is a best-seller. That is the popular, self-flagellating rhetoric that is eagerly published.”

There are many reasons why an author may have his or her manuscript rejected, so it’s impossible to prove that Mohammed has fallen victim to ideological blackballing. But many Canadian publishers produce books that sell, on average, only a few hundred—or even a few dozen—copies. So it’s conceivable, if not likely, that From Al-Qaeda to Atheism would sell more copies in a month than many of these publishers’ entire catalogues sell in a year. Yasmine has recently been taken on by the London-based literary and talent agency Peters Fraser + Dunlop. But the fact that no one in Canada has picked up her book strikes me as suspect, at the very least.

Public subsidies have been part of Canadian cultural life for decades, because it was thought that without them, our publishing, performance, and broadcast industries would be swamped by American cultural imports. But it has now become clear that the cure is worse than the disease—for these policies now serve to enforce a faux-diversity that systematically drives grant-seeking publishers to embrace the same material year after year in what Shriver accurately describes as ticking “crap-education boxes.”

In a recently published report on Canadian publishing, we can see where this leads: Canadian-authored books now represent just 15% of Canadian book purchases. Independent Canadian publishers’ sales are down by 44% across the board over the last 10 years. While the latter statistic might be explained by a general decline in reading, the former stat is sobering: Canadians aren’t buying Canadian books.

“Market logic” and “business decisions” may be four-letter words in the halls of SFU’s MPub program. But I would guess that ordinary consumers would do a much better job picking what gets published than Canadian bureaucrats and the publishers who take their money. If public funding is to be directed at the book industry, let it be spent on publishing and celebrating ideas—not campaigns aimed at suppressing them.

Tara Nykyforiak is a freelance writer and occasional poet. She is the author of the children’s book Canadian Air and Flight Technology, and is a contributor to the Daughters of Feminism anthology. You can follow her on Twitter @TCbytheriver.

Featured image: A 1965-era printing press, photographed in Groningen, Netherlands.


  1. Lady Amelia says

    an interesting read, and the “they only want diversity of output, not of origination” comment was apposite.

    • david of Kirkland says

      It’s affirmative action for writers who have nothing interesting to say, but remain mentally dependent on authority.

      • Roger murphy says

        It’s a payoff for those willing to write in support of the mandatory meme. I fully support the publication and dissemination of pretty much all ideas but when my money is taken and given to support exclusively progressives ideals I have a say in it….and it is time to shine a light on this, and it is time to end the leftist domination of academia, the fightback has begun.

  2. “Moreover, publishers receiving Canada Council funding should demonstrate “a commitment to advancing gender parity” (an odd point given that, according to the industry data I’ve seen, almost 80% of publishing staff are women).”

    Not an odd point at all if gender parity was actually the goal, odd only because everyone knows that advancing gender parity means advantaging women at the expense of men.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Actually disadvantaging straight white males in favor of everybody else, As long as those members of ‘everybody else’ are sufficiently leftist, that is. It’s amusing how many white males are in full-throated support of such policies. Do they think the crocodile won’t eat them too?

  3. Truthseeker says

    Fortunately Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” has been on the best seller lists for months. At least there is one Canadian author that is being successful. The “Diversity crowd” wants diversity in all respects except the only one that really matters, diversity of thought.

    Truthful speech is the highest of all virtues (something that Jordan Peterson explains very well in his public lectures). These pathological collectivists on the left cannot stand to have their bankrupt and murderous ideology examined in the market place of ideas so they try to do what they do to all markets, control them.

    In the age of Amazon and Kindle, who needs a publisher anyway?

    • “except the only one that really matters, diversity of thought”

      Really? Says who? This has become an oft-repeated mantra which is rhetorically mentioned, but I doubt many proponent stop and actually think it over. Now, clearly, diversity of thought matters. But it too has its limits – or that it isn’t required at every turn either.

      • JWatts says

        Human beings are defined by many things, but their ability to think is paramount. So yes the most important diversity will always be of thought. Interesting ideas are the life blood of science and culture. A diversity of experience will lead to diversity of thought, but one shouldn’t assume a diversity of experience based upon skin color, gender, etc. Those are just proxies for the actual diversity of thought that makes diversity worth while.

