Charlotte Gray is a Canadian author and historian. Her newest book, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons: The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt, will be published in September.
When I arrived in Canada more than 40 years ago, I was clueless about this country’s past, so I turned to Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, in order to pass the citizenship test. This brief and cheery document had a section on history that focused on European explorers and Anglo-Canadian and Franco-Canadian political leaders, plus sidebars on soldiers, hockey players and inventors. The citizenship guide has been updated a few times since then, but the version currently on the Government of Canada website sticks to this basic narrative, much of which would make many of us cringe today.
Still, there were plenty of other ways to pursue an interest in Canadian history. Back then, there was a thriving Canadian publishing industry, releasing a steady stream of bestsellers by both academic and non-academic historians – Pierre Berton, Michael Bliss, Farley Mowat, Donald Creighton, Peter Newman.
Like the citizenship guide, those books were Whiggish and smug, confident in the wisdom of the Fathers of Confederation and optimistic about this country’s future. The writers usually ignored people who had lived here for eons, before the settlers from Europe and elsewhere arrived.
But at least those books were being written and read, allowing Canadian citizens and newcomers to learn a version of how this country evolved. Moreover, they were reviewed in newspapers, discussed on CBC Radio and sometimes adapted for television documentaries. Some of them sold well over 50,000 copies – more than 200,000 in the case of Berton’s chest-thumping tomes about the War of 1812, the building of a transnational railway or the Klondike Gold Rush. A non-fiction writer could cover research costs and make a decent living from a combination of publishers’ advances, grants from federal and local arts councils and spinoff articles.
Today, in the words of author and lawyer Mark Bourrie, “it’s horrible out there.” Bourrie has written several well-received books on Canadian history, including the Charles Taylor Prize winner Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, which required months of intense research in libraries and archives plus travel to significant sites. He would like to write more. “But I can only support myself because I practise law.” Bush Runner outsold most books of Canadian history published in the past few years, yet total sales were about 25,000 – a fraction of Berton’s.
History is just one category within the larger genre of deeply researched non-fiction that struggles to survive in Canada today. Other types of non-fiction by Canadian writers that require several years of research, including popular science, climatology, biography, business writing and essays, are slowly disappearing from bookstores. These days, our publishers’ non-fiction lists are dominated by personal memoirs – books that may be well-written and illuminating, but rarely involve archives, research trips or fact-checking.
Why is this happening?
Part of the reason is the precipitous decline of our publishing industry. In the 1980s, there was a healthy publishing ecosystem, with several sturdy Canadian publishers plus a readership eager to buy its products. A promising young writer with a good idea could hope for an advance of $50,000 to $80,000 from such publishers as McClelland & Stewart, Key Porter or Stoddart/General. Strong sales justified the advances.
Today, most of those Canadian publishers have either closed or been swallowed by the multinational publisher Random House (now Penguin Random House.) There are still several independent Canadian publishers, including Douglas & McIntyre/Harbour, Greystone Books, ECW, House of Anansi or Dundurn, but most are very small and kept afloat by government grants. And their market is dwindling. In 2000, one in five of the books sold in Canada were published in this country. Today, it’s fewer than one in 20. When Canadians shop for books, they buy American.
So there is much less money around to cover the costs of writing in-depth, non-subjective non-fiction. The average advance from the more established independent publishers to reliable authors, according to one agent, is $5,000 to $7,500; “unknowns” are looking at a pittance. That is not going to keep a writer alive, let alone cover the costs of research and travel needed for a book on climate change or Indigenous archeology, or the biography of an IT pioneer.
The multinationals (we’re down to three – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins) can pay much bigger advances, especially for celebrity authors such as Chris Hadfield, Elliot Page or Peter Mansbridge. But multinationals are minimally committed to Canadian writers or literature because the Canadian government has not given to its writers the protections from foreign competitors that, for example, our dairy farmers enjoy, and because the multinationals make their profits on U.S. or U.K. titles. Most first-time Canadian non-fiction authors who are lucky enough to get a contract from one of the big three will be offered $20,000 to $30,000. Again – not enough to cover extensive research costs.
