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In Other Words by Anna Porter – Book review

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When Anna Porter arrived in Canada in 1968, first fleeing the violent revolution in her native Hungary in 1956 and then leaving her first adopted country of New Zealand 12 years later, she found an interesting way of how she warmed to her third – and final – home country: books; in particular, Canadian books.

An avid reader with a fondness for a story that is well told (thanks to the sharp storytelling skills of her grandfather Vili), Porter lived the Canadian dream through the volatile world of book publishing as an editor, executive, publisher and best selling author, first at the legendary Canadian publishing house McClelland & Stewart, then at the paperback publisher Seal Books, then her own imprint Key Porter Books.

Porter entered into the Canadian book scene at the right time, and was a witness to the growing Canadian publishing scene during the 1970s, where she got first-hand experience of working alongside some of Canada’s best-known writers such as Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Mordecai Richler, Farley Mowat, Margaret Laurence, Peter C. Newman and Leonard Cohen, and helping to develop and promote some of the greatest books that brought Canada into the global literary forefront such as The Canadian Establishment, The Diviners, and St. Urbain’s Horseman.

And in between that, she got plenty of first-hand lessons of how the Canadian book publishing industry was a constant struggle for survival, which was through a long trail of publicity stunts, book launches, international book fairs, sales conferences, cocktails receptions, conglomerate mergers and award nights.

Through it all, Anna Porter’s discovery of Canada through the books she helped to develop has been quite a cultural trip, which she recounts in all of its page-by-page glory in her recently-published memoir In Other Words.

For those bibliophiles who satisfied their hunger for reading with a healthy dose of CanLit, then Porter’s book will certainly not let them down. It’s filled with plenty of interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes of how she helped to strengthen the world of modern Canadian literature and publishing, not to mention the characters that she met and worked with along the way.

 

One the most dominant of that bunch who gets more than his fair share of ink in this book is the late Jack McClelland, the flamboyant, somewhat eccentric owner and CEO of the prestigious Canadian publishing house McClelland & Stewart (M&S). From his headquarters situated on Hollinger Road, in a less-than-ideal industrial park area just outside of Toronto, McClelland ran M&S as a prestige kind of venture (while he constantly struggled to have its head above water financially, but somehow managed to thanks to the successful sales of Pierre Berton’s historical tomes) based on his credo that M&S published authors, not books. And that’s just what he did, with an impressive line-up of some of the biggest names in Canadian writing (Berton, Mowat, Richler, Atwood, Leonard Cohen, to name a few). As well, Porter credited McClelland for his P.T. Barnum-type flair for publicity stunts to help promote a key title, no matter how out of the ordinary the stunt was (case in point, McClelland dressed up as a Roman emperor, and drove a horse-drawn chariot along Yonge Street to celebrate the launch of Sylvia Fraser’s best-selling novel The Emperor’s Virgin in 1975).

And Porter adopted that credo throughout her career in book publishing. With her personal touch, Porter not only nurtured many of the writers she was assigned to edit their books, but also befriended them and treated them like the talented individuals that they were. As well, her penchant for poetry and photography helped to strengthen the publishing careers of such individuals as Earle Birney, Harold Town, Irving Layton, Dudley Witney and Fred Bruemmer, helping to produce some of the most highly regarded poetry and photography books ever to come from Canada.

As well, Porter shares with the reader many stories that capture the rarely told human side to many of these authors, and what their lives were like behind the best seller lists, the book launches and signings, and winning those Governor-General Awards or Giller Prizes.

Two examples stood out for me. First was the publicity-shy novelist Margaret Laurence. Sometime after her award-winning novel The Diviners was released, Laurence was asked to be the main speaker at the Harbourfront Author Series in Toronto. She had such a strong case of stage fright, that she asked Porter that her six-year-old daughter Catherine stand by her side throughout her speech, and encouraged her to keep her balloon airborne throughout her presentation, so that it would serve as a sort of distraction to the audience.

The other example was the late CBC broadcaster/journalist Barbara Frum. Shortly before she and Porter started work on Frum’s 1975 memoir As It Happened, she was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 36. However, while she was battling this dreaded disease, Frum kept on going about her job on “As It Happens” and putting together her book, which would become a bestseller, telling very few people about her illness, and asking for little or no pity in return.

While the second half of the book focuses on Porter’s success running her own imprint Key Porter Books (and surprised at how it was a commercial success as a publisher of political books, especially Jean Chretien’s blockbuster 1985 memoir Straight from the Heart and Claire Hoy’s 1987 expose of rampant corruption during the early years of the Mulroney government called Friends in High Places), she also focuses on how volatile the book publishing industry really was, based on many of her own personal observations and experiences in the trade, especially publishing companies being swallowed up by large business conglomerates, the draconian practices of certain publishers when it came to their respective book return policies, the decline of the independent bookstore, and how book publishing was more of a prestigious – rather than a lucrative – business.

In Other Words is an absorbing, “present-at-the-creation” type memoir of one woman’s passion for books, book publishing and authors and how they all played a major role in shaping Canada’s contemporary cultural heritage. It kind of makes the reader want to unearth their copies of their favorite CanLit books and rediscover how some of Canada’s greatest modern writers – along with the help and guidance of people like Anna Porter – helped build a national identity through the written and printed word.

By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca
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