Success Smells Like Rotten Gardenias

Success Smells Like Rotten Gardenias
A story of corrupt publishing icons and a memoir of Los Angeles in the 1970s

We’re a bit late in reading Elaine Dewar’s The Handover, which details the devious process by which McClelland & Stewart, Canada’s uber-nationalist publishing house, wound up in the hands of Random House, a German-based multinational. We’d have got to it sooner if someone had told us it’s hilarious.

Here’s the story. M&S’s owner, Avie Bennett, a property developer, gets tired of losing money on a publishing house he bought to get invited to better parties. The only potential buyers with deep pockets are multinationals like Random House but selling control of Canadian publishing concerns to foreigners is contrary to Canadian law. So Bennett (above) sells just 25% of M&S to Random House for about $5 million and makes a gift of the other 75% of its shares to the University of Toronto, ostensibly to protect the Canadian-ness of the literary institution. The gift (executed in 2000) is celebrated throughout the CanLit world as a heroic act of philanthropy and nation-building. M&S authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje stand and applaud. Avie Bennett is elevated to the highest rung of the Order of Canada. A decade later, the U of T sheepishly sells its 75% share in M&S to Random House for a buck and ever since the crown jewel of Canadian publishing has been entirely foreign-owned and clinging to inglorious life as a minor Random House imprint.

Much of the book’s comedy derives from Dewar playing the story straight. Wide-eyed and earnest, she is shocked at the cynicism of literary people she unabashedly admired. It turns out Bennett, a member of the U of T’s governing council, used the university to launder the sale of M&S to Random House. He knew from the outset that the U of T part of his transaction was a sham: while the university held 75% of M&S shares, the fine print gave Random House effective control from the start and made its future absorption into the multinational practically inevitable. Bennett made out like a bandit: roughly $5 million in cash and an enormous tax credit.

U of T president Rob Pritchard allowed his institution to front the whole fiasco and blithely lauded Bennett, a U of T donor, as a great Canadian. Doug Gibson, president and publisher of M&S in those years, was unable to recall for Dewar a single pertinent fact about his time in office. Nor could Canada’s cultural ministers and bureaucrats who blessed the deal despite official policies supposedly safeguarding Canadian publishers from falling into foreign hands.

Dewar exposes Canadian cultural nationalism as a gigantic profit-and-preference-seeking fraud. That the sums and the honors for which everyone in the book is selling out are pathetically meager only adds to the humor — Handover is an epic written on a pinhead. Evelyn Waugh couldn’t have dreamt it. Highly recommended.

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