- Douglas Gibson Unedited: On Editing Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, W.O. Mitchell, Mavis Gallant, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod, etc.
The star of a good book is the author, and that's as it should be, but the essential and interesting work of editors tends therefore to be invisible, or only vaguely comprehended. Douglas Gibson Unedited, about an accomplished Canadian editor and publisher who has worked with such writers as Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, and W. O. Mitchell, is a welcome contribution to the (tiny) canon of works on editorial culture.
As an artifact, the book is - well, odd. It contains text in English, an introduction and a conclusion in both English and French, and an acknowledgements page in French only. The black-and-white cover features a portrait of Gibson into whose dark suit the name of the book's editor-compiler, Christine Evain, nearly disappears. The unedited in the [End Page 514] title refers to the substance of the text - verbatim transcripts of three conversations (1988, 2005, 2006) with Douglas Gibson, president and publisher of McClelland and Stewart Ltd - but becomes an accidental double entendre for the reader who spots a typo here, a wrong preposition there, and the occasional infelicitous translation of an idiom.
But Evain's passion and determination are unmistakable, and as any editor will attest, that is the heart of a good book. Her purpose is 'to create further academic interest in the files which Douglas Gibson entrusted to the McMaster University archives,' but the book is also of interest to emerging and established editors and publishers: in describing the day-to-day work of a trade-book editor, it conveys the intellectual and entrepreneurial rigour that make successful books and satisfying work.
For example, Gibson describes the editor's role in shaping and even creating books. He and his author Jack Hodgins were having lunch at the University of Victoria, just before Hodgins's writing class, at which Gibson was going to be a guest speaker, and Hodgins was 'just arranging his notes and I looked at them and said to him: "This is really good! Oh my goodness!" And so I spent months persuading him that people outside his class would benefit from his advice about how to be a writer of fiction.' Hodgins wrote A Passion for Narrative, Gibson published it, and 20,000 copies were sold.
Gibson is also responsible for the literary repatriation of Mavis Gallant. Her work was virtually unknown in Canada in the late 1970s, when he bought the Canadian rights to From the Fifteenth District. 'Then, I wrote to Mavis in Paris and said, "Dear Mavis, You have written a book that you don't know about. Its title is Home Truths."' He proposed a collection of her stories with Canadian themes, and he enclosed a draft table of contents. The book was very well received and won the Governor General's Literary Award.
The most Maxwell-Perkinsian story in Douglas Gibson Unedited recounts Gibson's work on Ten Lost Years, 1929-1939, an oral history of the Depression by Barry Broadfoot. 'He went around with a tape recorder,' Gibson says, 'and he collected these individual [first-person] stories and he sent them on to me in apple cartons - hundreds of thousands of words.' Working closely with Broadfoot, he read and sorted the material, pulled out about 2.5 per cent of it, organized it into chapters, and published an extraordinary book.
Gibson often deploys his cultural sensibility and business savvy to defend literature as well as to shape it. In a letter written in 1985, included in the book as an appendix, Alice Munro says, 'Every publisher I had met had assured me that I would have to grow up and write novels before I could be taken seriously as a writer . . . . I wasted much time and effort trying to turn myself into a novelist, and had become so depressed that [End Page 515] I was unable to write at all...