Jack: A Life With Writers

by James King

Published by Knopf Canada

435 pages, 1999







Inventing CanLit

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Gabrielle Roy called him "one of the few left of the breed of friendly publishers who genuinely love their writers." Margaret Atwood claimed, "He'd go to the firing squad for you," and Leonard Cohen once called him "the real Prime Minister of Canada." Writers loved Jack McClelland, and with good reason -- the passion was mutual. McClelland virtually adopted the authors he championed, nurturing their talents with a devotion seldom seen in the hard-boiled business of publishing. His special genius was as "an enabler, someone whose creativity was directed to helping others realize their full potential."

James King's new biography of the gifted, mercurial and eccentric publishing legend is full of the kind of juicy literary tidbits that keep the story of his turbulent career consistently interesting. For example: did you know that McClelland arranged Margaret Atwood's first book-signing in the men's underwear department of the Hudson's Bay Company? "This is why we love Jack," Atwood commented. "He has given us some of the most surreal moments of our lives."

James King has proven his ability as a biographer with past volumes on Virginia Woolf, William Blake and, most recently, Margaret Laurence. Though he is accustomed to unraveling the complicated psyches of writers, his task here is no less daunting. McClelland, whom many believe acted as a sort of midwife to the phenomenon of CanLit, is no less complex than the writers he published and promoted. He is a mixture of opposites -- brash yet self-effacing, tough-minded but soft-hearted, wildly impractical and even disorganized, but with superb instincts for talent and a genius for discerning an author's potential readership. Through skillful use of correspondence and reminiscences from friends and colleagues, King has pieced together a three-dimensional portrait of a vibrant and deeply complex man.

It's ironic that a man who came to be known as something of a renegade started his career by following in his father's footsteps. John McClelland and George Stewart founded their publishing house in 1919, in an era when Canadian literature barely existed, represented by such gifted but genteel writers as Bliss Carman and L. M. Montgomery. When Jack burst on the scene after serving in the navy during World War II, George Stewart insisted on calling him "Sonny Boy". Even when he took over the presidency of M & S in 1960 in his late 30s, he was still called the "Boy Publisher" for his natural enthusiasm and vitality.

From the beginning McClelland was an ardent nationalist, fervently believing in "the potential greatness of the Canadian imagination." He quickly saw the market potential of writers like Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat (in fact he once spoke of "getting lots of mileage" out of Mowat at a book launch), but was equally insistent on showcasing poets like Earle Birney, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen.

Relations with these temperamental figures could be complicated, and a lot of McClelland's energy had to be directed towards handling massive egos. He privately referred to Earle Birney as "a pain in the ass," and he had this to say about Layton: "I'd rather have my daughters learn the beauties of the English language from Irving than from anyone, but I'm not sure I'd ever leave him in the same room alone with them." But it always seemed worth the trouble, for McClelland believed publishing was a "service business" existing as a service to authors more than to the reading public.

He may have served his authors well, but running McClelland & Stewart efficiently was another matter. The atmosphere at the house was something like "a high-pressure, crowded loony bin." McClelland chain-smoked, drank prodigiously and always seemed to be in precarious health. He had a regrettable tendency to hire people he liked rather than the best person for the job, and could never bring himself to fire anyone. Due to an oversight, the accepted manuscript for Atwood's The Edible Woman languished for months unpublished in the M & S vaults, while Margaret Atwood won a Governor General's award for her poetry.

Though he was brilliant at discerning talent, McClelland didn't always fully realize what he had in a new author. In a letter to a New York agent, he writes of his latest discovery in terms that would probably make him cringe today:

"I suspect that she could turn into the bread-and-butter type of client.... Her name is Margaret Laurence. She is a housewife. I would guess she is in her late thirties.... I heard about her through a mutual acquaintance and received a copy of her script hot off the typewriter. We thought it extremely good. She has a somewhat unique style, powerful, virile, vigorous -- when I read it I found it hard to believe that the novel had been written by a woman. I'm not suggesting that she is the greatest literary discovery of the last ten years, but she is a serious writer, a writer of quality, and she tells a very good story.... She is, Willis, a gal who is serious about her writing and intends to continue."

Even McClelland could not have predicted how far this particular "gal" would go.

If Jack McClelland was a genius at bringing along writers, he was a dismal businessman, constantly having to bail out the sinking ship of M & S with grants from the Ontario government. A retired billionaire once thought of buying M & S as a hobby, but backed out when he found out McClelland "has no ideas about budgeting, control of expenses, adequate sales targets, or proper marketing operations -- and he has no intention of learning."

What he did have was vision. "Publishing was not a business for him," Pierre Berton declared. "It was a calling." By the time an exhausted McClelland sold the company to real estate magnate Avie Bennett in 1985, he had left an indelible mark. King concludes that "no single person has done more to raise the profile of Canadian culture to Canadians." And he dispelled completely, once and forever, the entrenched notion that Canadians are dull. One of the book's best photographs shows McClelland parading around in a toga in subzero weather to promote Sylvia Fraser's The Emperor's Virgin. Who else would tramp around in sandals in a raging blizzard just to help out one of his favorite authors? They don't make them like that any more, and Canada is immeasurably richer for McClelland's passionate, quixotic legacy. | November 1999

MARGARET GUNNING has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.