      • Wentworth Horton says

        No one is asking for required, this would necessitate the acceptance of ideas based on quota. And we know how that turns out. Tolerated would be nice. Because we also know how the absence of that turns out.

      • Northern Observer says

        No no Amin, it is worse than you even think.

        All other vectors of diversity: sex, race, class, religion, are ultimately arbitrary as they are manufactured and conceal as much as they reveal.

        Only diversity of thought is true. As it shows its difference in its reading rather than in its author. Our current form of diverstiy amounts to an author appearence fetish over what is of substance in art.

        But people are stubborn and don’t wish to learn or change. So inevitablythe canadian state will have make supercifical diversity practices illegal, it is sad that such an action is required but the egoist of the left will not relent untill they are made to.

      • Stephanie says

        @Amin, the acceptable limits of diverse thought are irrelevant to the question of what kind of diversity is more important than diversity of thought.

        • @ Stephanie

          Because it is false equivalency and therefore nonsensical. So are you saying if there isn’t a civil rights parity within a country and the most important diversity is of thought? That is utter rubbish. Not barring people based on some characteristics [race, gender, etc] or other came first. Only then not prohibiting people based on thought can be achieved. The two are NOT in competition.

          And that is the limit of diversity of thought too – that every tom, dick and harry has the right to air his views. Other than that the quality of thought matters far more than the diversity of it.

          And notice that this is the problem with the “progressive diversity”. It goes too far the other and then starts to exclude people based on nature and thought.

      • the sad part is that “diversity” was originally proposed and promulgated on the premise that it would provide diversity of thought.

      • Andrew Mcguiness says

        I think Amin has a good point – the problem with the notion of ‘diversity of thought’ is that it is suceptible to the same kind of crude binaries of classification that plague politics and grievance studies. Really good writing might not be ‘diverse’ in this sense; or the ways in which it is different might not be apparent to deicision makers in the current context.

      • Constantin says

        I am puzzled by your comment. Diversity of thought is the underlying assumption of the value added by any other kind of “diversity”. What do you mean by suggesting that it should have limits, or not “required at every turn”? Do you believe that uniformity of opinion is a good thing?

    • TarsTarkas says

      The leftist hive is working on Amazon and Kindle, trust me. They’ve already taken over the NY Times bestseller list.

      • david of Kirkland says

        Perhaps the rightist hive needs more authors to write something people who pay to read are interested in?

        • E. Olson says

          David – you are so right – Ann Coulter, Mark Steyn, Dinesh D’Souza, Tom Clancy (RIP), Mary Higgins Clark, James Ellroy, Andrew Klaven, and Jordan Peterson must be terribly disheartened by the poor sales of their rightist books.

        • Try ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa’. Somone is trying to fight back on Amazon.

  4. Andrew Spencer says

    If the lion’s share of small Canadian publishing houses’ income is from government, they aren’t businesses at all.

    And to Truthseeker’s point, it is going to be mighty interesting watching the CanLit industry dancing around the Peterson book’s success at this year’s varied awards.

  5. E. Olson says

    Get Woke, go Broke. Movies with a “woke” (aka Leftist social justice message) routinely tank at the box office, “woke” magazines are closing (including the NeverTrump Weekly Standard) or on life-support, “woke” CNN and MSNBC badly trail the ratings of “fair and balanced” Fox News, the “woke” Canadian publishing industry would collapse overnight if not for generous government “woke” subsidies, and “woke” humanities and social science departments are generally suffering huge enrollment declines. How much evidence does the “woke” industrial complex need to understand that the vast majority of the public doesn’t like or want what they are selling?

    While I applaud the author for exposing yet another example of academic malfeasance, my only question is why would you want to be associated with such a program?

    • TarsTarkas says

      One has to eat, I suppose. And considering the state of CanLit, if you’re not a ludicrously bestselling author, you can’t live on your royalties and thus need a day job. Royalties! Oh, horror, a reference to Patriarchy! Can somebody do a rant on kingsplaining? Queensplaining?

  6. R Henry says

    Discussions of idelogical bias are so commonplace now that their conclusions seem stale, tired.

    The only antidote to the stultifying leftist orthodoxy of established publishers is creation of parallel publishers commited to rightest orthodoxy, or, preferrably, an open marketplace of ideas.

