Saturday, February 14, 2009

Charles Taylor Prize Buzz

On a network of non-fiction writers that I follow, there's some disgruntlement over this year's Taylor Prize. Not so much about the winner as about the rules of the game. More than one notable Canadian writer has observed that all the nominees this year were research-heavy, academically-supported histories, and they conclude that just good writing, the literary part of literary non-fiction, has gone by the boards. I would say, rather, that the Taylor Prize's criteria for non-fiction have always been in flux, and writers ought to participate in setting them. Making these kinds of criticisms, driving this discussion, in public might shift the balance once more.

On a network of academic historians, by contrast, there's very warm praise for Cook and particularly for his achievement in reaching a non-academic audience. I sense the ground shifting. Canadian historians in recent decades have been particularly uninterested in, even hostile to, non-academic audiences. There really have been no publicly prominent history professors since the era of Ramsay Cook, Jack Saywell, Laurier Lapierre, and Desmond Morton waned. And the younger generation of professors, technically-oriented micro-specialists all, seemed to like it just fine that way.

They even retreated from the idea of Canadian history. They would cite Benedict Anderson on imagined communities and be ashamed even to be thought of as propping up so old-fashioned an idea as the history of "Canada."

But the fashion has been shifting elsewhere. American historians have been rediscovering narrative history and the pleasures of the bestseller list for quite a while now. (I think of John Demos moving from very technical American colonial demographic history to The Unredeemed Captive, which starts with the heretical sentence "I wanted to tell a story.") The Brits never entirely abandoned the field. And we have seen some feelers here in Canada too: Brian McKillop's The Spinster and the Prophet may come to be seen as an early example of a return to academic writing with some literary sense.

The sense of shared triumph and sensed possibility with which a number of history professors have saluted Tim Cook's Taylor Prize suggests there may be more. There must be other professors sensing they can have it all: the academic job and the prize money and the media attention.

Hope we get some good books out of it if it happens.
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