The shortlist for this year’s Charles Taylor Prize, one of Canada’s most storied awards for non-fiction, offers an array of ambitious historical, environmental, political and biographical writing. But, in this age of brevity and wit, what is the future of long, serious projects like these? Finalists Charlotte Gray, Thomas King, J.B. MacKinnon, Graeme Smith and David Stouck tell Books editor Jared Bland about the state of their art.
One of the remarkable things about this year’s shortlist is its variety. Which of the other books is most interesting to you, and why?
Charlotte Gray: I can honestly say that each of the other four books on the shortlist has its own appeal to me, as a historian, because each is an original approach to important histories – relations between First Nations and the rest of us in The Inconvenient Indian; changing attitudes to conservation in The Once and Future World; an account of Canada’s war in Afghanistan that gets behind the headlines in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now; Arthur Erickson because it traces the growing urbanism of Canada in the 20th century. I find Canadian amnesia about the past deeply frustrating, so all these books, which cover parts of the jigsaw, interest me. We’re constantly reminded that we live in an age of quick information and even quicker opinion. What are the biggest challenges facing long-form non-fiction as a form in this environment?
Graeme Smith: If you only have time to read one of the books on the shortlist, I’d recommend J.B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World. He offers a guided tour of the ancient landscapes of our lost worlds, the environments destroyed by humans across a great sweep of history. It’s far more lyrical than any book you’ve read about the environment, and in some ways more hopeful: he explores the idea of “re-wilding,” as a way of mitigating the damage.
Thomas King: For the past three months, I’ve either been on the road or doing the final edits on my new novel, The Back of the Turtle, so I haven’t had a chance to read all the books on the shortlist. I have read Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now and appreciated the honesty and the clarity with which he writes. The next book on my table is J.B. MacKinnon’s. I have a long-standing concern with the health of the world, and I’m curious to see what MacKinnon can tell me about the planet that is our home.
J.B. MacKinnon: A great thing about getting on a shortlist is that you end up reading your fellow nominees’ books, which is as enlightening as it is inevitably intimidating. In this case, the book that I mostly deeply wish every Canadian would read is Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. I feel like I can’t say one word about this book without failing to do it justice; it needs to be read in full. Let me just say that King has found a voice that is somehow both compassionate and uncompromising, exactly the language needed to discuss Indian-White (his terminology) relations.
We’re constantly reminded that we live in an age of quick information and even quicker opinion. What are the biggest challenges facing long-form non-fiction in this environment?
Smith: Non-fiction hasn’t escaped the chaos of the Internet age, but I disagree with the “quick information, quick opinion” theory of navigating the challenges. There is a niche for longer, more thoughtful work. There are readers like me, who sometimes ignore the click bait in our Twitter feeds and pay up for the New Yorker app so we can read magazine articles that took six months to research and edit – instead of being churned out in an hour by BuzzFeed interns. In fact, even BuzzFeed has noticed this market and recently launched a long-form section. I’m heartened to see things like Next Issue starting to connect revenue with the period of time that a reader lingers and reads – instead of promoting a frenzy of clicks. I love the fact that Vice has just launched its coverage of breaking news with a series of dispatches from Ukraine that would be considered way too long by most online video editors. People assume that the Internet has shortened attention spans, but that’s wrong: digital has fragmented the audience, and my favourite segment is the group of people who are really interested in the world. Those are the people buying my book, and they will probably continue to buy all kinds of other non-fiction. That market won’t disappear.