This is my nickel’s worth of thoughts on the Giller controversy (written under the firm scarlet bias of a former Gaspereau Press employee). And this is prefaced with as much congratulatory whoop for Johanna as it is possible for one person to produce.
I defy anyone who says Gaspereau Press doesn’t care about or stand by their authors. Working there kinda felt like you cut up a bit of yourself and laid it on the press. That might sound romantic, but it’s not. It’s a by-product of a business that is more than a business. It’s what happens when something becomes a living breathing interconnected part of the community, both writerly and local. It was more than just a job. What they produce is more than just a book. As publishers they are fundamentally engaged with the entire process of a book from start to finish. This is remarkable and unusual but it shouldn’t be.
Part of the controversy seems to boil down to a conflict between art and craft (probably Art and Craft in capital letters, all high and mighty). It illustrates the problem of an age where the book is seen not as an end in itself but a vehicle, a corpse-like vessel for a writers’ work. But the art of the book (typography, printing, binding, editing, design) is about more than just production. Johanna’s writing is excellent and she deserves to have a book appropriate to the calibre of her work.
I could argue from my perspective as a book conservator. A typical ‘perfect-bound’ book cuts the back off the book’s sections and holds itself together primarily with its glue. The pages are poor quality greyish wove, all scratchy, and smelling of lignin. Some major publishers in Canada use paper that’s barely a half-step over newsprint. A Gaspereau Press book uses decent quality paper, is sewn, and then perfect-bound. Structurally, that’s a momentous degree of difference. A distinction between girdered metal and a rickety cartoon bridge.
Most of the online discussion talks about how beautiful a Gaspereau book is(often as a prelude to the word “but”). This misses the point almost entirely. A Gaspereau Press book is not simply a fetish object, a ‘beautiful book’, a ‘collector’s item’. It could be those things. But it is also supremely functional and ultimately, it is a product of careful consideration and thought. Not just for aesthetic reasons but because the book is a holistic product. This marks the first time that a book has simultaneously won the Giller and an Alcuin award for book design.
At this year’s BookCampTO, there was a presentation on the book as fetish object that featured work by a firm that prints and binds for larger publishers. They were lovely simple clamshell boxes and hardbound books. But people handled them like they were made of precious gold. This felt like a major problem to me. This was a room full of writers, publishers, publicists, media consultants, booksellers, etc, all deeply embedded in the principles of selling and making books. And they were agog over a clamshell box. The drooling over the hardcover books was also baffling to me given that most modern hardcovers are held together without sewing and they have about as much structural integrity as the much maligned paperback. Just with a heavier cover.
It suggests to me a fundamental lack in cultural literacy even within the book publishing establishment about what a book is, what it is capable of, and the parameters from which it came. There are publishers that do not even check the grain of their paper stock. Show those books to me in twenty years and I guarantee they’ll have pulled out of their ‘perfect’ binding, particularly as the glue ages and brittles.
Sure, we want to buy something simple, we want to buy something easy, something that can be quickly labelled and shelved in a neat little pile and off-loaded on the consumer. We want to eat McNuggets.
Sometimes maybe it might be a good idea to absorb something of value, something of worth, not because it is easy or quick but because it isn’t. Because it takes time and thought and a whole lot of work. What do we admire about a Gaspereau book, and do we really only admire those qualities if they are convenient? Some writers seem to assume this kind of attention to detail is a nice frill. I think there’s an assumption that there’s a premium on beauty: a luxury tax. We expect too little.
Wouldn’t it be appalling if we wrote the way GP is being told to produce their books? Conveniently. Without due care. Without consideration. Do we only write what is easy? Why should an author settle for less than what their writing deserves? How ultimately self -defeating. We should value ourselves and our work enough to demand more, to learn more, to throw down a flag or two.
I’m not a Luddite. I like e-books. I love the dips of research made possible through this flickery box. I love books in all their forms. I don’t think books should be hallowed or held under bell jars. A book is a functional piece of joy. Or at least it should be. And in the case of a Gaspereau Press book: it is.
Johanna deserves every bit of good that comes her way through this win. Order her book because it’s worth the wait. Buy it as an e-book now if you can’t wait to read it. Hard to say how this might be resolved in the coming weeks but it felt important that I say this loudly: I don’t believe for a fraction of a second that Gaspereau doesn’t care about their authors. My impression as a former employee and a friend is that they do pretty much naught else.