Reader interest in speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural, superhero, apocalypse, fabulism, and other genres of literature that explore liminal and unreal space—is at an all-time high. You would think this means publishers are releasing dozens and dozens of titles to meet demand, yet I hear the same thing from authors in this genre over and over: Canadian publishers just aren’t that interested.
Indeed, if you review the guidelines at Canadian literary agencies, you’ll notice that only a handful of agents are open to submissions of science fiction and fantasy and associated genres. The majority of Canadian SFF novels in recent years—written by talented and successful artists like Amal El-Mohtar, C.L. Polk, Fonda Lee, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—usually find their success with American agents and at American or U.K. publishers.
Short speculative fiction, on the other hand, is flourishing in Canada, and it is diverse. Augur Magazine is making waves in the SFF community publishing mostly Canadian authors and boosting BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQIA2S+ voices. Anathema, a genre-focused Canadian magazine that exclusively publishes authors who are both BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+, is widely recognized for its excellence and unique literature.
But despite this readily available talent and some good government granting support, Canadian publishing lags behind when it comes to speculative novels. But then, it’s not surprising. Classic Canadian literature has a reputation for being somewhat stuffy (along with being very white, straight, and male dominated). And fiction rooted in unreality, in imagination, has often been stigmatized worldwide. For a long time, it was pushed to the margins of what is considered art, believed to be less than more serious literary pursuits.
But this image is changing, if somewhat more slowly in Canada. Audiences are recognizing there’s power in imaginative storytelling: the power to reflect the world, to critique it, and to envision it otherwise. There’s also value in escape; these books provide a needed reprieve from a reality that seems darker every day. This sort of speculative storytelling is especially powerful in the hands of marginalized creators, those most able to see the cracks in the existing systems and most in need of a refuge from them. It’s no wonder the great wave of modern international speculative fiction is so diverse.
It is starting in Canada now. Speculative work by authors such as Jael Richardson, Amanda Leduc, Cherie Dimaline, David Demchuk, and Catherine Hernandez are gripping Canadian audiences. And the genre is popular here: many recent contending novels on Canada Reads—a national battle-of-the-books-style competition that drives significant sales—are speculative fiction. Still, it’s difficult to point to more than a few Canadian authors who have been picked up by Canadian presses without having first established themselves in literary fiction or nonfiction. There’s some incredible work out there, but there’s a further need to boost brilliant, diverse writers looking to break out in SFF now.
It’s a great hope of mine that Canadian publishers and agents interested in speculative fiction will help dispel the genre stigma and begin to explicitly ask for it, represent it, and publish it. We’re now doing this where I work, at Toronto-based independent publisher ECW Press. ECW has been publishing this work for some time, and we’re now making a concerted effort to take on more of it. We’ve just launched a speculative fiction novel contest judged by Augur co-editor-in-chief Terese Mason Pierre and me. The goal is to find new Canadian writers of speculative fiction and to help them succeed and be heard. We’re certain that Canada is full of diverse, fresh perspectives in this genre, and we’re working hard to bring these voices to Canadian audiences and to the forefront of the international conversation.
Jen R. Albert is an editor at ECW Press.