While sitting at one of those book signings last week, I had an interesting conversation with a store owner that sparked some reflections on the state of Newfoundland literature. While my thoughts are probably of more interest to readers and writers here in Newfoundland, there are probably elements that are common to any regional publishing scene.
Newfoundland books are hot, hot, hot. When I was growing up, bookstores carried a tiny handful of books (almost all non-fiction) written about this province, by writers who lived here, and published here. That has changed dramatically. Walk into any bookstore in Newfoundland and you’ll see a large “Local Interest” section, as well as a good-sized display of Newfoundland books in gift shops and other touristy sites around the island.
But what, exactly, is a “Newfoundland book”? Is it a book about Newfoundland? Is it a book by a Newfoundlander? What if a Newfoundland writer writes a book that isn’t set in this province and has nothing to do with Newfoundland? Are my Biblical novels, or my historical novel The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson, considered “Newfoundland books” just because I wrote them, even if they have no regional content?
It seems to me from my observations this summer that the burgeoning growth in the regional publishing scene has resulted in some sharp divisions within “Newfoundland literature.” This particular store owner told me that I should have subtitled By the Rivers of Brooklyn something like “Newfoundlanders in New York” because it would be easier to sell if the title told you exactly what the book was about. Of course, to me that would make it sound like a non-fiction book, but for the market he’s selling to, that’s an asset — many of his customers are more interested in non-fiction works that give information about some aspect of the Newfoundland experience. The same shop does a brisk business in mass-market paperback fiction from the U.S., but there doesn’t seem to be a cross-over audience of people who just want a good, absorbing novel that just happens to be written by a Newfoundlander.
In fact, depending on what kind of a store you’re in (the big chain stores, Coles/Chapters, are an exception to this because they carry a little of everything), you’re going to get one of two different kinds of “Newfoundland books.” Some shops will sell largely non-fiction; the fiction they do sell is generally more notable for its Newfoundland content than for its literary quality — in other words, people will buy it because it’s a book about Newfoundland or Newfoundlanders, not caring too much about how well-written it is. The store where I had this conversation with the owner has a vast display of local books and most are in this category — non-fiction or heavily fact-based fiction about some specific aspect of Newfoundland life, marketed to people who are interested in buying a “Newfoundland book.”
Then you’ll find another category of Newfoundland literature, often in completely different, artsier and more upscale shops. Here you’ll find the Newfoundland writers — mostly fiction, but some non-fiction and poetry — who are winning literary awards both locally and nationally, and making a name for themselves as good writers who just happen to be from Newfoundland. These books often have a local setting, but the emphasis tends to me more on good writing than on packaging and marketing the book as “Newfoundland literature.” It’s on these shelves that you’ll find the Lisa Moores, the Michael Winters and Michael Crummeys, the Russell Wangerskys and others of their ilk.
There’s very little crossover between the two groups. The people who read Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey don’t seem to read Earl B. Pilgrim or T.C. Badcock, and very often their books aren’t even sold on the same racks of “Newfoundland literature.”
Of course, what’s tricky for me at this point is that I’m trying to place By the Rivers of Brooklyn in both categories — selling it to touristy markets as a book about the experience of Newfoundlanders emigrating to New York, and selling it to avid readers as a darned good historical novel. There are other books that have straddled this divide — most notably Random Passage and Waiting for Time, written by my aunt Bernice Morgan. These two books were arguably the catalyst for the current explosion of Newfoundland fiction, and have had a broad appeal to those who like good literature and those who are looking for books about our province’s history and heritage.
So far, my attempt to fit By the Rivers of Brooklyn into that same broad market seems to be working. But not everything I write in the future will have that cross-over appeal. Some of my works-in-progress are just novels that will have a Newfoundland setting as part of the package, but that I hope will stand alone as a good read. Will that make them harder to sell? Maybe so.
I worry, too, about a middle ground between these two categories. If you’re not writing a book that clearly angles for the tourist dollar, but you’re also not such a literary heavy-hitter that you’re likely to be nominated for a Governor-General’s award, where does your book fit? What if it’s just a good piece of mainstream fiction that keeps you turning pages and happens to be written by a Newfoundlander (and possibly set in this province)?
I can think of several books in that category, some written by friends of mine, and probably many of my works-in-progress — What You Want would be a good example — will fall into this category too. The same people who are buying mass-market and trade paperbacks from big North American publishers just because they want to enjoy a good read would probably enjoy these Newfoundland novels too — but will they ever get to see them and buy them? Will they be interested in picking them up at all, or will they write off a “Newfoundland book” as something about the history of the fishery that you can give to Pop for Christmas?
I don’t have any answers, but after this trip and this summer of book-promoting and book-signing, I sure have lots more questions.