Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Maple Leaf Rage

(Editor’s note: My column today for Kirkus Reviews looks at the quite remarkable breadth of crime and mystery fiction coming out of Canada, but also notes that many of those books and authors are largely unknown, especially to Americans. During my research for the piece, I asked Kevin Burton Smith, the Montreal-born editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, for his thoughts on why crime fiction from north of the border does not receive more attention from U.S. readers. His entertaining response is posted below.)

Why should the mystery genre be any different than anything else? There are probably more Americans who believe President Obama was a Communist sleeper agent born in Kenya than can name the current Canadian prime minister.

Of course, there are business reasons, copyright reasons, foreign rights, retail, and distribution and blah blah blah.

But culturally, historically, even geographically, Americans tend to not pay much attention to their northern neighbor, anyway. Canada is just a small blip in the perpetually inward-looking American consciousness. Foreign countries just don’t cut it, unless there’s a hook. Like, oh, a current war, or it’s a tourist destination that’s somehow safely familiar yet exotic.

But not too exotic. Good God, no ...

I remember as a kid, watching U.S. news broadcasts beaming through from Burlington and Plattsburgh, and being dismayed to see absolutely no land mass above the border on the weather maps. As though Vermont’s northern boundary was defined by the Atlantic Ocean. We didn’t even rate a few squiggles to denote our existence on a weather map.

Still, I was left momentarily speechless when an American (a schoolteacher, no less), upon being informed that I had just moved to Southern California from Montreal, asked me--in all sincerity and without a speck of irony--“Wow! Were you a long time on the boat?”

The boat? Evidently all American TV news shows use the same maps ...

So we’ve pretty much accepted that to many Americans we’re just the Great White Yawn. Vancouver is “pretty.” Toronto is “clean and safe.” And everywhere else in Canada is just a trivia question in a game that most Americans don't want to play.

In the buffet of the Americas, we’re the other white meat.

A land of Peter Jennings impersonators, suspiciously polite but not dangerous.

And the differences are more annoying to many Americans than exotic or colorful. Or colourful. Like, “What’s a Harvey’s? Why can’t we just go to a Burger King?”

Who is this Tim Horton guy?

And what’s a Canadian Tire?

England is exotic, because they talk funny there and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Australia has shrimp on the barbie. And kangaroos. The French are, well, they’re the French. Mexico and Central America are full of drug cartels and guys with fierce mustaches, and Russia is packed with double agents, KGB gangsters, and vodka-slurping pole dancers.

But to Americans there’s nothing particularly different about Canada. A slight accent when the word “about” is pronounced, maybe, and the perception that the Mounties (“the Canadian FBI”) wear goofy park ranger hats and bright red coats. All that makes us more “quaint” than interesting.

Canada’s too similar--at least to American eyes--to be exotic. Americans constantly tell me how Canadians are “just like Americans.” Except maybe for the French, but then--as many an American has told me--French Canadians aren’t really French.

But I can assure you that you’ll find very few Canadians (barring a few unrepentant separatists) who think Americans are “just like Canadians.”

You get into crime fiction, and the problem is amplified. Canada is viewed by Americans as “safe.” As in boring. There’s not enough crime up north to matter, never mind read about, fictional or otherwise. Although these same prejudices don’t seem to stop Americans from tuning into the weekly goings-on in Midsomer Murders, set in a small English village seemingly populated entirely by slightly kinky killers, murderers, serial rapists, and tea-drinking, tweedy victims-in-waiting. The place makes Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove look like Sesame Street.

And our respective national myths play into it, as well.

Americans have this massive screeching vicious bird of prey as their national mascot. Canada has a beaver that, like, chews wood.

Americans tend to believe in truth, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all those other things Superman says. Plus blasting the head off anyone who gets in their way. Canadians hope for happiness, too, but most expect they’ll have to work hard for it. And we don’t really believe in violence except as a last resort. Or if hockey is involved.

The Canadian constitution suggests “peace, order, and good government” as the way to go, and while it hasn’t always been the case, I think the Canadian national psyche wants to believe it’s possible. Americans? In the 10 years I’ve been here, approximately half the population has always believed the other half of the population (and whoever’s in power in the White House) are coming for them. And have armed themselves accordingly ...

Americans had a Civil War and killed each other for five long years simply to iron out some constitutional wrinkles. Canadians deal with the same kind of issues that tear at the very fabric of our national existence by arguing and debating. Endlessly. It’s been going on for almost 150 years now. Granted, it’s a slower process, but it doesn’t seem to leave as many dead people lying around with their legs blown off.

So, no matter what the body count may be, the notion of Canada as a crime-filled cesspool of corruption and violence is a hard sell to Americans. It’s like sending coal to Newcastle. I mean, the United States is a country where the leads always bleed and murder and mayhem are accorded instant celebrity status, flashy TV graphics, and one-name recognition, like Cher or Liberace. You say Columbine, Waco, and Newtown, and the entire world gets “it.”

Now that’s name recognition.