    Clearly, the Leftists currently controlling publishing, the academy, and broadcasting, have proven unwilling to cede any space to those whose views are in any way in conflict with their cherished beliefs.

    • But the only way to encourage new publishers and existing publishers to branch out from the current ideological nonsense that is suffocating Canadian publishing is to continue to write articles like this one. More articles like this one could influence politicians to strip funding from these publishers and allow the market to correct itself.

  7. Barney Doran says

    This social justice crap has gone too far. I am no Trump supporter (can’t stand the man) and voted for Obama twice, so that is not where I am coming from. This social justice ideology that is devouring our elite universities and many ‘intellectual’ fields of endeavor as indicated by this article appears to be nothing more than re-packaged, dressed up communism. Sorry, that sounds a bit reactionary and perhaps naive, but if it quacks like a duck, and looks… And as for ‘diversity and inclusion’, two terms with which we are being constantly bombarded and then forced down our throats, let’s just consider one thing: Free speech, which is being sacrificed on the alter of social justice, is the basic, foundational right granted to every citizen of this country by the Constitution. Diversity and inclusion do not appear in that document. They are, like abortion, a personal choice. The SJWs should be reminded of that fact.

    • Denny Sinnoh says

      You just cut and pasted that from one of the other comments on another article.

      • Barney Doran says

        Denny, please direct me to the article in question as I am totally unaware of it.

      • Barney Doran says

        I am waiting, Denny. I do not appreciate being accused of plagiarism. If you do not respond, I will report you to Quillette.

  8. Morgan Foster says

    “Canadian-authored books now represent just 15% of Canadian book purchases. … Canadians aren’t buying Canadian books.”

    It appears the problem is well on its way to resolving itself.

    Let the Canadian publishing industry die. The people who strangled it in its sleep will wander off to torment somebody else. Eventually someone sane will resurrect it.

    • Heike says

      It won’t die, though. It’s being artificially sustained by taxpayer money.

    • Cliff M says

      That would be the optimal solution but the Canadian media has literally become an extension of our Liberal Socialist ruling elite, the Canadian publishing “industry” being one of many tentacles that influence and mold the Canadian mind. The well of Canadian government funding is virtually unlimited, our ruling elite and their publishing partners too entrenched in their symbiotic relationship. Canada has become a very strange little country, obsessed with the American boogieman, to the point where our ruling elite has us exactly where they want us.

  9. This definitely makes me feel better about going a library science route to retrain for a publishing career instead of the MPub at Simon Fraser (I now work in library publishing and open access). Is there a publishing industry equivalent of the Heterodox Academy group? If not, could we start one?

    • Stuart says

      Beware Race. The library science field is turning just as hard left, if not moreso, than the publishing industry. Search “critical librarianship” if you dare. I was an academic librarian for more than ten years before going corporate, and have never regretted it.

  10. Saw file says

    Canlit has been a ongoing death spiral, for two decades now.
    Why not just give the country what they generally want to read?

    • JWatts says

      “Why not just give the country what they generally want to read?”

      The Left doesn’t trust people to make the correct choice. That’s what free marketers want. The Left wants all products curated by carefully trained people who will approve what can be published. And disapprove worth that doesn’t fit with the accepted criteria.

  11. Skallagrimsen says

    Problems are opportunities. It’s a hoary truism for good reason. If an established publisher won’t publish From Al-Qaeda To Atheism, for example, some bold entrepreneur should seize the chance to start a new publishing company that will. (Blackballed Books?) If it sells a million copies, the traditional publishing houses will have to take note. And if not, they will die a well deserved and long overdue death. Or, at best, languish on parasitically subsisting on tax revenue as per the status quo. The Intersectionalist dogma that dominates academia and, increasingly, publishing, media and “entertainment” is cognitive and aesthetic cancer. The afflicted institutions may be beyond saving. In that case, the only option is new, healthier institutions.

    • Heike says

      You’re assuming a free market is in effect. It is not.

      • Perhaps I’m insufficiently knowledgeable about Canadian publishing. Is there a law that prohibits the creation of new publishing houses in Canada? Or that prevents Canadians from buying and reading the books they prefer, whether published in Canada or abroad?

