Canada's non-fiction crisis

Plus, the mystery of Justin Trudeau's communist publisher

The short-list for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust prize for non-fiction was announced this week. Not surprisingly, given the recent history of non-fiction in this country, all five of the nominees are memoirs.

I have absolutely nothing against memoir. Sutherland House has published its share, and we’ll publish more, and we’ll be happy if one of them gets nominated for a major award. But the dominance of memoir in the Canadian non-fiction world is a problem. Not because the memoirs are bad (although the quality is uneven, as in any genre), but because the first-person voice is not enough.

Memoir can be a useful tool for exploring the world but it is limited, and it is no substitute for well-researched, fact-based non-fiction. We need investigative journalism, history, biography, politics, current affairs, science & health books if we’re going to understand ourselves and our times (especially with conventional media slowly dying), but Canadian trade publishers are producing very little of it.

I’ve complained about this deficit several times in the past. This week, my friend Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Windsor-based Biblioasis, is carrying the ball.

“We’re at a point in Canada’s history where it’s never been more important to tell our stories to ourselves, and to hold people in positions of authority accountable” says Dan, “and we have never been in a worse position to do so. Our market is dominated by foreign multinationals and the multinationals see Canada as too small a market so they don’t invest in substantial researched Canadian non-fiction.”

The multinationals are the likes of Penguin Random House Canada and HarperCollins Canada. Dan watches their catalogs closely because he’s a bookseller as well as a publisher.

“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.

“At one point I started keeping track and I could only find three or four presses in all of Canada that were doing substantial non-fiction.”

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Biblioasis has published five or six researched non-fiction books this year, but with a smaller market share and fewer resources, it’s tough. “We don’t have the market access to make it successful,” says Dan.

His recent efforts to bring to market Elaine Dewar’s On The Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years impressed upon Dan “just how fucked up everything is in Canada.” He paid the author a modest four-figure advance (“which is not nothing for us”) for a 400-page book that took more than a year of solid work to complete.

“Elaine wrote it because she wanted to do it, but that’s the way it is with Canadian non-fiction now.” Unless you’re one of the lucky few to get a substantial advance from a multinational, you’re self-financing your book. “Too much onus is put on the authors,” says Dan.

Part of the problem is that granting agencies, led by the Canada Council, don’t value researched non-fiction. They don’t consider it art, so they don’t fund it. They do support memoirs, which is another reason you get outcomes like the Weston List.

The irony is that memoir requires less support. It is relatively inexpensive to produce (which is part of their attraction to publishers). The Dewar book involved a lot of research as well as intensive editing and fact-checking, all of which had to be done on deadlines to meet the pandemic moment. “It required a lot of time and investment, as any investigative book or work of history does,” says Dan. “That’s why so few of these stories get told.”

There was a time when a writer doing a substantive book could count on the support of a newspaper or magazine to underwrite some of the research, cover travel costs, or otherwise indirectly help to finance the project. Few outlets have that capacity anymore. “Even full-time journalists often don’t have the time to finish their investigations, they’re stretched so thin,” says Dan. “That’s where authors can come in and go deeper, connect the dots like Elaine did on her story, and really add something to it. But it’s difficult and expensive to do.”

Another Biblioasis author, Mark Bourrie (Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Esprit Radisson) won the last edition of the Charles Taylor Prize, after which he spoke publicly and forcefully about the “crisis” in Canadian non-fiction. He told the CBC he was done writing on Canadian subjects because the readership wasn’t there: “Most of the non-fiction, almost all the non-fiction really that's sold in Canada, comes from ... other English-speaking countries.”

Further, said Bourrie, it’s unaffordable for authors: “Say I wanted to write a book about what's happening in the Arctic and I have friends in the Arctic. They're all telling me that climate change is so obvious. It's just crazy up there.

“For me to go up there and research that, dig through that story and write a book about it, would cost so much. And it's not clear whether or not it could be marketed in the Canadian market, whether it would get serious support from publishers, and that's because of … the systemic problems.”

Says Dan Wells: “We’ve got to figure out a way to fund this kind of writing, whether its through private funders or through public funders.” He’s spoken to the federal government and the Canada Council about the issue, and while “there are officers at every level who understand the problem,” nothing is changing.

If you haven’t heard about the Dewar book, this is from the publisher’s description:

When the first TV newscast described a SARS-like flu affecting a distant Chinese metropolis, investigative journalist Elaine Dewar started asking questions: Was SARS-CoV-2 something that came from nature, as leading scientists insisted, or did it come from a lab, and what role might controversial experiments have played in its development? Why was Wuhan the pandemic's ground zero—and why, on the other side of the Atlantic, had two researchers been marched out of a lab in Winnipeg by the RCMP? Why were governments so slow to respond to the emerging pandemic, and why, now, is the government of China refusing to cooperate with the World Health Organization?…

In this compelling whodunnit, she reads the science, follows the money, connects the geopolitical interests to the spin—and shows how leading science journals got it wrong, leaving it to interested citizens and junior scientists to pull out the truth.

