The CBC Canada Reads franchise is up and running again. Yay! More prime time for Canadian writing. Except that when it comes to reading, apparently Canada only likes fiction.
I think it's super that Canadian novelists and short-story writers are getting another annual boost from the Mother Corp. I just find it discouraging that we seem to think serious, memorable reading only involves fiction. Canada Reads has not once in nine years included a non-fiction title. Were a celebrity participant to defend Ken McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge or Ken Dryden's The Game, I'd keel over in a dead faint.
The CBC is not alone in its bias. Non-fiction remains a second-class literary citizen in the Great White North. The showy black-tie award ceremonies that stick in Steve Harper's craw, like those for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award, are for fiction.
And even when non-fiction is included as a prize category, it still gets short shrift. In 2008 I was fortunate to be shortlisted for the Governor General's award for non-fiction for God's Mercies. I was not, however, fortunate enough to be invited as a result to the Toronto International Festival of Authors. All five GG finalists in fiction were showcased. Non-fiction, no. I made one appearance in association with that nomination, on a community cable show. It was live, and minutes before we went on the host casually asked me if God's Mercies was my first novel.
I'm proposing is a Salon des Refusés for Canadian non-fiction writers as a bit of counter-programming to Canada Reads
Don't get me wrong: I was absolutely delighted and honoured to have been nominated for a GG (and for the Writers' Trust Prize for the same book). I'm grateful that juries composed of people I don't know thought enough of what I do to single out my work for praise. I just wish that, when Canadians think of literature, they would feel they have permission to think of things other than fiction.
We have awards that justly celebrate narrow genres of non-fiction - the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, for example, or the National Business Book Award. But we don't have a showy equivalent to the American Pulitzer for general non-fiction. The GG or the Writers' Trust could be that award, if only we didn't first and foremost zoom in on the fiction segments of those prizes as the media breathlessly handicaps who might win all the big novel/short-story trophies with headlines like "The dash for Giller cash."
When my latest book, Half Moon, was released by Bloomsbury Press in September, I got to spend a week tripping around New York City and environs. My favourite event was on Manhattan's lower east side, at the Tenement Museum. The New Yorker writer Robert Sullivan was the emcee, and I had a grand time fielding his occasionally screwball questions alongside Eric Sanderson, who had just published the superlative Mannahatta with Abrams. It was all very informal, and we had a fun and lively crowd. When I came home, I thought: Why can't I do stuff like that in my own country?
There are certainly opportunities for non-fiction writers to do public events in Canada. Richard Bachmann continues to run the excellent Different Drummer author series in Burlington, ON, for example, in which non-fiction writers are front and centre; I was invited by him to come out again this fall. But I do think non-fiction is taken a little more seriously south of the border. Americans have a long and respected tradition of journalism and non-fiction narrative, producing celebrated writers as disparate as Hunter Thompson, Dava Sobel, and John McPhee.
So what I'm proposing is a Salon des Refusés for Canadian non-fiction writers as a bit of counter-programming to Canada Reads. I'll toss out a few titles to start, and people can post suggestions of their own.
Saboteur, by Andrew Nikiforuk A first-class piece of reportage on the dynamiting of sour-gas wells in rural Alberta and the enigmatic suspect Wiebo Ludwig. Nikiforuk did a note-perfect job of writing a crime story that's really about the environment and the struggle between Big Oil and Gas and downtrodden landowners.
Too Close to the Falls, by Catherine Gildiner A funny and touching coming-of-age story set in Lewiston, NY. I know, some will consider it a little too novelistic, but Gildiner had me hooked from the first page.
A Life in the Bush, by Roy MacGregor He's written any number of excellent books, but this one, a portrait of his unforgettable father and his childhood in and around Algonquin Park, is a personal favorite.
None is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper It's hard to think of a book that did more to knock the self-satisfied smirk off the face of Canada where human rights are concerned. This devastating account of Canada's shameful policy towards Jewish immigration from 1933 to 1948 should be required reading in our schools.
Net Worth, by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths This book about the bad old days of NHL owners and their crushing of a nascent players' union transformed sports journalism in this country.
Vermeer's Hat, by Timothy Brook Currently a professor of Chinese history at Oxford, Canada's Timothy Brook takes an ingenious approach to exploring the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Using the slightly claustrophobic, sumptuous paintings of Jan Vermeer as his narrative gateway, he finds clues to daily life and roads into the global economy, including the fur trade, through the most seemingly innocuous details.
Douglas Hunter won the National Business Book Award in 2002 for The Bubble and the Bear. His book God's Mercies was a finalist for the 2007 Writers' Trust Non Fiction Prize and the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction. His latest book, Half Moon, was published in September 2009 by Bloomsbury Press in New York and distributed in Canada by Penguin. He lives outside Port McNicoll, ON