The Common Good
March-April 1996

Books and Borders

by Brett Grainger | March-April 1996

The Struggle for Canadian culture.

"The U.S. invades Canada." Go ahead, laugh it up. Lots of Americans did during Canadian Bacon, a recent film by Michael Moore (of Roger and Me fame), which depicts a fictional American invasion of Canada. In the wake of recent events in the book industry, however, it appears not only that fiction might be fact, but that the move might actually be spearheaded by fiction. American fiction. Mega-book chains Borders and Barnes & Noble, seeking new conquests after capturing 44 percent of the U.S. independent bookstore market, are actively pursuing plans to extend operations into the land of hockey and national health care. While the Canadian government rejected Borders' initial bid in early February for failing to meet strict requirements of Canadian "control in fact," many feel the corporation is merely regrouping before its next offensive. Canadians, predictably, are not amused.

The impending bookstore blitzkrieg, they say, would strike on three fronts: publishing, retailing, and, ultimately, new Canadian writing itself. Currently, Canadian publishers distribute American books on an exclusive basis to Canadian bookstores. These profits, in large part, help to support less lucrative publishing projects by Canadian authors. Bookstore owners participate in the present system out of a commitment to fostering their historic culture.

But an American chain such as Borders, acting in the interests of market culture, would presumably continue its existing relationship with American wholesalers, who effectively underprice any Canadian publisher. This advantage would force Canadian bookstores to turn in kind to American sources, upsetting the fragile agreement between publishers and book stores, thereby threatening the revenue base that allows the publication of new works by Canadian authors, poets, and dramatists. In short, the entry of U.S. superchains could weaken if not destroy the Canadian distribution system, run many Canadian independent booksellers out of business, and ultimately make it more difficult for Canadians to get their work published.

Advocates of the expansion argue that the move is simply a logical outgrowth of the comprehensive free trade agreement signed in 1989 by Canada and the United States. When the great wall of Berlin came down, they argue, so too did the walls of economic protectionism. Out of the rubble has arisen a brave new world-the global market economy-unencumbered by messy and misguided government intrusions defending this and discouraging that. In such a context, the current resurrection of trade barriers around Canadian cultural industries is interpreted as nothing more than old-order economics thinly veiled as patriotism.

The Achilles heel of this argument lies in its assumption that all traded commodities are value-neutral: The particular content of a product is not worth any more or less to the public good than the content of any other commodity. If this is true, then imported, unprocessed wood pulp should be given the same cultural weight as a production of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

But the sad irony is that many individuals and groups benefiting from government subsidies produce art that is the aesthetic equivalent of wood pulp. The current flurry over the French government's imposition of strict quotas for French music on radio is evidence of this debate. Good art just doesn't grow out of the barrel of a gun. The fruit of heavy-handed government policy can be cultural kitsch just as easily as it can be the creation of a small breathing space, amidst the jungle of the market, where new and original voices can be encouraged.

THE GOAL, OF COURSE, is a happy medium, where government policy acts effectively and responsibly, fencing and pruning where necessary, rather than using legislation as a pesticide to remove all foreign weeds. But relying on the "invisible gardener" of the market to protect cultural concerns can only result in the grotesque triumph of a global Euro-Disney. Spooky.

There are clear reasons for wanting to see the question of cultural sovereignty as possessing a spiritual and ethical core. The story of a nation is a journey of collective self-definition. In all cultures, national identity is elusive and dynamic, fought out in the arenas of political and artistic life. In the modern age, film, television, and the magazine industry have assumed a leading role with literature and the fine arts in this endeavor. This truth cannot be more clearly glimpsed than in the case of the United States itself. Where would America be without Citizen Kane, or The New Yorker, or Saturday Night Live ?

Ironically, however, many Canadians now recognize these cultural monuments more readily than their northern counterparts. Presently, a scant 3 percent of films seen in Canada are Canadian made (even Canadian Bacon was made in the United States), compared to 35 percent in the case of literature. A nation whose artistic life is controlled to such extent is eventually doomed to colony status, forever reliant upon an imported identity. Its deepest dreams, wishes, and desires remain unspoken.

Countries such as Canada that find themselves on the edge of empire must invest government with the ability to amplify the voices of its own citizens. The recent Borders decision shows that this is still possible, global market or no. But the war is far from over. With sales last year of $1.6 billion, the book empire of Borders is more than two-and-a-half times the size of the entire Canadian retail trade book industry. Against such juggernauts it's understandable that the Canadian Booksellers insist that any expansion by these giants be curtailed by a mandatory level of Canadian ownership sufficient to ensure that Canadian cultural interests are protected.

An unstated factor in the current crisis of Canadian federalism, I believe, can be found in the difference between French-Canada's willingness to go to the mat over cultural issues versus the relative nonchalance of English-Canadians. Québec's mission has always been to survive as a French lifeboat in a sea of English-speakers. If there is to be a future for a united Canada, it will be essential for English-Canada to enunciate a similar commitment to preserving its own "distinct society."

Despite all sane economic sense to the contrary, such a society clings on. Indeed, as Margaret Atwood has written, survival has been the central theme of Canadian fiction. One hopes that Canadian literature can withstand this latest test of its endurance.

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