Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

150 Years of Storytelling with Douglas Gibson

In the aftermath of Pierre Laporte's murder during the 1972 October Crisis, a CBC producer had the inspired idea to invite author W.O. Mitchell to address the nation on television. As Douglas Gibson points out in his presentation 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, Mitchell opened his address with the words, “There's been a death in my family.” It's a message of unity that helped heal a nation reeling from the threat of violent fragmentation. Meanwhile, as we find out later in Gibson's presentation, the one man both Pierre Trudeau and Paul Rose would trust with the task of negotiating the FLQ's surrender proved to be acerbic Quebecois novelist Jacques Ferron.

It's hard to think of a more striking example of novelists taking a central role in Canadian politics and history. In the context of Gibson's presentation, however, the story comes across as almost inevitable: the richness of life in Canada, his two-hour multi-media presentation implies, has always depended on the participation of our greatest storytellers.

Douglas Gibson's enthusiasm for Canadian literature is contagious. Armed with a binder of typed notes and bedecked in his “publisher's uniform” of a navy blazer and striped tie, Gibson, like a university professor delivering his dream lecture, seemed on Saturday to be utterly delighted at the opportunity to talk about the subject he loves best.

This all stands to reason, of course. Canadian literature has been Gibson's life's work. As an editor and publisher, he worked with authors who defined the Canadian literary canon for the past fifty years. Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Robertson Davies are names he speaks with the fondness of friendship as much as the admiration of a devoted reader.

Since retiring from publishing in 2008, Gibson has been at work writing books on his experience of the Canadian literary world, first in Stories about Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, and more recently in Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure. Instead of simply reading excerpts from his books in promoting them, Gibson has opted to craft multi-media stage presentations he can take on the road.

It's the right choice. Not only is Gibson an engaging, personable storyteller, but the multi-media format lets him re-imagine his books' content in light of the demands of public presentation – a liberty I wish more authors felt free to take.

His most recent “show,” 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, takes on the ambitious task of presenting a highlight reel of the major Canadian authors who've written fiction since Confederation. “It's an arrogant thing to do,” Gibson admitted in his first minutes on stage. To curate a list of Canadian authors (English, French and Indigenous), particularly one condensed enough to explore over the course of two hours, makes exclusion and omission a feature of the presentation.

That being said, throughout most of the two hours, what struck me most was, delightfully, Gibson's enthusiasm for literature of all sorts. Limiting himself to two or three writers per decade lets him share (often very personal) stories about each writer, as well as providing some timely cultural context through art, photographs, headlines and music. In Gibson's accounts, Robertson Davies is a man who “looked like God,” while Stephen Leacock's restored cottage gives the visitor a “'Goldilocks feeling' that the owners will return at any moment.

Notably – and refreshingly – Gibson has made a point of centering francophone literature in this English-language presentation: 14 of his roughly 30 featured works were originally written in French. I'd argue there isn't nearly as much cross-pollination as there could be between anglophone and francophone literature in Canada, and it was wonderful to see one of our star bookish taste-makers celebrating our two official literary traditions side by side.

In the midst of this exuberant and jam-packed presentation, the demand for selectivity did make me reflect on how we build literary canons – that process of selection and, inevitably, exclusion. This struck me most in light of Gibson's decision to feature writer Joseph Boyden, whose work and public persona has been the subject of increasing criticism by Indigenous communities over the past year. After praising Boyden's work, Gibson drew attention to this controversy, adding, “Is Joseph Boyden really an Indigenous writer? I don't know – it's not for me to say.” He then followed this with an affirmation of the role of Boyden's work in fostering broader awareness of aboriginal narratives in Canada.

It struck me that it is difficult to acknowledge the impact of Boyden's work without letting the noise of that impact muffle other Indigenous voices. On the one hand, a discussion of 21st century Canadian literature that omitted Boyden's work would likely seem ahistorical. On the other hand, I'm certain many audience members were previously unaware of the criticism Gibson alluded to, and while it's possible they left feeling the need to look into it, it seems equally likely that Gibson's gentle, diplomatic framing of the controversy allayed their concerns rather than arousing them.

In this presentation (as in the prioritizing of one's reading list), including one book means saying “no” to another. The editor's skill of paring the fat from a story is one Gibson has mastered over the course of a long career, but it was moving to see that in conversations about books, he seemed disappointed by the need to leave anything out.

There was a moment at the end of Gibson's presentation when he invited the audience to suggest storytellers he unjustly omitted. It's an excellent idea, and it's a part of the session I was really looking forward to. Sadly, in this case, the session ran out of time before audience could make their suggestions.

Despite this, I was grateful for everything that fit in the allotted time, particularly Gibson's personal stories about writers like Alice Munro. Though it's an account I'd heard before, I loved hearing him recall his conversation with Munro early in her career, when she felt that, since everyone in publishing was telling her she should stop writing short stories and focus on novels, she ought to listen. All of Canada (and the international literary community, no doubt) owes Douglas Gibson a debt of gratitude for telling her, “If everyone is telling you to write a novel, then everyone is wrong.”

Having a champion like Douglas Gibson is an absolute game-changer for an emerging writer. The whole, broad spectrum of Canadian storytellers (and their readers) deserves more of them.