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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Letters of Jack McClelland

Jack – A Life with Writers by James King – My last post reviewed the biography of Canadian publisher, Jack McClelland. Reading about his life was interesting but what was best were the excerpts from his letters, especially to authors. Jack was never a remote publisher. Some quotes from his remarkable letters form this post.

He could be very blunt. In a letter to Farley Mowat on a proposed foreword:

And secondly, I think it is badly overwritten. Some of the phrases and some of the pictures that are conveyed are extremely good, but it’s too contrived and a bit too purple for my liking, and I think you should tone it down so that it will read more smoothly ….. It’s far better than I would expect to see from another author. It’s terrific, fabulous and fantastic, but it isn’t your best work and needs further effort. In short, it’s none too good.

In a letter to poet to Earle Birney, over a critical interview Birney gave in England, he was furious and forgiving in the same letter:

You son of a bitch, I would be far more inclined to agree to give books away on your behalf if you wouldn’t involve yourself in such vicious and incredibly stupid interviews as the one that appeared in Smith’s Trade Journal. I would like to think you are misquoted, but I am sure that you weren’t, and I think you must have taken leave of your senses. What the hell have you got against Canadian publishers? ….. As usual, I forgive you.

When poet Irving Layton complained about Jack not being willing to publish books commissioned by the publisher on Layton's work but which Jack considered not publishable the reply to Layton was graphic:

Are you really all that bloody insecure? I could vomit. Let’s get a few things straight and on the record ……Another thing I should tell you, old friend, is that the most important thing that your poetry accomplished in this country is to make poetry respectably unrespectable. Of if you prefer, unrespectably respectable. Poetry in Canada used to be in the hands of old ladies and the odd gifted human being like Bliss Carman ….

To save time in responding to some author complaints in the 1970’s:

Jack had a “Bullshit” stamp made and sometimes used it on missives received from Pierre [Berton].

He could be playful. He wanted Christina Newman, wife of author Peter Newman, to write a biography but she was concerned with the demands on her time of a hyperactive 3 year old child and her hyperactive demanding 38 year old husband. Jack wrote back:

We would be prepared to make a sufficient advance to look after babysitters, housekeepers, and even, for God’s sake, a mistress for Peter if that would help.

He could be humorous while making a point. In a letter to the Toronto Star newspaper:

When the paperback manager of Canada’s largest ‘books only’ chain [Classic Books] makes disparaging comments about three of Canada’s most distinguished authors – Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat – while drooling over [the American prostitute-turned-author] Xaviera Hollander it is time to call a halt …. I propose that we use the term ‘koob’, book spelt backwards, to describe the sort of impressions from a police blotter that Ms. Hollander writes … Please don’t misunderstand me. I like junk reading. I’ve sold a lot of koobs in my day and plan to continue to do so, but I do respect books and I think a distinction must be made.

Many authors contacted to him as they were upset over negative reviews of their books. To Pierre Berton he wrote:

          Don’t read the reviews! Measure them!

He could write moving letters of appreciation. He wrote to Gabrielle Roy:

Have I ever told you that you write the most beautiful letters I ever receive? I am often tempted to bother you with a string of letters just so that I can have the replies. Why should I be surprised, though? As I have told you so many times, you are the greatest writer in the country, and it is not surprising that you should write such lovely letters.

And lest authors think submission letters are not important King provides an anecdote involving American publisher, Alfred Knopf:

He once told Jack that a secret to a book’s success could often be found in the letter that accompanied a manuscript: “If they can’t write a good letter, how can they write a good book?”

I doubt you can find a publisher today who writes letters with the verve, passion and style of Jack.


  1. Those letters are definitely revealing of his character, Bill. In fact, I've often thought that letters do tell a lot about a person. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I can tell you that I have never written office letters like Jack.

  2. Those letters are priceless, Bill. Although I already have a huge backlog of non-fiction books to read, I think I would really enjoy this book.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. It is one of the rare non-fiction books that kept me eager to see what is on the next page as I hoped there would be another excerpt from one of his letters.