Who’s Killing Non-fiction?

Last year we attended a meeting of the Association of Canadian Publishers where there was a lot of talk about the Canada Council narrowing its definition of non-fiction. We are not eligible for Canada Council grants so we didn’t pay much attention to the conversation but the issue has come up a couple of times since in chats with publishers and writers and government officials, and it does seem there is cause for concern.

Apparently the CC has decided that books that rely primarily on facts as opposed to the author’s voice are not art. Personal history, personal memoir, personal essay, personal anything meet the Canada Council’s standard for art, and are therefore eligible for CC grants and awards. Objective fact-based journalism, essays, histories, biographies, business and science writing, not so much.

We are troubled by this distinction. The distance an author chooses to take from a subject – first person, say, versus third-person – is not what makes or breaks a piece of art. Same goes for an author’s fidelity, or lack thereof, to verifiable fact. But the Canada Council seems to know better.

The shift is recent, and you can see it in the nominations for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. The GGs are administered by the Canada Council. All 2018 nominees for non-fiction were personal stories. Heart Berries, a personal memoir of intergenerational trauma. Dead Reckoning, the personal story of an author meeting the man who murdered her father. The Wife’s Tale, my friend Aida Edemariam’s personal memoir of her grandmother’s life. Homes, a personal story about the author’s experience as a refugee. And Mamaskatch, the winner, a personal story of the Cree author’s coming of age.

Now, those all look like fine books. We’ve read Aida’s book and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. They’re both brilliant. We have no complaint with any of the five nominees getting CC funding or being eligible for awards. But there are a lot of other fine books that rely primarily on fact and/or a more-or-less objective narrative voice that would not qualify.

Indeed, a lot of fabulous books that have been nominated for the GG in the past would now appear to be ineligible. Books like Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919; Michael Bliss’s Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal; John English’s Trudeau biographies; Charlie Foran’s life of Mordecai Richler; Michael Harris’s Party of One (about Stephen Harper); David Halton’s Dispatches from the Front; Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper; Christie Blatchford’s Fifteen Days (war reportage); Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring; Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power (about the Joe Clark government).

Being nominated for the GG isn’t a big deal – this year’s winner has sold only 2,000 copies so it’s clear Canadian readers don’t think the GG is indicative of merit.

What is a big deal is that Canada’s best fact-based history, business, politics, biography, science etc. seems no longer eligible for Canada Council support. Most Canadian publishers can’t afford to publish books that aren’t eligible for support. There is already a dearth of good Canadian non-fiction. This policy will make the situation far worse.

The more irksome thing about the policy is that officials at the council appear to have found a way to leap from their legislated mandate of supporting creative endeavor to a more ambitious role of directing creative endeavor. They have effectively appointed themselves the nation’s literary editors, effectively dictating what will get published and what won’t. We doubt anyone outside the Canada Council welcomes this development.

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