Monday, June 18, 2018

Int'l Essayists: Christopher Doda on editing the Best Canadian Essays

Just over eight years ago I was asked, somewhat unexpectedly, to take over as Series Editor for the annual Best Canadian Essays. I say 'somewhat unexpectedly' because though I have published a great deal of book reviews, I have only published a handful of essays and in Canada I am better known as a poet (if being 'better known as a poet' than anything is possible in our current cultural milieu). But my reputation as a critic and an editor was apparently enough to warrant the invitation and, after some consideration, I accepted. Initially modelled after the longstanding Best American Essays, I was effectively to become the Canadian equivalent to Robert Atwan, who has shepherded the annual US collection since the mid-eighties.

Of course, I had some decisions to make. Mainly, I had to decide what sort of writing would be eligible for inclusion. The first and basic principle was that essays had to be by Canadian authors and published in Canadian journals or magazines (I would have no problem using works by Canadians in foreign journals, such as say Adam Gopnik, but lack the time and resources to go hunting them down). Naturally it means non-fiction: for all intents and purposes, essays are generally non-fiction but not all non-fiction is an essay. For instance, much online writing lacks the cohesive structure necessary to be considered an essay. In spite of the significant energy expended online, I find most blogging is primarily about imparting content with little attention paid to form or style. I opted to rule out book reviews, mostly because they are too short, narrowly focused and really point to other works. I also excluded excerpts from longer works, as they are not stand-alone pieces and usually printed as teasers for something bigger. Furthermore, I made the crucial decision that essays that appear in the volume must be reproduced exactly as they appeared in the original publication. As an issue, this comes up every year as one or two authors will try to revise their pieces or, more often, reverse changes that were made at the editorial level before initial publication. But the idea is that each volume should represent a snapshot of the year's best essays and not subject to authorial whims and revisionism. 

But overall, when I've come to define an essay for inclusion, I've cast a fairly wide net. Every volume that I've done has featured a few pieces that would be better described as straight-up journalism than 'traditional' essays, the sort of lengthy personal meditation on a subject. Because I have kept the definition open so as not to exclude any quality piece of writing just because it does not entirely conform to the classic essay, I've sometimes thought that perhaps a more accurate sobriquet would be ‘Best Canadian Non-fiction’ for a couple of reasons. The first is commercial: many people, with dire memories of the dreaded five paragraph essay structure drilled into them in class, quail at the sight of the word ESSAY. Often when I tell people about this editing gig the first reaction I get is: "Ugh I hated writing essays in school," so I thought that 'non-fiction' might alleviate people's negative associations. Secondly, it is a more expansive term. 

I have ultimately decided against this change because of my antipathy toward the term itself however. I have always found the term ‘non-fiction’ problematic at best and somewhat absurd at worst. It certainly privileges the novel and short story over the essay and the treatise as art forms. Moreover, built into the very word is the assumption that fiction is the dominant mode of prose and that non-fiction is some sort of deviation. As any linguist will say, trying to define something by what it is not is a fool’s game. Besides, in our post-modern era, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction can be fairly blurry and both are dependent on narrative craft and techniques for their forcefulness. A non-fiction reader picks up a book for information certainly but also for the way it is imparted, its flow and flair, characteristics more akin to fiction. So I'm stuck with ‘essay’ for now it seems. Besides, I am more interested in expanding the definition of the essay itself. The essay should be an inclusive, not an exclusive form: it should hold a multiplicity of not only opinion but style and variety in its expression. 

If there's one thing I've noticed as an editor and reader for Best Canadian Essays (the Guest Editor and I split the reading equally) is that themes often emerge in different years. I even dubbed the 2015 volume "the Law and Order Issue" because half of the total pieces we used fell under that subject. One year I read a lot about animal rights. Canada being what it is, there's usually a fair amount of writing about nature and the environment, particularly around the oil patch in Alberta (Alberta is Canada's Texas in more ways than one). When I started in 2011, there was a great deal of writing about Canada's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and when it would hopefully conclude. Under the previous government of Stephen Harper there was a great deal of concern about government secrecy and muzzling of scientists. Considering 80-85% of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the American border (one of Canada's best essayists, Barry Callaghan, once described us as hanging by our fingertips to the window ledge of the world), there's a strange amount of writing about the comparatively uninhabited North; it retains its mythic hold on our imagination. Case in point: there are at least two or three books published every year about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845. With North America's aging population, I have read umpteen memoirs about the difficulties of care for a sick/dying/demented/recently deceased parent or some combination thereof over the years. Memoirs of obsession, mental illness and addiction also abound. I have even had some disappointment in this regard; since I became editor, Canada has been host to an Olympic and Paralympic Games, a Pan Am Games, the Women's World Cup of Soccer, the Invictus Games, and three separate World Junior Hockey Championships, yet I detect very little George Plimpton-level sports writing here. Most recently, I found myself reading essays by women about their tortured relationship with food. 

Having perused Best American Essays over the years before I took up this mantel, I also began to wonder what the differences are between the two projects. The first I imagined was sheer volume. Every year I have a wish list of about 50 magazines and journals that I'd like to receive for consideration and typically I get about 25-30 (some routinely ignore me, for whatever reason). As I said earlier, I split the material with each year's Guest Editor, which is a fair amount of reading but it is doable. I have no idea of the number of eligible journals there could be in the United States but with ten times our population, it must be...unwieldy. I've always wanted to know the process by which Best American Essays gets made. 

I've also noticed one particular contrast in style between our two countries. There is a kind of essayist in America, led by the immensely popular David Sedaris and his spiritual children Sloane Crosley, Davy Rothbart among others, who is a sort of quirky bumbler who flaunts his comic ineptitude, often to the point of straining credulity, in a variety of situations for the amusement, as opposed to enlightenment, of the reading public. With the self as primary subject matter, the essay becomes yet another narcissistic outlet for an increasingly self-absorbed society. With the possible exception of the late David Rakoff, who became an American anyway, Canada does not produce this type of writer. The Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick--best known in the US for her defense of Canada's social safety net on Bill O'Reilly's show back in 2004--has lamented in print that Canada does not have a Caitlin Moran (the UK equivalent) or a Lena Dunham or a Roxane Gay. 

That Canada does not produce, or perhaps reward, this type of writer can be seen in a number of lights. One could view it as Canadian authors perversely ignoring that specific portion of the popular marketplace where the essay thrives (Sedaris, Moran and Co. are bestsellers after all). One could see it as a symptom of the serious tone generally adopted by Canadian magazines and journals; say what one will about Canadians, that we are "polite and reasonable" as our Prime Minister recently put it, but we are rarely thought of as playful. One could see it as an example of American individualism versus Canadian collectivism: one writer wants to document what happened to him or her, the other what happened to us. Consequently, it could also be that the US writer has often benefitted from the idea of the singular, forceful personality where the Canadian writer is expected to be publically self-effacing out of a mixture of genuine humility and fear of tall poppy syndrome, an ugly place for a writer to exist. One could even see it as petulant Canadian cultural reactionism: what America likes we don’t and that defines our tastes (this is a dreadfully deep current in my country's national psyche at times). 

This year is the tenth volume of Best Canadian Essays (the previous Series Editor bowed out after two years) and I have greeted the project annually with a healthy mix of complaining and happiness. Complaining because it's just something I do and happiness because I get to read a lot of interesting material and moreover because I get to have a hand in providing the most worthy entries another platform for exposure. Anthology editors, if nothing else, are simple conduits between writers and readers and that is not a bad place to live. 

Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the Series Editor for the annual Best Canadian Essays and the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Glutton for Punishment, a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.

Read more from our Int'l Essayists series here.

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