Writing Nonfiction in Canada: A Manifesto

October 29, 2006 by  
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I.

Once upon a time, I played a viola. In orchestras. This means I sat right in front of the cellos, playing exactly a fifth higher than whatever they were playing. You can see us violists play – we’re sawing up and down in the air while the cellists are sawing sideways – but you can never hear us. We don’t count. We’re drones to the violin and cello melodists.

That’s how writing literary nonfiction in Canada often feels.

In 1978, when as a brand-new author of a nonfiction book I joined The Writers Union of Canada, I was shocked to hear the serious discussion still going on among its members whether nonfiction writers had a right to be members of TWUC at all. We weren’t “literary,” you see, and, besides, we made pots of money.

Never mind that nonfiction projects were ineligible for Canada Council artists’ grants and nonfiction writers were excluded from the Canada Council readings and writers-in-residence programs. Never mind that we weren’t welcome at any number of literary festivals, most notoriously at the Harbourfront International Festival, except if we wrote literary biographies or were non-Canadian; and that the juries that gave out nonfiction prizes were overwhelmingly composed of academics. And, if you wanted to learn how to write the stuff, you were directed to journalism schools, or to the myriad creative writing programs in the USA which unashamedly offered programs in “creative nonfiction” or “literary journalism.”.

I was once told by an established literary nonfiction writer: “What does it mean when literary festivals coast to coast are allowed to exclude nonfiction writers, when most writer-in-residencies are reserved for people who do not write nonfiction as their primary genre, when critics and academics routinely study and write about fiction and poetry to the exclusion of literary nonfiction? I can only conclude that no one cares.”

Much of this has changed, apparently (see discussion in the May 2005 issue of Quill & Quire).. Writing programs have opened up to nonfiction (well, “narrative prose” anyway), substantial prizes are distributed to its writers, literary journals regularly feature “creative nonfiction,” the new regime at Harbourfront promises more fuss about nonfiction, and, best of all, young writers have energetically entered the genre and are being published in new venues such as Maisonneuve and Walrus.

But as an Albertan, inured to the blandishments of boom-and-bust cycles on the oil patch, I may be forgiven for not holding my breath as this new enthusiasm crests.

Two years ago, I circulated a cri de coeur: “Writing Canadian nonfiction in the 21st century: is there a crisis?” Much of my angst was fuelled by the frustrating experience of having served on a Governor-General’s jury for nonfiction and then watching the fine publisher of nonfiction, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, who had published our winner, Andrew Nikiforuk, go out of business. Gary Ross told the Globe & Mail (April 23/03), “I can’t believe how little winning the Governor-General’s award did for Nikiforuk.” I can’t say I was surprised, although I was terribly disappointed to hear it. I was aware that among the people I know in Alberta, for instance, who read Canadian books, there had been tremendous discussion (“buzz”) about Guy Vanderhaege’s new novel, The Last Crossing, which had not won a prize (but would be selected as the sole survivor of the blood-letting on the Canada Reads panel that year) but precisely no conversation about the Nikiforuk book, which had not only won a national prize but had addressed, fearlessly and artfully, a public issue of the first importance, the environmental crimes of the oil patch.

And I was much affected at the time by the pointed comments National Post columnist Noah Richler made in the splashy wake of the big fiction prizes (“Enough about fiction, already”), about the “proliferation” of literary fiction and of literary celebrities “singing the landscape,” serving us “dollops” of history, painlessly swallowed, about a “surplus of accreditation and often mediocre criticism” and prizes sponsored by “business interests” that nevertheless encouraged every stage of production of fiction and “even the most ordinary writer of fiction.”

Compared to that kind of grooming for fiction, is it any wonder that our nonfiction doesn’t show up on the international radar screens either? Ian Jack, the editor of the celebrated journal of international nonfiction, Granta, confessed to Richler: Well, he’d like to publish a Canadian issue “but the problem was that there were so few good writers of contemporary nonfiction in Canada. Why was that, by the way?” Not that we need a Brit to patronize us. Toronto-based literary agent Anne McDermid told Quill & Quire [May 2005], “Readers have been buying narrative non-fiction by U.S. and British writers for at least 20 years, but Canadian writers haven’t yet made a significant contribution to the genre.”

II.