Trudeau’s communist publisher

Four days ago, the Globe & Mail reported that Justin Trudeau’s 2014 memoir Common Ground was republished in a Chinese edition in 2016.

Doesn’t sound like much of a story, does it? Foreign editions of Canadian books are released all the time.

What’s different in this case, says the Globe, is that the Chinese publisher is Yilin Press of Nanjing, part of the state-owned enterprise Jiangsu Phoenix Publishing and Media, which “takes operational direction from the propaganda department of the Jiangsu provincial communist party committee.”

Why would a propaganda wing of the communist party make such a deal? The Globe quotes foreign policy experts who say that the republication of Trudeau’s book is “a classic ploy” by Beijing to flatter a foreign leader. “They are trying to do anything they can to encourage him to look positive on China and the Chinese state,” according to one of the experts.

Says another: “Clearly, by publishing his biography they wanted to please him. They are the masters of propaganda.”

What do the Chinese hope to get out of courting Trudeau? “Beijing had high hopes it could persuade Canada to sign a free-trade agreement and was seeking Canada’s help in its global campaign Operation Fox Hunt to track down people it called criminals, many of whom were Chinese dissidents,” writes the Globe.

The Globe also finds it notable that the Liberals, at the time, were trotting Trudeau out to private events at the homes of wealthy Chinese-Canadians. The PM would do a little dance and the money would flow:

Chinese billionaire and Communist Party official Zhang Bin attended a May 19, 2016, fundraiser at the home of Benson Wong, chair of the Chinese Business Chamber of Canada. A few weeks later, Mr. Zhang and his business partner, Niu Gensheng, donated $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and $50,000 to erect a statue of Mr. Trudeau’s father.

So it all looks a bit unseemly.

I poked around and was reliably informed by someone in a position to know that Trudeau and his agent sold worldwide rights to Common Ground to HarperCollins Canada. That means it was up to HarperCollins to publish the book in Canada and also sell rights to its republication in as many foreign markets as possible. Trudeau would get a cut of revenues from those sales.

Also, it is commonplace for publishing contracts to contain language that requires the publisher to get approval from the author or his/her agent before any rights sales can be finalized. I’m told there was such language in Trudeau’s contract. So he or his agent would have had to approve the rights sale to Yilin Press.

You can look at the transaction, then, and conclude that Trudeau approved the rights sales to an arm of the Chinese government and, having received payment for the rights, effectively put himself in hock to Beijing.

When you also recall Trudeau’s 2013 statement expressing admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship,” and the stunning Liberal self-dealing in the SNC-Lavalin and WE scandals, you can easily convince yourself that Trudeau is stupid/craven enough for all this to be true.

But it’s not that simple. Trudeau committed long ago to forward any proceeds from his book to the Canadian Red Cross. It does not appear there was any personal financial gain for him (and it would have been a small amount, in any event).

Moreover, it’s doubtful that Trudeau or anyone in his camp knew a damn thing about the rights purchaser, Yilin Press, except that the company is Chinese. HarperCollins sold rights to the Trudeau book in a lot of countries. Trudeau, or more likely his agent, would have got a note saying “were selling rights here, here, and here, okay?” Someone would have emailed back, “yeah, fine, whatever.”

Should the PM, or someone in his office, have asked questions about Yilin Press and its connections to the communist party? Maybe, but it’s not like there was a free-market alternative down the street from Yilin. Every publisher in China is accountable to the communist party in one way or another. To get an ISBN number in the Chinese market, you have to go through the state, not because the state provides the service, but because it monitors all publications. Si Limin, chairman of the China Book Publishing Industry Association, is the former director of the News and Newspapers Department of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. And so on.

As for the trade deal the Chinese were supposedly eager for Trudeau to sign? It was more the other way around. In 2017, the Liberals tried to convince Beijing to adopt Trudeau-style progressivism in return for free-trade with Canada. They were laughed out of town. The Chinese couldn’t even be bothered to pretend an interest in human rights to get a deal signed.

I have all kinds of problems with the ethical standards of the Liberal party, Trudeau’s personal judgment, those cash for access meetings, and his Chinese policy, but there’s nothing much to see here.

(The photo above, btw, is of the Zhongshuge bookstore in Beijing.)

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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