Non-Fiction, Non-Fame, Non-Fortune

Posted on May 26, 2009 by Heather Pringle

Like just about every other non-fiction writer in Canada, I suffer pangs of intense envy every year around Giller time. The Giller is Canada’s pre-eminent literary prize, the crème de la crème of awards that brings both fame and fortune each November to one deserving Canadian novelist. National television broadcasts the drama of its black-tie gala live and newspaper reporters vie for the best quote from the lucky winner, a double double of publicity that transforms a book destined to languish on bookshelves into a bestseller that flies out the door. Indeed, there is no greater guarantee of financial success than a Giller prize. During the past thirteen years, Giller awards have generated over $60 million in book sales.

I do not begrudge Canadian novelists their good fortune in having such a prize. It is not easy, after all, to convince a hockey-mad nation to turn off Don Cherry and pick up a novel about the guardian of a medieval Sufi shrine or the marriage of a young Mormon taxidermist. So the Giller Prize is national necessity. For one day each year, it gleefully celebrates the best in Canadian fiction and places it front and centre in our national life. This is a major achievement. I only wish that someone could create a similar buzz about a lesser-known branch of CanLit-non-fiction, which suffers badly from the Cinderella syndrome.

Those who write non-fiction here do so largely in obscurity. They rarely receive invites to literary festivals and seldom see themselves profiled in the arts sections of newspapers. If you were to ask Canadians to name three of our best non-fiction writers today, they would struggle mightily to come up with even one. My compatriots, it seems, turn up their noses at people who tell true stories for a living. Indeed, when I fess up to new acquaintances that I write non-fiction for a living, they invariably give me a pitying look and ask a predictable question: “Have you ever thought of writing fiction?”

This grates even more when I consider the situation just 30 miles south of my Vancouver home. In the United States, readers revel in non-fiction and lionize its writers. Think for a moment about this shortlist: Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Jon Krakauer, Ian Frazier, Oliver Sacks, Elizabeth Kolbert, Malcolm Gladwell, and Paul Theroux. All are respected members of the American literary establishment; all enjoy great commercial and critical success. So why the difference? Why does non-fiction shine so brilliantly in the United States and struggle so mightily in Canada?

Some might suggest that the most talented writers just happen to live south of the 49th parallel. Really? Consider for a moment another example:  baseball. Is it just a fluke that the greatest baseball players of all time grew up stealing bases and hitting homeruns in the United States? Surely not. Nurture, rather than nature, tips the balance in favor of Uncle Sam. For both non-fiction writers and basketball players, America offers a particularly congenial environment, a kind of hothouse for the talented. In the case of non-fiction writers, this nurturing comes at the hands of a small number of immensely influential American magazines-The New Yorker, The AtlanticHarper’s, Vanity FairEsquire, and Rolling Stone.

Nearly all non-fiction writers apprentice as magazine writers, learning their craft on the pages of small journals-city magazines, arts magazines, lifestyles magazines. In the United States, the most talented writers eventually work their way to the top, pitching story ideas to The New Yorker and other similar magazines. When taken into the fold, they receive a select literary education, working hand in glove with some of the best editors in the English-language world. These magazines keep their writers busy. They   push them to reach new literary heights. And they present their work to a large and well-cultivated audience of non-fiction readers, building literary reputations. I find it hard to imagine a better system of apprenticeship.

Contrast this with the situation in Canada. We have one-tenth of the population of our southern neighbor, so Canadian magazines struggle to attract enough readers to build circulation and attract advertisers. Magazines suddenly appear on the newsstands and just as suddenly disappear-with predictable results. Senior editors tire of watching for signs of impending financial doom in their employers and look for stable employment elsewhere-in book publishing houses or at universities. The young editors who replace them rarely have the experience or clout needed to nurture non-fiction talent. And magazines teetering on the brink of ruin are incapable of supporting writers financially, creating a hand-to-mouth non-fiction culture. I speak from personal experience here. Fees at Canadian magazines have not changed since I began writing articles in 1982.

The truth is that Canada has yet to produce even one magazine to rival The New Yorker, let alone five or six, and this has made life a grind for Canadian non-fiction writers. But we are a stubborn and foolish lot. We love to tell true stories and we refuse to give up, financing our writing careers as best we can: marrying well, playing online poker, polishing our public speaking, teaching others how to write. And it seems that someone somewhere is beginning to pay attention. A few years ago, the British Columbian government created a lucrative literary prize for Canadian non-fiction writers.

Giller winners, move over! There’s room enough for us all.