I once went to a conference on reading which hosted a session called “One Book, One Community,” an ambition I consider problematic in the extreme, not just for its perverse desire to reduce the reading public to a single, monomaniacal fan club but also for its – surprise! – desire to corral us all into reading a novel, and nothing but. CBC radio hosts “Canada Reads” which, through a process of triage (one book overboard each day of the week), resolves in a single “winner” which is often already a well-known and best-selling product. I echo Hal Niedzviecki’s alarm, of a couple of years ago, that libraries, of all civic spaces, should be zones liberated from the commercial activity of book-industry marketing. Nevertheless, Vancouver Public Library had a campaign to get the entire city to read one novel; visitors to Toronto’s public libraries cast their own votes for the Giller winner; Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton had been running The College Book Project for several years, in which a recently-published Canadian novel is chosen as a focus for discussion and activity within the college community and community-at-large, as they put it.

Noah Richler, for all his unhappiness about the “proliferation” of literary fiction, recently hosted a CBC “Ideas” series called A Literary Atlas of Canada intended to “explore the stories that bind the country together in conversation,” with “some of Canada’s best writers” in French and English. There were 71 writers on the slate and they were all novelists and poets, Ronald Wright and Sharon Butala being partial exceptions.

In April 2004 a group of western Canadian nonfiction writers gathered in Banff and drafted a “Banff Declaration,” which was subsequently quietly retired because of lack of consensus on its content but which nevertheless did make some unexceptionable points. “We believe,” it began, “that nonfiction is the intellectual lifeblood of public imagination and discourse” and that the “vitality” of Canadian literary life must be measured by the state of its nonfiction as well as of fiction and poetry . “We note with alarm,” it went on, the diminishment of the public space for debate and inquiry as a consequence of “media convergence” and loss of opportunities in local publishing markets.

With the shrinking of such public forums, I would argue, whether public affairs trade magazines or Book Sections of newspapers or prime time literary programs on radio and television that should take as lively an interest in Canadian nonfiction as fiction, we risk losing the vital role that nonfiction writers play – lobbing arguments into the public square. If readers would rather be arguing about the one novel that “everybody” should be reading, or choosing their reading material from bestseller lists driven by publishing conglomerates, or relaxing with those “dollops of history,” what does this say about the level of public discourse in Canada? Compared to the novel as entertainment, does our nonfiction seem somehow too difficult to read, not action-packed enough or lacking a plot to keep us interested? How many times have I heard otherwise thoughtful people, literate citizens, claim never to read nonfiction as a matter of some principle: they find it too “depressing” or too “fatiguing” to read at the end of a stressful day?

So thin is our sense of Canadian nonfiction that most people assume that its topics – history, sexuality, class struggle, identity, landscape, theology – will be better articulated by fiction writers who have been granted a kind of dispensation to handle the big stuff. A friend who had recently published a bold work of creative nonfiction wrote me: “Actually, my experience of being reviewed as a writer of literary nonfiction was that none of the questions I posed in my book – about Canadian nationalism, modernism, gender and race politics – were even mentioned.”

In a recent review of Barry Callaghan’s collected essays, Raise You Five, the reviewer cited Matthew Arnold’s dictum that “a great literature needs and in some sense depends upon the co-presence of deep and passionate critical thought.” Yet Callaghan appears not to have anything to say about Canadian nonfiction – another instance of our nonfiction writers foundering without critical feedback or passionate thought about our work.

III.

For years I championed the cause of creative nonfiction whenever I could. My point was that, thanks to the New Journalism, nonfiction now had a whole new rhetorical and formal repertoire that should be recognized as something other than “mere” journalism. Call it creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, literary journalism, creative documentary, whatever, the point was that, since the literary establishment turned its nose up at nonfiction as unliterary, then, dammit, we would not be “just” nonfiction writers but creative nonfiction writers who had every right to be treated as equal to fiction writers and poets in the creation of Canadian literature.

I am seriously reconsidering this argument.

I now think “creative nonfiction” is an over-used term for writing that is essentially narrative prose (magazine writers have been writing the stuff for generations), and when we use it we exhibit the “cultural cringe” of nonfiction writers who are ashamed their roots are showing. It was a matter of self-defence, really, given the sheer canonicity of the novel in discussion about the flourishing of writing in Canada, while we nonfiction writers were left to believe that we toiled in the unprestigious backwaters of the non-imaginative, also known as reality.

To camouflage our journalistic origins, we wrote narrative, which we constructed scene-by-scene, and with lots of dialogue and we wrote memoir – boy, did we write memoir -because once the genie of the narrating self, or “I,” was let out of the bottle, we ran the danger of becoming our own subject.