  12. All Canadian media industries are absurdly cronyist. “Diversity” is just a cover for flagrant nepotism.

  13. ga gamba says

    Sensitivity readers are consultants who, in theory, possesses expertise in regard to certain communities—people of colour, gay, trans, disabled individuals, etc.—and thus (again, in theory) can provide publishers and authors with valuable insight regarding the treatment of such groups in book manuscripts.,/i>

    It would be illuminating to learn how many of these sensitivity readers come from Mpub programmes such as SFU’s. Being published is very difficult, and those who are sell a few thousand copies if they are successful. I read the average is a few hundred copies.

    … that first-year sales for Canadian-authored books published in 2017 by multinational companies dwarfed those published by Canadian-owned publishers, with an average of 2,241 copies sold per book by the multinationals and just 343 copies sold by those produced from Canadian publishers. . . . Canadian-owned publishers producing 2,551 titles by Canadian-authors, compared with 851 by the multinationals. (Source:

    The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives wrote in 2015: Canadian writers and publishers face serious challenges. Writers’ incomes decreased by 27 percent between 1998 and 2015; 80 pecent of writers earn writing incomes below the poverty line.

    Other than Peterson, this Canadian is killing it.

    Wrote Slate on 27 Nov 2017:The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

    Bloody hell.

  14. Itzik Basman says

    Good piece, clearly written and laying out a sad case for the proposition that an identitarian sensibility.

    Mordecai Richler, maybe Canada’s greatest novelist, and if not that, then at least right up there, is—I say “is” because his work lives on—is an unPC writer and was this as a person, sardonic, satiric, biting, who calls out nonsense when he sees it and calls it as he sees it. He’s an equal opportunity putter-downer. I wonder how he’d fare today.

    Here’s a non untypical bit, I think from Duddy Kravitz or maybe Son Of A Smaller Hero, which is also about lower middle class Jews in Montreal in the fifties:


    two Jewish regular guys are cracking wise:

    “Berkowitz: ‘Hey, Feldman, what do you call a pint sized Eskimo with a hard on?’

    Feldman: ‘I dunno, why don’t you tell me Berkowitz.’

    Berkowitz: ‘A forgid midget, with a rigid digit.’”

    Now, this obviously isn’t a put down of Inuit. It’s a rendering of how certain regular street guys authentically joked around in the late fifties. It helps give the novel texture as it helps fill in the living, pulsing setting. If it is from Son Of A Smaller Hero, then it’s from a good book written on the way to a really good novelist finding himself. If it’s from Duddy Kravitz—The Apprenticeship Of—then it’s from a novelist who hit his stride and has wrote one of the best novels ever written by a Canadian writer.

    Could Richler get such stuff published today? Could he write his books filled with the smashing of mad progressivism—Cocksure, with the use of an Eskimo anti hero to lacerate gone mad consumer culture and flagellate self important Canadian mediocrities who took themselves entirely too seriously—The Incomaprable Atuk, with the lampooning of all manner of absurd politically correct ills in the world—St.Urbain’s Horseman? In fact in what he bit into and chewed up, Richler is prescient, his antennae foreshadowing today’s social justice world gone mad.

    If Tara Nykforiak’s indictment is far going enough such that Richler today couldn get such stuff published in Canada, then that measures how crippling and cloistered is today’s identitarian sensibility. And that holds true as well even his work could get published today, but only after much difficulty.

    • Itzik Basman says

      First sentence is incomplete. Should finish …is smothering creativity.

    • Saw file says

      @Itzak B
      I was pondering ‘St. Urbain’s Horseman’ as well.
      Richler would be be skewered for writing this, today.
      Mowat w/ ‘ People of the Deer’ & ‘Walk Well My Brother’?
      Mitchell w/ ‘ Who has Seen the Wind’?
      Davies w/ ‘Fifth Business’?
      But Atwood w/ ‘A Handmaids Tale’, np.

  15. As various art forms see declines in their audiences, they transform from popular entertainment into being fetish objects for the upper classes. Most of the performing arts saw this process begin a century ago, when the rise of mass entertainment like film and radio put an end to the era of a theater house on every block in major metropolises. Once upon a time the public would happily pay their hard-earned money to see opera, or jazz, or live theater because they enjoyed those things, not because some wise person informed them that it would improve their character to do so. As a result the market was dominated by product that took entertainment and not edification as its primary goal.