The Canadian version? 1989’s École-Polytechnique massacre. But that incident in Montreal doesn’t even ring a bell for most Americans. Probably more recall the fictional version used as the basis for a Law & Order episode, in which the mass killing was--of course--reset in New York City. It’s just easier for Americans to believe that that kind of stuff happens at home; not in good old safe, quiet, and boring Canada. Statistics, of course, bear me out.

Which may explain why Canadian-set hard-boiled crime fiction, in particular, is a difficult sell to Americans. Notice that most of the Canadian crime writers who are successful in the States eschew Canadian settings (Linwood Barclay, Alan Bradley, and Peter Robinson, for example), go globetrotting (Hilary Davidson, Ian Hamilton, and Anthony Bidulka) or, if they do set their stories at home, operate in a more traditional, almost classical (and sometimes downright cozy) mystery vein (like Howard Engel or Louise Penny). Hell, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple could move right into Penny’s quaint little Québécois village, Three Pines, and feel right at home. She and Inspector Gamache could have a nice cuppa and compare notes.

I remember a mystery-writing friend from Montreal, Carol Epstein, once confiding how her publishers insisted she set her new proposed mystery series “anywhere but in Canada” if she hoped to sell it south of the border. That was years ago, but to a large extent it’s still true.

Americans just don’t think of Canadians as twisted and violent and nasty as they are.

Which is a good thing. It’s all part of our plan ...


Sandra Ruttan said...

I would say an incredibly high percentage of Americans that I've interacted with know more about Canada than most people would expect. I think a lot of the people who influence publishing - from editors to reviewers to bookstore staff - underestimate their audience to some extent. You need look no further than Ian Rankin's US editions for the proof of that. Many US readers order his books from Canada or the UK because they don't like the US publishers Americanizing the English.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Well, you would say that. I live in the States, though, and work with the public on a daily basis in a large general bookstore, so while my experience is different, it's certainly relevant. And I'm still surprised at some of the things I'm told about Canada by well-meaning Americans. I agree publishers underestimate their audience at times, but if there really were enough Rankin fans in the States who would be happy with British English, they wouldn't go through all the bother of Americanising the books in the first place.

Hmmm... Do you set your stories in Canada?

Wayne Arthurson said...

As I noted on FB commenting after the Kirkus piece, one of the reasons my US publisher bought my crime books set in Edmonton was because they felt it was an exotic locale, and that US crime/mystery readers would like that. And many reviewers found my Canadian protagonist pretty twisted. Of course, a few years ago, this same things could have been said about Swedes (dull, safe, non-violent) and look what they did.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, Kevin, four of my five novels have been set in Canada. And I have a US publisher. Three were originally published by Dorchester and have since been acquired by Thomas & Mercer, and I couldn't be happier with my publisher. Love them.

I can only say I don't agree about Rankin. Ian asked a friend of mine to buy the US version of the book because it affects his numbers that so many American readers order the books from Canada and the UK. That was a few years ago, but I will say the last time I was sent a review copy of his US version, it didn't appear to have been Americanized much at all, so perhaps they've finally figured out they don't need to.

I realize there are always people who can be cited as examples of anything, but I dislike the perception that Americans are self-centered, unaware of the world around them and flag-waving egotistical, to the point they aren't interested in anywhere else in the world. I think that some of these perceived publishing issues center on those old stereotypes of Americans. As Wayne said, he sold an Edmonton-based setting to a US publisher, who found it exotic, and it does seem that those of us who find our homes with US publishers first and foremost are often overlooked in Canada. I sell far better south of the border.

I think there are no absolutes, but maybe the real issue is a lack of Canadian identity based on hiding behind 'classic' styles and trying to look like throwbacks to Christie and British crime from decades ago, or Canadians using foreign settings, and then there's the love of Canadian cozies, which are not generally real representations of Canada or Canadian crime issues. There's little in the way of social commentary on Canada through Canadian crime, the way there is of Scotland and Sweden and Ireland, etc. Wayne's work is an exceptional example of Canadian crime that taps into a very real world - as a former Albertan, I had no trouble believing in the world and protagonist he portrayed, but these do seem to be rare examples. The people who are writing closer to the news - including John McFetridge - are overlooked. John pulled a lot of his core ideas from the news.

My cousin works at Kingston Pen. I remember being on a virtual lockdown during the manhunt for Bernardo, and the police being at my house talking to my parents about a possible tip they had. Now I have family who deal with criminals on his level of sick at work every day.

Yeah, this is my soap box. In the wake of the events in Boston, a Canadian press source put up a poll about whether you thought there could ever be a terrorist attack in Canada. As though there's never been one. Clearly someone who doesn't know Quebec history from the 70s. We don't even know ourselves, from our journalists on down. No wonder we're overlooked. I stopped taking the Arthur Ellis Awards seriously years ago, when they started charging fees to enter books for consideration. I don't know if they changed the policy since then, but they excluded small presses who don't have $$ per title to submit their books each year, or can only submit some because they have to consider those costs, so it wasn't the actual best book anymore. There should never be money tied to awards.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Sandra lives in the U.S. too.