Canadian non-fiction has a tough challenge even getting noticed. At Chapters Indigo, which dominates the bricks-and-mortar book trade, you have to fight through baby toys, blankets and candles to find any printed material. Readers today like to shop online, so can’t browse new releases so easily or chat with helpful staff eager to promote good Canadian books in neighbourhood bookstores. Crime and fiction titles have muscled out researched non-fiction in the dwindling number of newspaper review pages. What’s left? Literary awards and book clubs, and it’s hard to build a career on their serendipitous choices.
Like many writers of heavily researched books, I used to turn to the Canada Council for financial help. I received a grant of $10,000 for my second book, Sisters in the Wilderness (1999); for my ninth book, The Massey Murder (2013) I was eligible for an “established writer” grant of $25,000. However, since then the Canada Council has skewed its grant system toward personal memoir and away from those who don’t write about their own experiences. Grant applications from writers like me are rejected. I am lucky to have a partner with a steady income, which allows me to spend three to five years on each book.
Ken Whyte, the publisher at Sutherland House, which publishes only non-fiction, writes a must-read weekly newsletter on his industry called SHuSH and calls the Canada Council’s pivot away from fact-based non-fiction “bonkers. … We need investigative journalism, history, biography, politics, current affairs, science and health books if we’re going to understand ourselves and our times.”
A few Canadian non-fiction authors writing about Canada rather than themselves can buck these discouraging trends, particularly if they can sell in the U.S. Books about mental health, hockey or celebrities find their audiences. So do well-written popular-science books. Vancouver writer John Vaillant’s most recent book, Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, about the 2016 Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire, was described by Publishers Weekly as “an engrossing disaster tale with a potent message” and is selling very well. This fall, quantum physicist Shohini Ghose will publish Her Space, Her Time: How Trailblazing Women Scientists Decoded the Hidden Universe, a collection of essays on high-achieving but underrecognized women scientists, including some Canadians. However, Vaillant already has a glittering track record of bestsellers and awards, and Ghose has a day job as a professor of physics at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Dan Wells of Biblioasis, a bookstore and publishing company in Windsor, Ont., says that, as a bookseller, it would be easier “to build a section of Australian or East Indian history … than it is for me to build a Canadian history section” from the catalogues of multinationals. “There are more new books available to me on the U.S. Civil War or American neocon political posturing than Canadian equivalents.” Only the far smaller, undercapitalized Canadian publishers can take on Canada’s past.
So the supply of deeply researched Canadian non-fiction has been severely squeezed. Is demand down too?
There is no simple answer to that question, but it is particularly critical for those of us who write about Canadian history, which has no traction beyond our borders. Only Canadians are likely to pick up a volume about Louis Riel, Canada’s role in 20th-century wars or our postwar embrace of immigrants – books that help explain why Canada is unique as a country and how it became this way.
Established writers of popular history have found themselves cold-shouldered by publishers who have done well with their previous books. Ted Barris, the author of 20 books, insists that, judging by the number of talks he is invited to give, public interest in military history – his forte – is growing. “Yet when I gave HarperCollins a solid proposal for my next book, there was little interest,” he said. “Yet my last three books were bestsellers for them.” So he turned to Whyte’s Sutherland House, which meant a much smaller advance but, he hopes, more support. Barris rails against a publishing ecosystem that contributes to a “historically illiterate population” and an education system where Canadian history is not even a core subject in most provinces. “If we don’t know about our own past, we’re a lesser community and are more likely to make bad decisions about the future.”