    There are both upsides and downsides to this process — the Lowest Common Denominator effect of markets tends to prevent challenging art from getting seen and heard, whereas the subsidized model can sometimes produce genuinely groundbreaking works; however when an art form is divorced from any imperative to entertain audiences, the result is often art that is opaque, preachy, self-involved pabulum, existing to flatter the sensibilities of the gate keepers and not the paying public.

    The publishing world you describe bears the same resemblance to the commercial publishing world as a pet parrot does to a parrot living in the rain forest canopy. They may look like the same animal, but one is caged, its wings clipped, and says the words its owner teaches it to say. Even if it were set free it could not survive on its own.

  16. Bah, who needs publishers, I self published 3 books thanks to Amazon. I mean they didn’t but that’s beside the point you don’t need a publisher anymore. Not only do you not need a publisher but you can make a good living as a self published author. Scott Pratt has sold thousands of books all self published. Matter of fact having a publisher could make it harder for the block to reach an audience .

  17. Sydney says


    Few commenters here have an experienced Canadian POV, so I’ll wade in with my Sudbury nickel:

    I worked in more corners of Canadian publishing (and in more places) than I even remember offhand, and all over Canada. I even sat on the board of an Editors’ Association (when it was EAC) branch for a while. I worked inside every sort of publisher (government-funded and not), and was also published by one of the very few successful, market-driven publishers in Canada: Harlequin (now owned by Harper Collins).

    Most people who worked like I did in the industry (as an ordinary ‘working Jane,’ not an effete academic) are sick at what has become of the original CanCon idea. We’re sick at how current far-left ideology has swallowed Canada’s culture industries whole. What was instituted as a seemingly good and necessary idea (CanCon) has morphed into a machine that streams endless propaganda to Canadians. CBC is case in point, and while CBC has been deteriorating for years, the Trudeau government has made it – and everything! – substantially worse.

    Today as a parent I see how this propaganda flows into far-left school curricula (my kids are growing up in Vancouver), and I’m shocked daily by groupthink union teachers who, lacking the ability to think for themselves, regurgitate union propaganda. The daily indoctrination of Canadian kids is something to behold. The author can imagine the ideological CanCon trash that kids are being forced to read under the guise of ‘English’ class.

    Thanks to the author for this important piece. Thanks to Quillette for publishing it, since this Canadian issue has only a tiny audience. I wonder if the author’s pushback at SFU will turn into a WLU/Lindsay Shepherd version 2.0. One can hope!

    • Mark H. says

      My kids are also going to school in Vancouver, and so far the social justice element has been minimal (Orange Shirt Day on which my kids stay home since the issue of residential school child abuse isn’t their burden, and some transactivism posters hinting at the eventual arrival of SOGI123 material), but I’m keeping my eyes wide open and watching the course material closely.

  18. codadmin says

    Always make the enemy live by their own ‘ideals’. If it’s true that Canadian publishing is overwhelming female, then you have a line of attack. They want gender parity, then ensure they get it, and use legal force if necessary.

    Small c conservatives, and small l liberals, the moderate majority in other words, eally have to go after this fascism that is gripping our societies.

    Stop whinging, and bring the fight to them.

  19. luysii says

    Why don’t you put a note up on the department bulletin board, to the effect that there will be a book burning on the quad (or whatever the university has) of extremely insensitive and hurtful books at such and such a time and date. Sokal got away with something similar years ago with Social Text.. Ask for suggestions and see who shows up. Have a videographer at the ready.

  20. Farris says

    Publicly funded art can not be avant-garde.
    Diversity means excluding the right people.

    • “Publicly funded art can not be avant-garde.”

      Why not? A lot of past art is precisely that: Publicly funded and avant-garde.

      • Farris says


        Thank you for your question. Art produced seeking approval of a committee or agency can not be avant-garde. This does not mean it can not be quality, great or classic art. It simply means the motivation for production is different.

        • @ Farris

          Just because Art is publicly funded does not mean it seeks approval of a committee or some agency. As I said a lot of past art was just that. Yet, even if it were, it still does not mean it cannot be avant-garde based on few limitations.

          The avant-garde label is a short-lived one anyway. As it has repeatedly happened – such art eventually becomes part of the society’s norm. And art described as avant-grade in the first place turns out to be the product of bourgeoise.

