Stories about storytellers (Douglas Gibson 2011)

Alice Munro wrote a letter to the head of Macmillan of Canada in March 1986 when Douglas Gibson moved from Macmillan to set up Douglas Gibson Books at McClelland and Stewart (M&S).

In the letter she wrote of her desire to be free of her contract with Macmillan so that she could be represented by Douglas Gibson books at M&S.

Stories about storytellers

The letter is reprinted (pp. 344-345) in Stories about storytellers (2011). Douglas Gibson mentions that Robert Thacker had found the letter during research for the revised version of a biography of Munro entitled Alice Munro: Writing her lives.

Munro was keen to join Gibson at his new publishing house. Linda McKnight, the new head of Macmillan, was less keen about the idea. Munro wrote to McKnight asking to be free of the contract.

In her letter Munro said Gibson had first talked to her about publishing with Macmillan in the mid-seventies.

“I was very discouraged at the time,” notes Munro.

Ryerson had not promoted her first book. McGraw-Hill had shown little enthusiasm for her next two books.

“Every publisher I had met,” she added, “had assured me that I would have to grow up and write novels before I could be taken seriously as a writer.”

Book after book about short stories

She had not found a publisher interested in taking on a writer “who was going to turn out book after book about short stories. The result of this was that I wasted much time trying to turn myself into a novelist, and had become so depressed that I was unable to write at all. Doug changed that. He was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short story writer, and that a book of short stories could be published and promoted as major fiction.”

In the end, Gibson notes, Macmillan was paid a fee to free Munro from her contract, and Gibson continued as her publisher. The money for the fee came from Avie Bennett, who had made a fortune as a developer and who later had joined the board at  McClelland and Stewart, before buying the company in 1986.

Jacobs, Goffman, Munro

I like to think of ways in which Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, and Alice Munro share similarities.

By way of example, each is characterized by an extraordinary capacity for observation and analysis. Each has brought a characteristic perceptiveness to their work. Each has an extraordinary capacity, as a writer, to sustain the interest of readers. Each has made a strong contribution to our understanding of how things work in the world.

Each in the course of their lives has drawn upon a wide range of resources to launch and sustain their careers.

As the letter that Alice Munro wrote in March 1986 indicates, her own career path was strongly influenced by a Canadian publisher who saw merit in Munro’s desire to pursue a career as a writer of short stories, rather than as a novelist.

Jane Jacobs was thwarted in her desire to pursue a university career; as a result she became a professional writer. She maintained a contact with the academic world yet had an impact on urban planning that would perhaps not have been available as an academic insider.

Erving Goffman originally was planning to become a chemist. During three years studying chemistry at the University of Manitoba he came to realize that his real interest was in the social sciences. Once Goffman had moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in his undergraduate years, a recent graduate in sociology from the University of Toronto suggested to him that he pursue a career in sociology.


A June 3, 2017 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Publisher, philanthropist, real estate developer Avie Bennett dead at 89: His Order of Canada citation calls Bennett “one of the great altruists of our time,” noting his support for Canadian culture.”


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