Sean Livingstone, an Oakville, Ont., high-school teacher, discovered a healthy appetite for naval history when he published a book in 2014 with an independent Canadian publisher. When he took a solid proposal to the same publisher last year, however, he was asked if he would cover most of the costs of publication and buy a certain number of copies in advance. “I was shocked,” he said. “I’m not interested in going the self-publishing route. I’ve got a good story that deserves to be told, and I deserve to be paid for all the hours of research and writing.”
Some topics still appeal to publishers if told in the right way. Andrew Stobo Sniderman, a lawyer and former Rhodes scholar, spent five years on the archival research, interviews and crafting of his first book, Valley of the Birdtail, which describes 150 years of racism dividing a First Nation reserve and a town of Ukrainian immigrants in Manitoba, and the communities’ recent efforts at reconciliation.
After two applications for a Canada Council grant were rejected, Sniderman spent all his savings pursuing his ambition to describe “with accuracy and respect the stories of both communities, which explain how Canadian society became so unequal.”
Initially, he was the sole author, but he quickly realized that he needed an Indigenous co-author. He invited Douglas Sanderson, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation who teaches at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, to join him. The two authors received a contract and a five-figure advance from HarperCollins, and when the book came out last year it was shortlisted for or won several awards. But Sniderman reports that he has been on a “non-stop hustle” to promote the 10,000 copies sold so far, with little support from his publisher. “There is no way to make economic sense of the process,” he said.
One writer in her 30s has a different take on the problem. After Melissa Gismondi received a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia, she hoped to write a researched non-fiction book but failed to find a publisher. Today she supports herself with jobs in radio, but this leaves her little time or energy for research, and she has begun to wonder whether the slump in interest in Canadian history isn’t just the old cliché – “it’s boring” – but rather our inability to tell diverse stories in compelling ways. Gismondi suggests that perhaps the sense of a cohesive Canada that Berton and his generation tried to promote was always an illusion.
“The complexity and nuance of Canada was never addressed in those old narratives.”
The old narratives no longer appeal to literary festival audiences either, especially if they never learned much history in school. Sean Wilson, who runs the writers festival in Ottawa, notes little interest in “the First or Second World wars, brave heroes, Canadian prime ministers or books that the status quo is okay. … Given the dumpster fire that reality has become, the past doesn’t intrigue me unless it is seen through a lens that questions our assumptions.” He says his audiences look for books like a new graphic novel about the FLQ in Quebec or the recent bestseller The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Windrow that challenges received wisdom about the origins of human civilization. “The next generation doesn’t care at all about the triumphalist history that I was raised on. That’s a 1-per-centre world view.”
Meanwhile, a handful of authors such as Stephen R. Bown doggedly continue to pursue an interest in Canadian history; Bown’s new book, Dominion, to be published in October, tells the story of the CPR and includes the Indigenous experience.
But there is no enthusiastic new generation of writers tackling deeply researched non-fiction, particularly a more inclusive Canadian history. John Pearce, an agent with Westwood Creative Artists, suggests that, “for the most part, today’s academics aren’t looking for popular audiences, and aspiring non-academic historians may have turned away from a subject where there is so much conflict.”
So today’s immigrants are offered an out-of-date guide to citizenship that takes the history of this country no further than 1999 and devotes only a brief paragraph to Indigenous history. (A new version of the guide has been promised for several years but has been dogged by controversy.) Canadian citizens who enjoy learning about the past can find few original treatments of ancient or recent historical events or vigorous investigations into the historical and political controversies that have consumed this country in the past or the present.
What can halt this gradual slide into homegrown ignorance about Canadian politics, scientific achievements and history? Granting councils can reconsider the damage to non-fiction writers who want to explore this country’s culture in depth. (Sutherland House was recently turned down for Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants.) The federal government can offer more protections, through subsidies and regulations, for Canadian independent publishers. Provincial education departments can kindle an interest in this country by building more time for Canadian content into their curricula. Without such interventions, argues Bourrie, “we’ll soon be culturally integrated with the United States, and we’ll have lost our own history.”