Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sci-fi gets no respect

Popular sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer slams Canada Council for not giving him a grant

Twenty years ago, when my third science-fiction novel came out, Books in Canada magazine profiled me. The profile’s author, Andrew Weiner, quoted me as saying, “Maybe it’s a grass-is-always-greener thing. But I can’t help thinking that writers working in almost any other area are getting more respect. It’s really very frustrating.”
To which Weiner added: “No respect. At times Sawyer seems about to slip into a Rodney Dangerfield routine. I can’t get no respect.”

Well, of course, in the two decades since, I’ve gotten a lot of respect. Just last month I received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor General’s office. And on March 18, McMaster University picked up 52 boxes of my papers to add to their Canadian-literature archives — surely a sign that SF is now part of the mainstream.

And yet that same week, the Canada Council for the Arts turned me down for the 10th time for a grant to write a novel. The Council’s “Grants to Professional Writers — Creative Writing” are valued at up to $25,000. One might argue that I don’t need the money anymore (although I certainly did when I first started applying). But economic need is not a granting criterion, and bestselling writers of other types routinely receive grants.

(Back in 1993, a churlish fellow claimed I wasn’t “grant-worthy.” I shut him up by applying for and receiving an Ontario Arts Council grant.)

There are those who say (although being so is nowhere in the Canada Council’s rules) that science fiction can’t really be about Canada. They’re wrong: my books are mostly set in this country, have Canadian protagonists, revel in our diversity, and deal with Canadian themes. As the Globe and Mail has said, “Sawyer sells so well in Canada because of his celebration of our culture; citizens seek him out for both a good story and affirmation of our identity.”

Then again, maybe the particular projects I’ve proposed to the Canada Council weren’t significant. Judge for yourself: here are some of the novels I went on to write after the Council declined to support them:

The Terminal Experiment, which won both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award and the Aurora Award (Canada’s highest honour in SF) for best novel of the year, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award, the top international prize in SF writing.

Flashforward, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“denoting a book of exceptional merit”), won the Aurora Award, won in blind judging Europe’s top SF award (the 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción), and was adapted by ABC into a television series.

Rollback, which also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named one of the 10 best SF novels of the year by the American Library Association, was the 2009 “One Book, One Brant” community-wide reading choice, and was a finalist for both the Hugo and the top juried prize in the SF field, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Wake (which I applied for three times), which won the Aurora, was a Hugo and Campbell finalist and a Globe and Mail bestseller, and also received a starred Publishers Weekly review.

Watch, which won the American juried Hal Clement Award for year’s best young-adult novel, won the Aurora, was one of three finalists for the Canadian Authors Association’s Fiction Award (“honouring writing that achieves excellence without sacrificing popular appeal”), was a finalist for the Audio Publishers Association’s Audie Award, and was a Globe bestseller.And Triggers, which made five year’s-best lists, was the publishing trade journal Quill & Quire’s “Booksellers’ Choice” for SF or fantasy novel of the year by authors of any nationality, was a Globe and Maclean’s bestseller, and is a current finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Bookie Award.

Yes, from time to time, writers of “speculative fiction” — the obfuscatory term used to hide what’s really being produced — do receive Canada Council grants, but for most of us whose work is widely read, crumbs may be had but not plums:
In the former category, five years ago, Toronto libraries hosted the “Canada Council Heritage Series on Speculative Fiction,” with authors paid $150 reading fees — less than 1 per cent of the maximum value of a creative-writing grant (I declined to participate).

But in 2007, after I arrived in the Klondike at Pierre Berton House, the famed writer’s retreat, I discovered the Canada Council had, for the first and only time, overruled the unanimous choice of the selection committee in Dawson City, denying funding for my stay.

Nonetheless, I did what one is supposed to do: I wrote a novel inspired by my time in the Yukon. Red Planet Blues, set in the Mars colony of New Klondike against the backdrop of the Great Martian Fossil Rush, has just been published under Penguin Canada’s mainstream Viking imprint, debuting at No. 7 on the Maclean’s bestsellers’ list. It, too, had its grant application denied by the Canada Council — as did the new book I’m starting to write now.

Andrew Weiner ended that 20-year-old Books in Canada profile with these words: “Robert J. Sawyer may indeed go boldly where almost no science-fiction writer has gone before, into the strange alien galaxy of the Canadian literary mainstream. And he may, in the end, get some respect.”

And I guess I did, from everyone except the Canada Council for the Arts. I suppose we can check again on that score in another 20 years. I’m sure I’ll still be around then — but if the Canada Council isn’t, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t shed a tear.

Robert J. Sawyer’s 22nd novel, Red Planet Blues, is just out, no thanks to the Canada Council.

Rob is only stating what most Canadian sci-fi/fantasy writers have been complaining about for years.

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