29 May 2012

Canada's Most Popular Writers (25 Years Ago)?

Unearthed this past weekend, this little list from the May 1987 issue of Books in Canada. It is as described, a "studiously unscientific survey", consisting only of those readers who cared to respond and sacrifice what was then a 34¢ stamp. Still, I think it interesting enough to comment, thereby risking ridicule and ruffled feathers.

I'll begin by stating the obvious (to me at any rate): The number of respondents was likely quite small, as indicated by the number of ties. And yet I think that the top five authors is an accurate reflection of the time.

Here they are again with what would have been their most recent books:
1. Alice Munro – The Progress of Love (1986)
2. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
3. Timothy Findley – The Telling of Lies (1986)
4. Robertson Davies – What's Bred in the Bone (1985)
     Margaret Laurence – A Christmas Birthday Story (1982)

The unexpected comes with the five names that follow. The presence of Mavis Gallant, whom I maintain has never been accorded proper respect and recognition, is a pleasant surprise, while Janette Turner Hospital, Marian Engel and Audrey Thomas are... well, simply surprises. I don't mean to belittle, but I dare say that they wouldn't figure in a top ten "People's Choice" today.

But then, who would? Carol Shields, whose The Stone Diaries was six years in the future, seems a sure bet. Timothy Findley would be down, if not out. Richler would be up, bucking a trendy decent of the deceased. And here I return to the late Mrs Shields in stating boldly that she would have ranked higher in 2003, when she was still amongst us, than she does today.

How forgetful we are. All but two of the writers on the 1987 Books in Canada list were living. The exceptions, Margaret Laurence and Marian Engel, would have been safely described as "recently deceased".

No authors of another century feature on this "People Choice" – the first half of the twentieth century is unrecognized. Are we Canadians not unique? Imagine an English list without Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontës and Dickens; a French list lacking Balzac, Flaubert and de Maupassant; or an American top ten without Whitman, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

The most important and sad observation one might make about the Books in Canada list is this: francophones do not figure. Gabrielle Roy, perhaps the best hope, is absent, as are Michel Tremblay, Anne Hébert and Antonine Maillet.

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau?

Don't give him a second thought.

Books in Canada, vol. 16, no. 4 (May 1987)


  1. I have read all of them as well as a few others over the years. Carol Shields was a gem.

    1. I'm embarrassed to say that there is one writer on the list whom I've never read. Not saying' who it is .

    2. I'm curious as to who that might be. It makes me feel a bit better about the three I've sold but never read.

      The only Engel I've read is Bear, which I enjoyed but cannot imagine representing the nation's taste in fiction.

    3. Bear is the only thing I've read by Marian Engel, and much as I found it interesting, it didn't send me on a tear through her novels.

      So, you can strike Marian Engel off the list. Who have I not read? Oh, why tease. It's Janette Turner Hospital. And I really should... after all, she shares sixth spot with two of my favourites.

  2. Interestingly, Australians claim Janette Turner Hospital as ours, too.

    I'm surprised Brian Moore didn't feature. Too evil-tempered?

    1. I think of Janette Turner Hospital as one of those shared writers... like Brian Moore.

      I wasn't terribly surprised not to see Moore. The accolades and high praise never quite translated into sales. That said, back in May 1987 his most recent was Black Robe, a Canadian bestseller. The Colour of Blood - not a Canadian bestseller - was just months away.

      To me, the most notable absentee is Leonard Cohen, who has since achieved a status akin sainthood, secular and otherwise.

      And where are the non-fiction writers?