A few weeks ago, we at Biblioasis came across a pleonasm on Twitter that has quickly become our press slogan: “To chance the ducks.” John S. Famer’s 1891 Dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues posits that this means “come what may,” describing it as a phrase a person might use “when he makes up his mind to a risky venture,” though our Twitter lexicographer ups the ante, arguing it means “to do something regardless of the risks or potential for disaster.” As a small independent literary publisher operating just north of the 49th parallel, I’ve spent much of the last 15 years skirting disaster, so this second definition, with apologies to John S. Farmer, is the one that has registered.
As I write this, we have just learned that one of the biggest books—and risks—Biblioasis has taken on in its 15 years has just been shortlisted for the U.K.’s Booker Prize. The book in question is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. This particular duck is 1,040 pages and largely consists of a single unending sentence, unspooling in the mind of an Ohio housewife as she worries about everything, and it is quite unlike any book I’ve read, let alone published. When I first pitched it to booksellers at ABA’s Winter Institute, I suggested that if Biblioasis becomes but a footnote in American literary history, it’ll be because we published this book—and I meant it.
Like every other publisher in North America—a phrase that will immediately let you know it is a Canadian who is speaking—we first picked up this book looking for an excuse to say no to publishing it. Many publishers did. I’ve seen the list, and it includes all of the multinationals and most of the best independents—but by the time we finished it, we knew that if we were serious about our commitment to literature, we had to find a way to publish it. Quill & Quire, the closest thing Canada has to Publishers Weekly, once called us the preeminent “publisher of the unpublishable,” which is still one of the best and truest things that has been said about us. With Ducks, Newburyport we’ve lived up to the billing.
We are not alone in this risk taking. When I look at the most exciting publishing that is happening in Canada right now, much of it is with the independents, presses like (in English Canada) Arsenal Pulp, Coach House, ECW, House of Anansi, Invisible Press, and in Quebec, Editions Alto, Heliotrope, and Le Quartanier, among others. If publishing in Canada began largely as a nationalistic venture, it is no longer the case. Each of these presses, in unique and interesting ways, are chancing the ducks, and making literature everywhere far richer for their efforts.
You’re forgiven if you didn’t know this. These are smaller houses, after all, and their concerns may not be what is traditionally thought of as Canadian. On a recent trade mission I learned that when many foreign publishers think of Canada, they think of people living in the wilderness, a world full of trees and mountains. When I eventually raised my hand to say that most Canadians live in urban centers and have a distant and conflicted relationship to the natural world, and that the best of our literature reflects this, I was told that this was “very disappointing” to hear. Don’t worry: if it’s Roughing It in the Bush you’re after, there are plenty of versions of it out there. I might even have one for you in Mark Bourrie’s Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Esprit-Radisson, one of the top-selling Canadian history books of the year, and a real-life Canadian adventure story like no other. But if you’re interested in learning more about modern-day Canada, and if Canada’s being the Guest of Honor for Frankfurt 2020 is going to mean anything, you’re going to need to dig a little deeper. So, go ahead: chance the ducks yourself, and take a look at the best of what some of these publishers have to offer. Your lists, I promise, will be richer for it.
John S. Farmer tells us that an analogue to “chance the ducks” is “to please the pigs,” but I dunno, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. “Please the penguin?” Seems to me enough people are doing that already.
Dan Wells is the publisher of Biblioasis in Windsor, Ontario.