The Sutherland House Prize
Announcing our small contribution to alleviating the crisis in nonfiction publishing
Welcome to the 154th edition of SHuSH, the official newsletter of The Sutherland House Inc. If you’re new here, hit the button:
Almost from the start of this newsletter in May 2019, we’ve been concerned with the crisis in Canadian nonfiction publishing.
It began with our realization (SHuSH 10 and SHuSH 17) that the Canada Council had decided that books relying primarily on facts as opposed to the author’s voice are not art. Personal history, personal memoir, personal essay meet the Canada Council’s standard for art and are therefore eligible for grants and awards. Objective fact-based journalism, essays, histories, biographies, business and science writing, not so much.
We were bothered by the notion that the distance an author chooses to take from a subject (first person, say, versus third-person) is what makes or breaks a work of art. Same goes for an author’s fidelity, or lack thereof, to verifiable fact.
It also seemed bonkers that a government agency like the Canada Council would bail on researched nonfiction in favor of works in which the subjective experience of the writer is primary at a time when the rest of the government was so panicked over the lack of reliable fact-based information in the public sphere that it was pumping more than $500 million into our failing newspaper chains. If Ottawa was genuinely concerned about the quality of public discourse in Canada and the information available to the electorate, it would be directing the Canada Council to rescind its policy and support fact-based nonfiction to the same levels as fiction, poetry, and personal literature.
SHuSH pursued the issue. We explained why Canada Council funding matters: most publishers in Canada would be out of business or much reduced without their grants, so they naturally produce books that keep them in the money. Researched nonfiction is expensive and time-consuming to produce at the best of times; when it’s relatively disadvantaged by arts funders, it begins to disappear. It’s no accident that the shortlists of all the major nonfiction prizes in Canada have been dominated by memoir in recent years.
(We’ve always been at pains to add that we have nothing against memoir—we publish our share—but it is no substitute for well-researched, fact-based nonfiction. We need investigative journalism, history, biography, politics, current affairs, science & health books if we’re going to understand ourselves and our times.)
In SHuSH 116 we gave the floor to Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Windsor-based Biblioasis, who said:
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. 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 nonfiction.
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 nonfiction.
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 nonfiction.”
In SHuSH 121, we searched the legislation that governs the Canada Council for anything that supported its narrow definition of literary art. We found, to the contrary, abundant evidence that the legislation and the council’s founders were concerned for the full range of literature: fiction and nonfiction, imaginative and researched.
Digging further, we learned that it was only recently that the bureaucrats at the council, on their own initiative, had worked up a definition of nonfiction that excluded fact-based, third-person books. They defined literary nonfiction as work that presents “a text of personal reflection where the point of view and opinion of the author are evident. Eligible titles have a literary style and use narrative techniques.”
We argued that this definition is exceedingly narrow and that whoever wrote it is ignorant of artistic values in first-rate researched nonfiction. Some of these are consistent across all literature: clear and elegant prose that uses the full resources of the language, a well-structured narrative, precise detail, vivid scenes, apt metaphor, etc. Others are more specific to researched nonfiction: applied knowledge, depth of research, marshaling of fact, quality of analysis, soundness of argument, originality of insight, intellectual purpose, and the ability to give pleasure without compromising truth.
If the Canada Council is ever going to fulfill its mandate to support the full range of nonfiction, it needs to take fact-based, third-person work on its own terms
rather than judge it by the standards of fiction or literary memoir.
Having established that the Canada Council is abusing its mandate and pointed out the shortcomings of its definition of nonfiction, SHuSH sat back and waited for the bureaucrats to mend their ways.
We’re still waiting. So far, the council’s only response has been to erase its definition of literary nonfiction from its website:
Meanwhile, Canadian publishers are continuing to produce mostly memoirs and first-person nonfiction. Canadian literary awards are still dominated by the same. And works of first-rate researched nonfiction are increasingly difficult to come by.
So we’ve decided to take matters into our own hands. If the council won’t support researched nonfiction, Sutherland House will step into the breach.
We are establishing an annual prize for the best nonfiction book project, open to both new and experienced writers. The winner will receive a contract for publication with Sutherland House including a $10,000 (Can.) advance.
The prize will emphasize works of narrative nonfiction that require substantial research or subject matter expertise. It will be awarded to a work in progress, either a well-developed proposal or a first-draft manuscript. This will allow our editors to work with the prize winner, providing editorial guidance toward the project’s completion. At a minimum, entrants should have a written overview of the book, a sample chapter, and a thorough chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
We expect most of the entrants and prize recipients will be Canadians but we are opening the award to writers anywhere in the world. (This is primarily because Sutherland House itself is not limited to Canadian authors, and also to protest the parochialism enforced by Canadian granting agencies which don’t support Canadian publishers when they work with international writers, never mind that the publishing company, its publisher, editors, designers, and typesetters are Canadian.)
Writers do not need an agent to submit, although agents are welcome to submit the work of writers they represent.
The 2022 Sutherland House Nonfiction Prize will be judged by Sutherland House editors.
The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2022. We will announce the winner by December 1, 2022.
Entries should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. The full rules are detailed here.
We recognize that this is a small contribution to a large problem, but we intend to grow the prize and continue the fight for more support for researched nonfiction in the years ahead.
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Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
Steven Beattie’s That Shakespearean Rag, a newsy blog about books and reading
Art Kavanagh’s Talk about books: Book discussion and criticism.
Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.
Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.
Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff
Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics
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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