          All avant-garde means is art that is innovative and challenges the cultural norms. Whether it is publicily funded or not has got nothing to do with it.

  21. Pierre Pendre says

    The cultural implications of this are secondary to the ability of academics, publishers and bureaucrats to continue drawing their income from captive taxpayers in a mutually reinforcing backscratching scam. If their combined efforts never resulted in the sale of a single book, they wouldn’t care less. Or is that just knee jerk right wing prejudice?

    PS: Do the approved authors(esses) who are published ever see a penny for their efforts themselves?

  22. Hey, Quillette readers interested in Canadian publishing! Jack Stoddardt was a genuine, hard-working mensch who championed Canadian writers AND Canadian culture, to the sorts of “ordinary Canadians” of the Ed Broadbent variety. (Even writers like Maude Barlow and David Suzuki) And Masters students–If you really want to know what life in the trenches of Canadian publishing was like, read this obituary. Here’s to a hero:

  23. Sander Malschaert says

    And this is how universities will be making themselves irrelevant. I don’t think it will be long before smart employers will start prefering those without a degree over those with.

  24. I am increasingly unsettled by what seems to be the western world’s new state religion: Wokeness. My god when is the pendulum going to swing back??? Is there any hope?

  25. Kathleen Lowrey says

    Timely! I was just listening to an author interview on the CBC while washing dishes and thought to myself, “no one wants to read that book”.

    this line from Ms. Nykyforiuk says it all, really:

    “the revenue streams these publishers get from the Canada Council and its provincial counterparts often dwarf actual sales revenue. “

  26. UBC MFA 2008. This stuff was in it’s infancy when I was there. There weren’t any sensitivity readers for example. And thank God for that because I bet theydt have found something objectionable about my graduate thesis, my memoir which I got published in America in 2010 and reissued in 2017

  27. Derek Wilson says

    Other than Jordan Peterson, I cannot think of another contemporary Canadian author I have read, or likely will read. Go figure!

  28. I dread to send my kids to a Canadian university if professors are thinking this way.

  29. Reader says

    Just wanted to express appreciation for this piece. I’m an American who had only heard of the CanLit types by following the drama around Steven Galloway, and they left an impression on me of being kinda nuts and a tightly-knit tribe. This sheds some insight on that world.

    Quillette probably gets the most hits on the culture-war-of-the-month issues, but I appreciate the branching out.

  30. Flat Eric says

    “In my years as an English major, I had never heard of so-called “micro-words.” ”

    Actually, if you read the Guardian article you link to, you’ll find Ms Clayton does not say that. The”-“ is a dash separating off a parenthetical statement: “from micro – words and phrases – to bigger.. etc”; it is not a hyphen.

    None of which matters in the least for the credibility of the overall article – which I fully support – but it was a bit sloppy.

  31. Allen Farrington says

    I’m sure this is an overreaction but would be interested in a well-thought out response: this whole situation is the result of academia metastasising in the 60s and 70s to the point where growth by the same means was no longer possible, so further growth came from lowering standards or simply inventing extra disciplines to be taught, either my bringing vaguely intellectual vocations into the fold, or outright inventing nonsense (ideological) subjects. Hence, the quality of higher education both outside elite institutions and outside STEM has dropped so horrendously that in the near future we can expect MOOCs and nanodegrees to put them out of their misery due to a revolt first from employers and then from customers feeding back this painfully earned knowledge (gosh darned ‘market logic’, eh?) They may get by for a long time on the life support of state funding, but after long enough of no demand whatsoever from prospective students, the jig truly will be up. This case has the doubly unfortunate effect of the vocation that has been partially folded into the academy is also being destroyed by much of the same technological advances. So, sad, yes, but it will all be over soon.


  32. Jett Rucker says

    Government funding must kill the vibrancy and relevance of any and every undertaking it touches.

    Just consider American (US) academia, for example. And/or Canadian, I presume.

  33. Carlos Prallong says

    The web is set: Canadian books do not sell, more public funding. Canadians buying books to foreign publishers through Amazon is cultural imperialism, more public funding. And on, and on, and on…Congratulations for your brave and accurate article. It was a true pleasure reading it.

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