About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Jack – A Life with Writers by James King

Jack – A Life with Writers by James King (1999) – If asked to name a Canadian publisher my first thought is Jack McClelland even though he left McClelland & Stuart 30 years ago. His drive and personality made him the face of Canadian publishing for 40 years. He published over 2,500 books.

His father was a founder of the company. After serving as a motor torpedo boat commander in the Canadian Navy during World War II Jack entered the family business in 1946. His nickname of “Sonny Boy” grated.

On his publishing goal:

He shared his father’s innate conviction that publishing was a belief in and commitment to his Canadian culture.

He became a Canadian nationalist in book publishing when McClelland & Stuart lost over half of its sales and income because the American publisher, Doubleday, severed their agency relationship and set up a Canadian subsidiary.

Though Canada has always been inundated by American published books Jack was determined to publish Canadian authors. It was a financially perilous quest that needed infusions of government money to survive.

Getting Canadians to read Canadian authors even as much as American and English authors has been difficult for publishers. I see it no different today. Yet Jack never wavered. Over the course of his career he published most of Canada’s best known authors.

In fiction his authors included such strong women writers as Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood. There were non-fiction authors such as Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton and Peter Newman. Among his poets were Earle Birney, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen.
His attitude towards poetry was striking:

I would say that we publish Canadian poetry first and foremost because we are Canadian publishers and we still consider poetry one of the most important forms through which the creative writer may express himself.

He published poetry despite the financial consequences:

We inevitably lose money even on a relatively successful volume because the market is at best a confined one.

He was a publisher involved in the “reading, acceptance or rejection of manuscripts”. On assessing books:

He once said, “I can usually tell if manuscript is good, but I can’t tell why." He responds to books intuitively, which has made him an unusually receptive reader.

An illustration of this approach was set out in my recent post on the author, Patricia Blondal, where he stayed up until 3:00 in the morning reading her book, A Candle in the Sun, and then met her that day for a lunch that lasted all afternoon.

For Jack authors were at the heart of publishing:

“We are middlemen offering a service to writers. It is a service business. We serve well or not. If we let them down we hurt ourselves, just as in any other service industry ….. You can make almost any mistake at M&S and be given another chance – rudeness or arrogance in dealing with authors – no matter who they are – I will not tolerate.”

I wonder how many authors today feel their publishers so value them.

While he may have been privately shy, flamboyant barely encompassed his public persona.

His promotions could be outrageous. Can anyone think of another publisher who, on a snowy March day, would dress in a toga and gold laurels to join author, Sylvia Fraser, dressed in a glittering silver dress, to go by horse drawn chariot to visit Toronto bookstores to promote her book, The Emperor’s Virgin? And when the chariot broke down, the never daunted the sandal shod Jack trudged with Fraser through the snow to visit the bookstores.

In the early 1980’s Jack assessed himself:

“I have never been a superrealist. I have been an enthusiast, an optimist, a problem simplifier – never a super-realist or even much of a realist.”

I regret I never met him.

The best parts of the book were excerpts from letters he wrote to authors. My next post will discuss and quote those memorable missives.

King does well in describing Jack the publisher but the book is a touch worshipful to be a convincing biography. It leans to the style of official company biographies commissioned by large corporations. Clearly charmed by Jack I wish he had showed more candour.


  1. That's the thing about biographies, Bill. I've read some, too, that are a little too, well, almost worshipful to be completely honest. I prefer Candor. Still, that aside, it does sound like a fascinating story of a fascinating man. I always respect publishers who support there own, if I may put it that way.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Jack gained a lot of attention for books in Canada. If he were around today he would have been a great blogger and an even better Tweeter

  3. True, Bill, Jack would have taken to social media like a house on fire. :-) Despite its worshipful leanings, it sounds to me like a great way to get to know this fascinating man. I'm putting it on my TBR list and I thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Debbie: Thanks for the comment. I did learn a lot about Jack and publishing in Canada over 40 years.

  4. This man sounds very interesting. Full of passion and very uninhibited. I admire his devotion to promoting Canadian authors. Thanks for sharing this book on your blog.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. We would be a better nation with more Jack McClelland's.