A Select Checklist in Progress

Lecker, Robert and David, Jack, eds.  The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors [ABCMA] ECW Press, 1979-Volumes One and Two: Volume one (1979), 263 pp.  Volume two (1980), 277 pp.

These are the first two volumes of a proposed ten-volume series of bibliographies of forty-nine 'major' Canadian writers-poets and novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Five of the volumes will be devoted to fiction writers, five to poets, both English and French.  In the first volume the editors, in their introduction, make the assertion that it 'attempts to meet the demand for solid bibliographical information of five of Canada's most respected fiction writers.' Let us stop right there: 'demand' — from what sector? surely not from doctoral students and more experienced scholars who need 'solid bibliographical information.' The ABCMA bibliographies are, in reality, checklists with notes.   The notes accompany the articles about the authors; the entries for the primary works are simply brief catalogue notations.  Far more detailed descriptions of the primary works are needed before this can be described as, to use the editors' word, 'solid.'

     According to the editors, ABCMA '[first] presents full listings of all works by major Canadian authors'; second 'a complete, annotated list of works on the author' (from books, sections of books to literary awards and honours).  The editors further inform the reader that complete information regarding primary and secondary material will be provided up to December 31, 1978.  With considerable optimism the editors plan to issue 'updates' of ABCMA after 1978.

     It is difficult and regrettable when one finds oneself in the position of having to criticize and to discourage bibliographical endeavours in Canadian literature, especially English Canadian, for the simple reason that so much needs to be done.  French Canadian bibliographers over the past fifteen years have received considerable moral and financial support from their provincial government as well as from the major universities and libraries in Quebec.  Their bibliographical labours have produced, in a remarkably short time, such comprehensive compilations of the province's literature as the Dictionnaire des oeuvres litteraires du Quebec (in progress; v. 1, des origins a 1900.  Montreal: Fides, 1978; v. 2, 1900 a 1939.   Montreal: Fides, 1980) and the Bibliographies de la critique de la litterature quebecoise dans les revues, xixe et xxe siecles (Ottawa: Centre de recherche en civilization canadienne-francaise, 1979.  5 v. Documents de travail: 12-16).   Nothing comparable in scope and thoroughness exists in English Canada.  Nor does there appear to be any hope of such bibliographical endeavour in the near future.

     The most pressing need in English Canadian literature is for an enumerative bibliography supported by more specialized descriptive bibliographies of authors whose work is complete.  Scholars familiar with the bibliography-poor state of our literary culture agree that a major bibliographical effort is required to produce a detailed and comprehensive record of primary and secondary sources over the whole range of English Canadian literature from 1628 to the present.  The obvious model for such a work is the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature.  The Canadian counterpart might well include more detailed bibliographical description and pay closer attention to secondary sources, but one would fervently hope it would be devoid of annotations.  Canadian literature in English simply does not compare in volume with English literature.  Modifications from the CBEL format would follow naturally in order to suit our own particular situation.  The basic bibliography we so badly need should constitute a record of our literary publication set down in an objective, i.e. accepted bibliographic, manner.

     When examining the first two ABCMA volumes one cannot help but compare them with a selective bibliography of American literature, Jacob Blanck's detailed and well-considered Bibliography of American Literature, 1955-73, volumes 1-6 (in progress).   Blanck's work, when completed, . . .'will include the works published in book form of approximately 300 writers from the Federal period up to and including persons who died before the end of 1930.'  How much better would it have been for editors Lecker and David if they had included, say, 100 to 150 authors who had died before 1960?   Blanck's work has progressed slowly, but it is thorough, complete, and his criteria for selection are sound.  Such is not the case with the ABCMA enterprise

     Now we have the first two volumes of The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors, [ABCMA], an anagram which is not likely to become part of literary and library parlance along with BM, BN, LC and CBEL.  Does this new, projected ten-volume compilation meet our needs? As stated in the introduction to volume one:

"The series is designed to be the first collection of comprehensive, annotated bibliographies of works by and on Canada's major French and English authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. . . .   Each volume will include five discrete, annotated bibliographies of works by and on specific writers."

Does this series come to grips with our real needs? The answer is, unhappily, in the negative.

     One must look first at the unfortunate, almost presumptuous, title of the series.  It is to be hoped that this bibliography will not be the Canadian work of its kind.  The bibliography is annotated which, to any serious student, leaves it open to question as to its quality.  If the bibliographies of each author contain annotations by a variety of compilers, how uniform, how objective, how dependable are these summaries of secondary sources? The aim of any bibliographer worth his salt is to produce an objective and accurate record of the works in question.  There is, then, from a simple reading of the title, a growing suspicion of the volumes' reliability as works of scholarship.

