Editor’s Note

Long live literary non-fiction
Editor's Note

David Plotz, the editor of Slate, recently created a fellowship program that provides the online magazine’s writers and editors with annual four- to six-week sabbaticals to write in-depth articles on subjects that interest them. In a nod to his excessive consumption of a certain grapefruit-flavoured drink, people at Slate call the pieces “Frescas.” The subject matter varies widely. A writer produced an article explaining the absence of successful terrorist attacks on the United States since 9/11. An editor wrote about the unhealthy ramifications of America’s declining population of dentists. What the Frescas have in common is length: they are often thousands of words long, challenging the conventional wisdom that in the age of Twitter people want their journalism in bite-sized servings. And yet these editorial behemoths attract page views by the millions. Some are among Slate’s best-read posts.

Apparently, long-form journalism is far from dead, even on the Internet. This comes as no surprise to those of us who love the Sunday New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, although we are clearly a minority. But then people who read for pleasure and enlightenment have always been vastly outnumbered by the functionally literate, for whom reading is headlines, highway signs, prescription bottles, and movie listings — that is, a necessity of life. For them, length is an issue. For us, it simply raises the question, is there ever too much of a good thing? Some stories cannot be told in a few hundred words, much less 140 characters. And this is the reason The Walrus has no hard and fast rules about length. We believe a story is too long when it cannot compel the reader to finish. It is too short when — like Noah Richler’s October cover story about the making of the film Barney’s Version — it leaves the reader wanting more.

Last summer, I was invited to interview Ian Brown onstage as part of the Banff Centre’s literary journalism program. Brown, whose book The Boy in the Moon won not one but three non-fiction prizes this year, now oversees the program, which for more than twenty years has given writers an opportunity to polish their prose during month-long residencies at the mountain resort. It was launched by Robert Fulford in 1989, and its alumni constitute a who’s who of Canadian literary non-fiction: Katherine Ashenburg, Mark Abley, Charles Foran, Don Gillmor, Taras Grescoe, Alex Hutchinson, Marni Jackson, Sandra Martin, Richard Poplak, and Rick Salutin, among others. Over the years, the faculty has included — in addition to Ashenburg, Brown, Gillmor, and Jackson — Alberto Manguel, Rosemary Sullivan, and Michael Ignatieff.

There were eight participants this year, one of whom was a young man named Dave Cameron, who describes himself as either a lapsed journalist or an aspiring novelist. He studied magazine journalism at Ryerson University but, drawn to fiction, went on to earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph. His first book, Continental Drifter, was published in 2004 by Signature Editions. At Banff, he worked on a memoir about the death of his sixty-five-year-old father, a retired geography professor at York University, from a brain tumour. He called it “Approximate Directions to a Burial,” and we are proud to publish it in this issue. Before Cameron turned to fiction, he won an award as the country’s most promising magazine writer. Later on, he won another for best unpublished novel. When you read this story — acute, tragic, funny, honest, revelatory — you’ll understand why.

But it would be wrong to give the impression that good literary journalism is found only in big packages. Elsewhere in this issue, you will find a memoir (“On Deadbeat Dads”) by the Montreal writer and poet Heather O’Neill, whose first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was shortlisted for 2008 Orange Prize and became an international bestseller. Her piece, a meditation on Christmas and delinquent dads written by someone who had one as a father and another as a husband, is just 928 words long. Cameron’s memoir about the death of his father runs to 5,678. But for literary hedonists like me, the difference is the difference between a beautifully composed hors d’oeuvre and a beautifully composed five-course dinner. One lasts longer than the other, but they are equally gastronomic indulgences. Gael Green, the American food critic, once said that great food is like great sex: the more you have, the more you want. The same could be said, I think, about literary non-fiction.
John Macfarlane is editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Patrick Kyle is the co-founder and editor of the comic anthology Wowee Zonk.

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