Alexander Wolcott once wrote excoriatingly, in Vanity Fair, October 1997, about the vogue in memoir, of “dogged” monologues “piddling away” into pointless “passive-aggressive chat.”

In defence of the memoir, Elizabeth Renzetti of the Globe & Mail suggested that it is the “one place in non-fiction where the general reader can find important ideas discussed without being bogged down in the painful jargon of the professional philosopher, psychologist or literary critic.” The one place? I find this a bizarre claim, given the wealth of general non-fiction, literary and journalistic, written in this country about philosophy (Mark Kingwell), economics (Linda McQuaig), information technology (Heather Menzies), queer culture (Stan Persky), art history (Susan Crean), historical trauma (Erna Paris), urban ecologies (Brian Fawcett)…I could go on. I’ve written some of it myself. All of this is writing deeply “connected” to the world outside ourselves as well as resonant with the writer’s voice. It is, I believe, what Wolcott would have us write: “civic journalism for the soul.”

Where would our novelists be without what writer Russell Smith has called “the news,” without “a deep and compulsive curiosity about the contemporary, about politics and technology and culture….It can’t all be about our childhoods or our parents’ stories….”

I’m fond of citing Anthony Burgess’s Introduction to an edition of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, whose full title is: A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials Of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, As Well Public as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665.” It even has a subtitle: Written By a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.” Well, of course not. The “citizen” had just finished writing it – in 1722.

Defoe wrote his “novel” from childhood reminiscence, tales told by his parents and neighbours, medical references, public records, contemporary witness accounts and other verifiable sources: what we’d call reporting. And then he invents an “I” who narrates the whole thing as though this creative alter ego had

been present at the events described. Is this fiction, journalism or something in between? Here is Anthony Burgess on the subject: There are people who still find Defoe hard to take as a novelist and this because they have become accustomed to regarding the novel as a form almost aggressively ‘literary’ full of barely-concealed machinery and self-conscious fine writing….Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist and he was our first great journalist because he was born not into literature but into life. [from his preface]

In 1993 while holidaying in Montana, I dropped in on Bill Kittredge in Missoula, who had been teaching creative writing since 1969. He said his best students were writing non-fiction and were not even “vaguely interested” in writing fiction. “They have a subject. Everyone’s tired of the smaller-than-life, ironic, low mimetic narrator in fiction. In non-fiction it’s fun to be able to write as a narrator who is as smart as you can be. But I always tell my students that the most important thing to figure out is what your subject is going to be.”

And you find your subject, it seems to me, by doing a reporter’s job. This is what Tom Wolfe reminded us in his 1989 manifesto issued in Harper’s magazine in which he deplored the belief of young fiction writers that the act of writing words on the page was the “real thing” while the real world is merely “so-called” – or “constructed.” He argued then that it has fallen on non-fiction to exploit the “most valuable and least understood resource” available to a writer: documentation, or what Wolfe calls “reporting.”

Or, as Brian Fawcett extended the argument (in a Dooney’s Café posting March 2004), “ [Creative nonfiction’s] specialist posture seems to suppose that it can establish empirically-sound factualities and coding even while it claims that its verity lies in the realm of creative imagination. Thus, it pretends to objectivity while using creativity to shelter it from the rules of discourse and evidence. I don’t think writers can or should have this both ways.”

Otherwise, we run the risk that so much fiction runs – narcissism – and present a writing self “untaxed by history,” to quote someone at the recent AWP writing conference in Vancouver.

It was at that conference that I heard two doyens of nonfiction in the US square off against each other. In the one corner, Lee Gutkind, writer and editor of numerous “how to” volumes of creative nonfiction, in the other, essayist and anthologist Phillip Lopate. After Gutkind’s exuberant pitch for the genre – “two stories in play, the public and private, framed in narrative” – Lopate pronounced total disagreement. Lopate is drawn to the personal essay precisely because it requires a reflective voice, not the “invasive techniques of fiction and poetry that have marginalized the legitimate genre of the essay.” Lopate likes to think “on the page”: it’s not just “what happened” that is important – the narrative impulse – but reflecting on what happened.

I mull this over as I now read of the “story-driven” nonfiction that is attracting young writers. And I think about the editor of Granta, who has introduced a collection of nonfiction that includes the luminous and mind-bending work of such literary masters as Ryszard Kapuscinski, Carolyn Forche and James Fenton, and has called it The Granta Book of Reportage.

October 28, 2006-2600 words

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Myrna Kostash lives in Edmonton when she's not traveling in Eastern Europe.