Canada's Non-Fiction Crisis

Newspaper companies across Canada are starting to book revenue from Canadian government initiatives to prop up journalism and save our democracy. We at SHuSH don’t believe that throwing money at failing businesses is going to do much for journalism or democracy but we agree that journalism is important to civic culture. It keeps people informed of the world outside their doors and (theoretically) helps them make better decisions than they would if left in ignorance. That’s why measures to encourage journalism can be helpful (we would have preferred the government allow people to deduct the cost of their news subscriptions). And that’s why the Canada Council’s new book policies, which run counter to the government’s measures to save journalism, are inexplicable and destructive of civic culture.

Books, like news outlets, play an important role in informing us about the world around us. Books are how most of us learn about history, and how institutions of government work. Books help us explore critical issues and social conditions. They introduce us to important people, explain what is happening in science and technology and business and medicine, etc.

As we mentioned in a previous newsletter, the Canada Council, the most significant funder of literature in the country, has adopted a new definition of non-fiction for the purposes of grants and awards. The council holds that the personal voice of the writer is what makes non-fiction art. So personal memoir is art, as is personal history, personal essay, personal anything. Objective, fact-based journalism is not art, nor are essays, histories, biographies, science writing, etc. These unartistic books are ineligible for grants and awards.

As mentioned in that previous newsletter, we fail to see how an author’s decision to write in the third person or to respect verifiable fact disqualifies him or her as an artist. We think that by defining non-fiction so narrowly, the Canada Council is no longer supporting artistic practice (its legislated mandate) but dictating what gets produced. The bureaucrats will deny they have that much power but Canada Council funding is so important in the world of Canadian publishing that the withdrawal of its support for fact-based non-fiction means that most publishers will choose to release personal writing instead.

All 2018 nominees for the Governor General’s non-fiction award —which is administered by the Canada Council — were personal stories. Nominees for this year’s $60,000 Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction were announced this week. Three of the books are memoirs and a fourth is personal essay. The fifth is a series of lectures on Indigenous issues by reporter Tanya Talaga which might or might not be personal depending on how much emphasis you put on the author’s Indigenous identity (we’re not sure how the Canada Council would score that one). All five of the finalists for last spring’s 2019 RBC Taylor Prize, the other important non-fiction prize in Canada, were personal stories.

We have nothing against any of these books or a personal approach to non-fiction (Sutherland House, too, publishes memoir and personal essays). Books from a personal point-of-view often add a lot to our understanding of the world. Keep them coming. But there are obvious limits to personal, subjective takes and books of that nature are best consumed in concert with works that prioritize verifiable facts and some measure of objectivity.

Judging by the award nominees and the catalogs of the major Canadian publishing houses (branch plant and independent), fewer and fewer factual non-fiction books are being released. At the moment Lyndon McIntyre’s The Wake, an account of a tsunami that hit Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula in 1929, is the only one (apart from self-help and cookbooks) among the top five-hundred bestsellers in Canada (according to Amazon). We aren’t allowed to share with you the sales results in Canada’s bricks-and-mortar bookstores but they are not significantly different.

The factual non-fiction book problem is part and parcel of the journalism problem. Over the last half-century, there was a large overlap between journalists who wrote factual non-fiction and academics who wrote books and articles for general audiences. Christina McCall, Pierre Berton (a founder of the Writers’ Trust), Peter C. Newman, Richard Gwyn, Paul Wells, Marq de Villiers, Geoffrey Simpson, Anne Collins, Charlotte Gray, Maude Barlow, Peter Foster, Rod McQueen, Denise Chong, Heather Robertson, Conrad Black, Naomi Klein, Roy MacSkimming, to name a few of the journalists. And among the academics, Michael Bliss, Erna Paris, Modris Eksteins, Phyllis Grosskurth, John English, Desmond Morton, Charles Taylor, Marshal McLuhan, Margaret Visser, Margaret MacMillan, Witold Rybczynski, Afua Cooper, Michael Ignatieff. Their covers illustrate this page.

You could learn a lot about Canada and the World from writers such as these. Some are still alive (only one, as far as we can tell, is under fifty), and some are still publishing in Canada, but they are a dying breed. The academy actively discourages publication for general audiences. There are fewer magazines and newspapers to develop journalists and to support them in time-consuming, research-intensive storytelling. And there are few publishing houses willing and/or able to support them.

The talent pool has not yet been drained in this country. To name a few of the younger, talented non-fiction writers out there: Ann Hui, author of Chop Suey Nation; Dr. James Maskalyk (Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine); Tanya Talaga (Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City); Robyn Maynard (Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present), Chris Turner (The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands); David Sax (The Revenge of Analog). Aaron Wherry and John Ivison just published Trudeau books. But the pool is nowhere close to replenished, and only Talaga has been a genuine bestseller.

(This seems to be a particularly Canadian problem. American non-fiction prizes (like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award) still show healthy regard for non-personal non-fiction and both the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists have a mix of personal and objective work. )

It is bonkers to have some branches of government panicking over the lack of reliable, fact-based information in the public sphere while another branch of government undermines fact-based books and exclusively funds works in which the subjective experience of the writer is primary. If Ottawa is genuinely concerned about the quality of public discourse in Canada and the information available to the electorate, it needs to direct the Canada Council to rescind its policy, and it needs to support fact-based non-fiction to the same levels as fiction, poetry, and personal literature.

(Disclosure: Sutherland House has not applied for Canada Council Support. We will not be eligible until we have been in business for a few years. We may or may not apply in the future.)