Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When Keneally Was King

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’Tis the season to reminisce; to reflect on the best, biggest and brightest moments in culture from the fading year. In January, we look forward, but in this December moment, we look back.

And we’re in good company.

Doing the rounds in service of his newest book, Aussie author Thomas Keneally is succumbing to some nostalgia of his own. Keneally, best known for penning the modern classic Schindler’s Ark, closed an interview with the Guardian with the observation, “Fiction was king. Now it isn’t.”

Schindler’s Ark was published in 1982 during a decade that gave us (the very next year, in fact) GRANTA’s inaugural Best of Young British Novelists list. You’ve probably heard of some of the writers recognized on it: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker. In the ’80s, one could argue, fiction — or perhaps more specifically, The Novel — was indeed king.

But in those 30 intervening years, is it fair to say that the king has been overthrown? Or merely that the kingdom and its subjects have changed?

Many of my personal stand-out reads of 2012 were nonfiction. This past weekend, Erin Balser and I convened our occasional book panel segment on CBC’s Fresh Air, and while we both identified The Novel as one of our disappointments of 2012, we also fingered a long list of short stories, novellas and nonfiction that more than ably picked up the slack. For us, the novel’s momentary lapse was by no means at the expense of 2012 being a great year for writing.

Panelists at this year’s International Festival of Authors (IFOA) seemed to have other genres on the brain too. The art of writing fiction is always much in discussion at a literary festival, but at this year’s IFOA, overlaps between fiction and nonfiction emerged as a festival theme. At a discussion between nominees for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Candace Savage — the prize’s eventual winner — contextualized the setting of her book, A Geography of Blood, for the Toronto audience by telling them they would be familiar with Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills from celebrated fiction by Guy Vanderhaege, Richard Ford and Wallace Stegner. JJ Lee, talking about his memoir-cum-history-of-the-suit, The Measure of a Man, noted the inevitability of employing some fiction when writing memoir as opposed to reportage. “Memoir writing is not corroborating,” he said, “The act of recollection is the star of the show” when the point of the book is that it conveys a single point of view.

In an interview about Swimming Studies, her memoir of her past life as an Olympic-standard swimmer, Leanne Shapton discussed the inclusion of one scene that is fictional. A portrait of a group of swimmers on the starting blocks that goes inside the private thoughts of each is, acknowledges Shapton, a composite sketch using characteristics of swimmers she has known, but is otherwise a product of her own imagination. And she, too, is in good company. Dave Eggers has been doing exactly what he likes in the fiction vs. non-fiction arena for years, and opened his 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with the words, “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure non-fiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for varying purposes.” Fiction and non-fiction often travel hand in hand then.

Even Weston Prize nominee Modris Eksteins, who, as a historian, one might expect to be the most “traditional” practitioner of the craft of literary nonfiction, said of his book Solar Dance, “My book is an explanation with a question mark at the end … I can’t make history an assertion.” Having spent his life working with facts, Eksteins spoke of the tragedies of the 20th century — his most recent book is set in WWII Germany — and noted: “Historians could not explain the disasters; novelists came a lot closer.” (See Exhibit A: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.)

In 1982, a year before Granta’s list of generation defining novelists, the Booker Prize was won by Thomas Keneally. In November 2012, the chair of the prize’s 2013 judging panel, Robert Macfalrane, was quoted in The Times (UK) as saying that he would not rule out the inclusion of a graphic novel on his long or short lists. The Costa Book Award already has Hilary Mantel pitted against graphic novelist Joff Winterheart in the best novel category and the brouhaha around has, thus far, been … not really all that much. Canada Reads 2011 was ahead of its time — readers weren’t quite ready for the appearance of so many pictures in their literature (well, Debbie Travis certainly wasn’t).

It’s entirely fair for Keneally to hark back to a better age for his craft. Every publisher of an indie press or editor of an alternative periodical will likely tell you that their day was the heyday — our own time is generally the best time. The novel as we knew it in 1982 is no longer king, but fiction and creative writing are alive and well and still commanding the rapt adoration of their subjects. December is almost at its mid-point. We have a couple more weeks of looking back and then with January it becomes all about moving forward. And here’s to some stonking creative writing, whatever genre’s hat it’s wearing, in 2013.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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