Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Non-fiction writer can win the Charles Taylor Prize

Couple of years ago, I was trying to float an article entitled “Can a Non-Fiction Writer win the Charles Taylor Prize?"

The Charles Taylor Prize, y’see, is Canada’s richest prize for non-fiction writing. It’s now given annually. It's worth $25,000.

But the first winner was the admired novelist Wayne Johnson, and the second was the admired novelist Carol Shields, and the third was the admired short story writer Isabel Huggan.

Sure, these novelists won when they wrote non-fiction books, and indeed they are pretty good books. I’d say Baltimore’s Mansion is minor Johnson, and Jane Austen is minor Shields, and Huggan’s Belonging is a memoir aspiring to look like a collection of short stories, but sure, they are books worthy of notice.

Still there seemed to be a rule emerging: the way to be a Charles Taylor winner was to be a novelist first and to dabble a little in non-fiction. I began to wonder if the Taylor was slumming a little.

That is, it seemed the Taylor Foundation and its juries felt that fiction is the best writing and novelists the real writers, so that when novelists descend to give examples of how non-fiction should be done, they need to be honoured and recognized. The prize is called The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, after all. You don’t see prizes that specify “literary” fiction or “literary” playwriting.

Then I looked at the juries. The first year (when Johnson won) the jury was literature prof Eva Marie Kroller, who is the editor of Canadian Literature and a student of fiction, and the novelist Neil Bissondath, along with David Macfarlane, a non-fiction veteran as well as a novelist.

[Correction , January 29: Eva Marie Kroller writes: "I am not a 'fiction critic.' My first and third books were studies of travel writing, my second a study of poetry, number four will be a literary history and five a family biography." She's right. Clearly she is a substantial critic of non-fiction writing, and I was mistaken to characterize her otherwise.]

The second year (Shields), it was Kroller and Bissondath again, joined by Wayne Johnson.

The third year (Huggan), Kroller was joined by novelist Robert Kroesch and Wayson Choy, best known for his novel The Jade Peony, though he has also written a memoir.

These are fine writers and serious readers. I have no doubt that each of these juries was entirely honest and entirely honorable in choosing the works they found most worthy. But the richest non-fiction prize in Canada was consistently choosing juries of novelists and fiction critics to judge non-fiction writing.

Surely there was an ideology working here. The Taylor Prize seemed committed to firm principles: that fiction is the highest form of writing, that the way to judge writing is to rely on fiction writers and fiction critics, and the way of improve the status of non-fiction writing is to encourage works that look a lot like fiction and works of non-fiction by veteran fiction writers.

I had not quite gotten around to working up “Can a Non-fiction Writer win the Charles Taylor Prize” when the 2005 prize was awarded. Charles Montgomery, as far as I know, has never published fiction. He is a non-fiction writer full stop. And it seemed agreed that The Last Heathen: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia was smartly written, did not feel like fiction, and had that quizzical, curious engagement with the world outside the writer’s mind that seems to me a hallmark of promising non-fiction. (Full disclosure: it's on my list, but I have not yet read it.)

The next year they gave the Taylor to J.B Mackinnon for Dead Man in Paradise, a book with many of the same credentials as Montgomery’s. Jeez, non-fiction writers could win this thing after all. I put aside my article draft. And I took another look at the jury lists.

In 2005 (Charles Montgomery’s year), Jan Walter, a veteran non-fiction editor and former principal at non-fiction house Macfarlane Walter and Ross, replaced Eva Marie Kroller to sit with Kroetsch and critic W.H. New. In 2006 (Mackinnon), historian, broadcaster, and senator Laurier Lapierre replaced Kroetsch. That was the first time you could easily find a majority of non-fiction writers and/or non-fiction-oriented critics on the jury. [Jan 28 -- see the correction above.]

This year, 2007, Walter and Lapierre have been joined on the jury by a second historian, Margaret Macmillan. The days of fiction-centred juries for the non-fiction prize seem to be over. With two historians on the jury, the (commendably short) shortlist has two thick histories on it, John English’s Trudeau biography and Ross King’s Judgment of Paris, about the rise of impressionism in Paris, as well novelist Rudy Wiebe’s childhood memoir. (The Shields-Huggan years of women winning the Taylor seem to be fading too.)

Frankly, one could find grist for grousing about whatever they choose here. We could see a Wiebe win as more fiction bigotry. But it would be just as sad to see the Taylor Prize swing so far from fiction-like memoirs by novelists that history profs come to dominate its juries, and only great, thick, research-heavy tomes will be considered. In fairness, Lapierre has not been a prof for decades; for all his writing, he may be more like the celebrity juror that expensive literary prizes have been turning to in recent years.

I have not read English on Trudeau, but I thought his Lester Pearson biography well written and well thought, certainly no mere report on research. King’s Judgment of Paris left me a little cold as literature, I must say: a readable story, but the prose never has a moment’s sparkle, and the argument emerges more from an endless accretion of detail than from vigorous exposition. Hell, maybe Wiebe’s is the best writing in the pack this year.

We can observe the trends of winners and juries over a few more years. Anyway, these days a non-fiction writer can aspire to win the Charles Taylor Prize. Good.
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