Monday, December 22, 2014

bear-ing it all

Saturday Night, November 1977.
Sometimes, while looking for material around the home office for upcoming articles, I stumble upon items I forgot I had which would have been useful at a particular time. Such was the case last night as I was prepping for this week’s installment of my "Vintage Toronto Ads" column for Torontoist. Flipping through a stack of 1970s Saturday Night magazines next to my desk, I discovered the cover shown above.


This summer saw a revival of interest in Marian Engel’s 1976 novel Bear, which revolves around a Toronto librarian’s affair with a bear. Not a human in a bear suit (like Susie the Bear from John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire), or a really hairy dude, but an honest-to-goodness wild bear. You can see how the rediscovery of such a work might arouse the internet.

But let’s go back to when Bear was still fresh on bookshelves across Canada. To lead off a special section on Can Lit in Saturday Night’s November 1977 issue, Sandra Martin looked at the controversies surrounding the book, and whether one should treat it as a joke. 
How did it happen that one of the great literary figures of recent Canadian culture ended up in the drugstores of our nation in a form dreamed up by an American commercial artist? How did it come about that a weathered, scruffy old bear was tarted up into a mockery of himself? How did it come to pass that Marian Engel, a leading figure in the Canadian literary matriarchy, was made to look like a purveyor of porn?
It also appears there were concerns over how far to push the book’s concept. 
When Engel won the 1976 Governor-General’s Award for Bear, Jack McClelland proposed to accompany her to the notoriously tight little Ottawa awards ceremony dressed in what he considered appropriate garb: a bear costume. Marian demurred. Miffed, McClelland boycotted the festivities. “After all,” he complained, “Marian had gone on television and told an interviewer she had originally written Bear as part of a pornographic anthology the Writer’s Union was publishing to raise money.” Actually, even before that project had aborted, Engel had decided to turn her short story into the best-selling novel that earned her almost equal measures of fame, praise, and scorn. “Why,” demanded McClelland, “should she object to me going as a bear when she had said that on television?”
Publisher McClelland and Stewart, sensing how touchy the story might be, sent preview copies out with grey covers. The hardcover version was, according to Martin, “published with a dust jacket that would have been more appropriate for a philosophical treatise on the existential meaning of Eskimo sculpture.”

For its initial promotion, a launch party was scrapped in favour of a “spontaneous” celebration held at M&S’s library display room. “It proved an all too appropriate spot,” Martin observed. “Hot and stuffy, without windows or enough space to stretch your limbs, the room resembled nothing so much as a bear’s lair.” It didn’t help that Engel’s name was misspelled on posters lining the room.

The critics spoke: “Watch out brown bear! Chained and submissive, you are the erotic fantasy of liberated shrews dreaming of sexual subjugation and intellectual dominance.” – Barbara Amiel, Maclean’s.

By the time it came to preparing a mass-market paperback version, Jack McClelland’s reticence was gone. He consulted with his partners in Seal Books at Bantam in New York. Artist Bill Edwards was assigned cover duty. 
The result is laughable: an escapee from an Arabian Knights masquerade propped up by a cigar store bear. Not only is sex anatomically impossible, considering their positions, it is also unthinkable. The bear in Engel’s book was “not a toy bear, not a Pooh bear, not an airlines Koala bear. A Real Bear.” It had “a long brown snout, and its snout had a black leathery end. It had small, sad eyes.” Engel’s bear stank of “shit and musk” and was “indubitably male.” And her woman, Lou, was middle-aged and dumpy. Lou and her bear were a strange couple—no doubt about it—but the cover came back looking like an ad for a fifth-rate taxidermist; a first-rate one would have made the bear look ferocious.
Regarding the cover, Engel was shocked at first, but felt obligated to approved something that would help the book sell. “I knew that cover would work in the drugstores,” she noted. McClelland believed the cover could have been raunchier, as the bear was bland and the woman could have shed some garments.

The rest of the section spotlighted Leonard Cohen (who promised new poems…eventually), Andre Malraux, Catherine Maclean’s failed attempt to write a biography of Mackenzie King, and reviews of works by Robertson Davies (One Half of Robertson Davies), Morley Callaghan (Close to the Sun Again), Margaret Atwood (Dancing Girls) Silver Donald Cameron (The Education of Everett Richardson), Gabrielle Roy (Garden in the Wind), Carol Shields (The Box Garden), Doug Fetherling (The Five Lives of Ben Hecht) and Dennis T. Patrick Sears (Aunty High Over the Barley Mow).

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