12 August 2009

The Modern Canadian Novel at Fifty



A bit late, but it was only yesterday that I happened upon the above, placed in the 16 May 1959 edition of the Globe and Mail. Can't imagine Jack McClelland was too happy with the investment – the very same page features a review titled 'Left Hook, Right Hook, KO!'

While critic Isabelle Hughes begins by praising the experimental nature of the book, her compliments are directed at the publisher, not the author:
By far the most interesting thing about The Double Hook which is a first novel by Canadian writer, Sheila Watson is that it represents an unusual experiment in Canadian publishing. The book is available in two covers, one paper and one cloth. This arrangement, which seems eminently sensible, gives the reader a choice between buying a new book at a reasonable price if he does not wish to add it to his permanent library, or investing a larger sum in it if he does.
It is extremely doubtful, however, whether The Double Hook was a happy selection with which to introduce this experiment. Obscure in style, eccentric in punctuation, and with a plot that is difficult to follow, it is permeated by an odd atmosphere of unreality; it has the quality of a distorted, not especially vivid dream.

...

The Double Hook is by no means an easy book to read. Certainly, it cannot be described as entertainment in any sense of the word. And surely a novel, of all forms of literature, ought primarily to entertain the reader, or at least to draw him into a world which for the time seems real to him. However profound and thought-provoking a novel's thesis may be, if it is not intelligible to the average discerning person who likes an absorbing story, then that book fails as a novel.
The reviewer's words remind me of Earle Birney, who had two years earlier written McClelland to say that he'd found the novel 'monotonous, self-conscious, artificial and lacking in real fictional interest'. He advised McClelland not to publish, complaining, 'I just don't know what the damn novel is about, or I didn't until it was almost ended.'

A year after publication, McClelland told the Montrealer that he hadn't expected to break even on the novel. In fact, it had already turned a profit. Good man, that Jack McClelland.

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