Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Prize Watch: Could the Balsillie Prize revive Canadian nonfiction? (tl;dr: Probably Not)

Recently Canadian publishers Ken White (of Sutherland House) and Dan Wells (of Biblioasis) have lamented the monopolization of the nonfiction marketplace by memoir. Wells (who also runs a bookstore) mourns the death of "research-based nonfiction" and links it to foreign control of Canadian publishing.

“As a bookseller,” he says, “I can tell you that of the 5,000 Penguin Random House titles that I sort through for Canada in a six-month period, maybe there’s one work of Canadian history or researched non-fiction.

“If I wanted to, I could fill eight to ten shelves every six-month publishing season just with the major American history and politics titles brought into Canada by the multinationals. But in the course of a year, I have a hard time keeping my Canadian history shelf fresh.

For his part, Ken McGoogan, the arctic and exploration historian, argues that the solution to the crisis is to split nonfiction book prizes into memoir and research-based categories. White also grumbles about the dominance of memoir in recent nonfiction book prize awards.

It's true: memoir is having a moment (though White and McGoogan are in error in reporting that all the nominees for the Writers' Trust Weston Prize are memoirs -- of the five, one is a travel book, another an essay). But memoir's moment has been earned. Memoir writers have been doing innovative things in literary craft and also in their willingness to tell bold and risky new stories. These are fresh idioms; recent "research-based nonfiction" is hard pressed to show equivalents. (Yes, I can think of exceptions.) And memoir's rise, though it has been a terrific thing for nonfiction literature, will crest as the appetite for revealing personal stories begins to be sated among readers and for prize juries. Other nonfiction genres will have their chances to reassert themselves.

In any case, prize money is no way to create an environment for well-written trade market nonfiction in history, science, politics, current affairs, and the rest. Prizes are like lighthouses: they cast a bright light, but you can't study by their intermittent flash. It's grant and foundation funding that will make big, serious, deeply-researched nonfiction feasible -- and as long as those funds are restricted in Canada almost entirely to university-based scholars, the niche for trade market writers to research and write about Canada will remain very small. (University-based scholars do produce vast amount of research-based nonfiction, but the proportion that is attractive to non-specialists is vanishingly small.)

In light of all this, consider the jurors and nominees for the new Balsillie Prize, a new award for "comprehensive and thoroughly researched nonfiction books by Canadian public policy specialists." It's funded by tech billionaire Jim Balsillie and administered by the Writers' Trust. It pays $60,000 to the winner. The first short list has just been announced.

The Writers' Trust, presenter of the new prize, is the pre-eminent non-governmental supporter of literary writing in Canada through its prizes and other programs. But it's hard to see literary standards being determinative in its first awarding of the Balsillie Prize. There's barely a glance at literary merit in the criteria for the new award. The jurors -- Samantha Nutt, Taki Sarantakis, and Scott Young -- are all estimable public policy experts, but none, I think, has a reputation as a writer. (Nutt has written a book, but books are unmentioned in their biographies.)

The nominees for the 2021 Balsillie Prize are

Dan Breznitz for Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World from Oxford University Press.

Gregor Craigie, for On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake from Goose Lane Editions

André Picard for Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada's Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic from Random House.

Jody Wilson-Raybould for 'Indian' in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power from Harper Collins.

I wish them all well. But it seems that so far the Balsillie Prize honours the public policy concerns of its funder more than the literary-nationalist aspirations of the Writers' Trust and the writers and publishers who worry about the state of nonfiction. Does the Balsillie do something different from the Writers' Trust's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize in Political Policy, which has always taken a very broad view of "political"? There is also the Donner Prize for Public Policy books.

Does this new award really address the Writers' Trust commitment to literary excellence? Or answer the call of White, Wells, and McGoogan for prizes that will support the careers of dedicated nonfiction writers? (A researcher, two journalists, and a politician are the writer nominees for the Balsilllie). And of Canadian-owned publishers like Wells and White (one Canadian-owned house among the publisher nominees)?

To answer the pleas of White, Wells, and McGoogan, the solution is not a war against memoir, nor a plea for more sub-categories of nonfiction prizes. What is needed is an ecosystem of foundation grants for professonal nonfiction writers in Canada -- something richly evident in other countries (read the acknowledgments of big trademarket nonfiction books from the United States or Britain), but mostly unknown here.
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