Corncobs and Copper Woman: A Cautionary Tale
July 15th, 2011
Born and raised in Nanaimo, view Anne Cameron remains most widely-known for Daughters of Copper Woman, her interpretation of stories given to her by Ahousat elders. Reprinted at least seventeen times since it appeared from a feminist publisher, Press Gang, in 1981, it is easily one of the most successful works of fiction to be published from and about British Columbia. But its success almost ruined her career.
Press Gang went belly-up and didn’t tell their writers. Instead they handed us over, like a pack of foster kids, to Raincoast. From there things get murky, and I don’t really feel like getting sued, so let’s just say I got my book back and Harbour has re-published it. It matters to nobody but me that somewhere in the tangle I got ripped for fourteen thousand dollars, but, hey, what’s money to people like us?
During the Press Gang debacle, the frikken lawyers made more than the writers did, which was no surprise to me. Years ago I found me a spavined horse, climbed on it, and took on the CBC, NFB, CFDC and a particular producer and after several years of fury and near ulcers I wound up winning thirty thousand dollars. Which was promptly placed in the pockets of the Queens Counsel lawyer who had represented me. Which left me with five times the square root of sweet f— all. Standing up for my rights got me blackballed from CBC, NFB and CFDC for years.
Now I just try to keep a jar of Vaseline handy. When you’re a writer, sooner or later, you’re going to get a rough dry corncob right up the old basic fundament and anyone who thinks she can do anything about it is a total wingnut.
The only publisher who never poked me in the eye with a sharp stick was Harbour. Generally speaking, Harbour put out one book a year for me, and all I had to do was write. For years my snugged-in relationship with Harbour meant I didn’t need an agent, I didn’t have to flog my work. I began to believe that was what life was supposed to be like.
The problem with that comfy little bubble is that things happen in the outside world which go unnoticed by the obsessive-compulsive. I knew independent booksellers like Thora and Jerry Howell in Nanaimo were up against corporation bullying because they were tilting that windmill. For me, The Bookstore on Bastion Street was the best damned bookstore in the country and did far more for writers in B.C. than Malaspina College, which should get the spud-butt award for the spread of illiteracy in this province. They, and some other colleges and universities, have acted as if the printed word was dinosaur dung. Statistics indicate this province has one of the highest book buying and reading rates in the country. If the colleges and universities aren’t an active part of this they are choosing to cut themselves out of the very culture whose taxes help support the institutions.
As the chain bookstores apply their self-serving pressures and the corporate control puts the American eagle in an increasingly powerful position, publishers are faced with the choice of being boiled or barbequed. The only way the publishers can stay in business is to get their books into the chains and the only way they can manage that is to publish what the chains say they want.
My books do not fly off the shelf quickly. My books sell steadily, to a very loyal readership, but the chains aren’t interested in that. They want books flying off the shelves so they can put in more books. They seem incapable of seeing that if increasing numbers of readers are dissatisfied with the quality of choice, fewer books will be sold. Certainly a more restricted range of choice will be available.
I am a minor writer. I am never going to win the Giller, I am certainly never going to get wealthy or famous or anything except older with each passing day, but I’ve had thirty books published, and some of them have been translated into languages I will never learn to speak.
I also have ten novels which aren’t going to see publication because they are critical of corporatism, and of the spread of the military imperialism of Amerikkka, and the impact that has on the everyday lives of working people on this coast.
I often rage against the wholesale slaughter of our forests by foreign-controlled corporations who do not have our best interests at heart and, yeah, I’m a conspiracy theorist. I believe, and say, and write, that the flow of hard drugs on this coast is protected by people who influence the federal government. That is flat-out too radical for any publisher in his right mind to take a risk, because the chain bookstores, who are, after all, an arm of corporate power, aren’t going to want to put those novels on their shelves.
Feminist analysis has taught me to ask two questions: “Is it an accident?” and “Who benefits?” Well, it is no accident that I’ve written myself out of the picture. It’s exactly what the mangy bird wants. And the losers will be our children and grandchildren who may not have the opportunity to know there was once a fiercely independent culture on this coast.
You don’t have to invade, bomb and slaughter the way they’ve done it in Iraq and will soon do in Iran. All you have to do is slowly, steadily and systematically choke the life out of the publishers and writers and the rest will fall into your hands. Muffle the voices of those who protest and you can shave the slopes, fill the bays, inlets and fjords with fish feed lots, wipe out the natural fishing resource, gouge entire hillsides, wrench out the mineral wealth and then drill for oil and who will stand against you and say no more?
You no longer have to take the poets and novelists, the lyricists and performers to the soccer stadium and machine gun them into silence. You just suffocate them by putting the publishers between a rock and a hard place.
But there will always be kids who learn to read, find books, and one day think, hey, these stories were written by someone. And if someone else can do it, why not me? Minor writers will meet small publishers, books will appear which will cause readers to feel that magical spark of recognition. “Hey, that’s us.”
In the long run we are the most precious natural resource this coast has and there’s no way we can be bought off, muzzled, or made ineffectual. When the last tree is felled, the last precious mineral shipped out, the last wild fish has perished and the coast is a rain-drenched wasteland, there are always a few kids who say, “Hey…”
[Written in 2007 for a conference at Simon Fraser University called Reckoning 07, organized by Alan Twigg.]
Essay Date: 2007