     Are they to be depended upon? What heightens this reader's reservations, as far as the title is concerned, is the word 'major.'  Obviously some hard selective judgments had to be made.  By my counts the series will include seven French Canadians (volume I, p.   11) and forty-three English Canadian writers.  Volume II, p. 11 promises nine French Canadians, the rest English Canadian.

     The editors must be held responsible for the success or failure of the selective process they have applied.   Who are 'major' writers in our literature?  Are we at the stage when we are capable of classifying those writers who are 'major' and who are 'minor'?  Do we ever have to be in this position at all? There is no indication in the two volumes under review of the criteria used to make such distinctions.  It is invidious, not to mention embarrassing, to make comparisons and to comment on the authors considered 'major,' but one is forced to by the select list of authors the editors consider as having reached their majority.

     It is unfortunate but the selection gives every appearance of having been based on the most popular authors included in current university courses in Canadian literature at some academic institutions as well as on doctoral dissertations known by the editors to have been recently completed or in progress.  The selection process seems to have been shaped by what was near and readily available.  Is the current trend of Ph. D.   research a sensible basis for selection? Surely not.  It is also apparent that the compilers have approached scholars who are working on biographies, i.e. Scott, MacLennan.  In such a highly selective bibliography of forty-nine authors it is difficult to understand how such writers as Stead, W.W. Campbell, Gallant and Acorn and some others could conceivably be included.  How many bibliographies of 'major' authors have been commissioned for the series? Very few it would seem.  What about Thomas Chandler Haliburton, James de Mille? Is Thomas Raddall a 'major' Canadian author on the basis of his writing or because he is Maritime and there must be geographical balance? The main point I am making is that all of the authors who have appeared and who are to appear in ABCMA are important and are prominent in Canada's literary culture.   What is wrong, bibliographically wrong, are the value judgments made by the editors in such a work.  Bibliographies are for facts, accurate facts, enumerative, descriptive and at all times objective.

     By using annotations of secondary sources and by bringing to bear a highly questionable selective process (certainly expedient and the way to put a 'bibliography' together as quickly as possible), the series is suspect from the scholarly point of view and already out of date.   Even the most 'discrete' annotations introduce critical biases, and create a climate which will rapidly change.

     There is also the question of accuracy.  David Jackel in a penetrating and pains-taking review of volume one of ABCMA (see Canadian Literature, no. 88) has provided substantial evidence that there are errors and omissions.  As Dr. Jackel points out, both 'dependable' and 'complete' are terms which it is difficult for the editors to justify in any description of the project.  The entries are not accurate and they contribute to the observations already made above about the inevitable unevenness of annotations and the highly questionable selective process used by the editors to choose approximately fifty French and English Canadian writers.

     The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors will find ready acceptance by users of public library reference rooms, and by undergraduate essay writers but writers of doctoral dissertations and literary scholars will need to treat the annotations with scepticism and to check the original articles described in the sections devoted to 'secondary sources.'

     If the editors of ABCMA are to retrieve their project, at least in part, then it will be necessary to exercise far more rigid control over the form and accuracy of the bibliographical entries.   Why, for example, are published books listed before manuscripts? Why, with so many living writers involved, is not more attention paid to the printing history of published books, number of copies, for example? Why does Margaret Atwood appear as the first bibliography in each of the two volumes under review? As prose writer in volume one, as poet in number two? Surely it would have been wiser, in the interest of completeness, to delay her 'majority' until a later volume.  She is, after all, in the midst of a prolific writing career.  So there are indeed 49 major writers not fifty.  And then, of course, there are the uneven annotations and the unspecified criteria for selection.  It is now too late for the editors to restrict annotations.  They, and we, will have to live with them.

     By the time eight more volumes of this somewhat lavish series are published the cost of the entire set is likely to be in the neighbourhood of $300.00.  How many individuals will be prepared to invest that amount of money in a set which is already badly out of date and, given the changing fads and fancies of the audience to which it appears to be aimed, how many of the present 'majors' will have slipped into the great tide of the 'minors'?  One cannot help but wonder at the kind of bibliographical advice which was provided such funding agencies as, in volume one — "the Ontario Arts Council, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities with funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, The Association of Community Colleges and the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures" and in volume two — "The Association for Community Colleges and The Canada Council," before substantial sums of money were awarded to this project.

     Bibliographical work is slow, and subject to much checking and editing.  It cannot be put together in a hurry.  Unfortunately there is an air of haste and rapid decision about this series to date.  I, for one, hope the editors will edit and take the necessary care to make the eight volumes still to come a credit to the authors they plan to include, and will assure those scholars who would use them of a more reliable bibliographical source.   At this stage such measures seem virtually impossible.

D. G.  Lochhead