W.P. Kinsella #3
April 07th, 2008
For five straight years, W.P. Kinsella, the outspoken author of Shoeless Joe (aka Field of Dreams, the movie) has adjudicated all rookie novelists from sea to sea to sea for the Amazon/Books In Canada First Novel Contest. “I haven’t seen any Fifth Businesses or Stone Angels,” he says, “but previous winner Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill is world class, as is this year’s Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden which was passed over for both the Giller and the GGs.” There are two main national awards for fiction in Canada—the venerable Governor General’s Awards and the swanky, Toronto-centric Giller Prize. Kinsella—who never received either—views the Governor General’s Awards as “a farce” but suggests, “until this year the Giller people have shown uncommon good judgment in picking winners.” Now that Bill Kinsella is opting out of his gatekeeper job for the First Novel Contest, we thought some questions might be in order about the state of fiction in Canada.
BCBW: On a provincial basis, where have most of the new novelists in English come from?
KINSELLA: Over five years Ontario writers produced 46% of the first novels submitted to the contest, followed by B.C. with 19%, Alberta with 10% and Newfoundland with 8%.
BCBW: What’s the average age of first-time novelists in Canada?
KINSELLA: I’d say it’s late 30s.
BCBW: Has the gender ratio for novelists changed since you published your first fiction book in 1977?
KINSELLA: The female-to-male ratio of published novelists has increased. The novels I’ve read in the past five years were equally divided 50/50.
BCBW: Does the old maxim ‘Write about what you know’ still apply?
KINSELLA: I don’t think ‘Write about what you know’ has ever applied. The best novels are works of imagination, the worst are full of autobio-
BCBW: Do you sometimes ask yourself if there are too many books?
KINSELLA: I think there have always been too many books. Unpublished writers may whine otherwise, but nothing, absolutely nothing even remotely good goes unpublished.
Literally hundreds of books both fiction and non-fiction are published each year that should never see the light of day, are read by virtually no one, and would never be missed had they not been published.
BCBW: The pop music industry has been ruined by the music video. Do you detect any corresponding trend towards publishing novelists who ‘look good’ rather than write well?
KINSELLA: I don’t see any correlation. If looking good meant anything there would be far more well-designed covers. There are only two or three good covers a season, the rest often appear to be designed by artsy-craftsy incompetents who have no knowledge of lettering, and probably just got their first computer.
BCBW: Are the first novels from larger publishing houses any better, or different, than the first novels from smaller publishing houses?
KINSELLA: I’d say the novels I see from Knopf Canada, Random House and Doubleday are usually quality ones. They are more consistent in quality than [ones from] the smaller publishers, possibly because they have money for better editors and proofreaders.
BCBW: If you were writing a first novel today, what small press would you send it to?
KINSELLA: I would go with Great Plains Publications, a relatively new firm out of Winnipeg. Their books are all beautiful and they give the impression that they really care about their product.
BCBW: And what large press would you send it to?
KINSELLA: I’d first try Knopf Canada.
BCBW: Can you explain to me how anyone writing or talking in Canada can pronounce, with complete confidence, that the novel they have just read is somehow the ‘best’ novel of the year when that person has likely read less than 10% of the novels published?
KINSELLA: Something like that is a judgment call. What it means is that the novel compares favorably with many excellent novels of the recent past, therefore it must be one of the best of the current crop.
BCBW: You’ve already cited Susan Juby as a ‘writer to watch.’ What other emerging first novelists have impressed you?
KINSELLA: The first year I picked the short list I was very disappointed that Lydia Kwa’s beautifully poetic yet tough-as-nails story of lesbian love and sacrifice, This Place Called Absence, did not win. I felt it was the best novel of that year by a wide margin.
I very much like Open Arms by Marina Endicott, Blue Becomes You by Bettina von Kampen, The Beautiful Dead End by Clint Hutuzlak, and Stay by Aislin Hunter. These people are very talented and could become major players in Can-Lit.
However, my favorite first novel of all time was a runner-up in 1976 to something long forgotten, The True Story of Ida Johnson by Sharon Riis. It was summed up by Margaret Atwood as “… a flatfooted waitress caught in the eerie light of the Last Judgment.” It is a novel I re-read several times a year, always finding something new.
BCBW: Do you sometimes think we should place a moratorium on publishing novelists under age 35?
KINSELLA: Definitely. It got so bad that for a couple of years I added my own Bottom Drawer Award for novels whose manuscripts should have remained in the bottom drawer with orange peels, cracker crumbs and condom wrappers.
The worst offenders are the publishers trying to qualify for future grants by publishing a certain number of books each year. They end up publishing anything with a pulse.
BCBW: So should everyone attending Creative Writing courses be encouraged to get jobs delivering pizzas instead?
KINSELLA: No. I’m a graduate of the University of Victoria Writing Department and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
When I went to UVic I was like a baseball pitcher with a wonderful fastball who threw every third pitch into the stands. Bill Valgardson, Robin Skelton, Lawrence Russell and Derk Wynand coached me until I was publishing regularly by the time I graduated.
Iowa gave me two years of freedom to write, and I was beginning Shoeless Joe when I received my MFA. Only one or two bad novels came from graduates of writing programs, while several very good ones emerged, especially from the UBC Writing program, which has a phenomenal rate of published novelists.
It has always been that in a class of 15 writing students, on average only one will ever achieve any success. I do think Writing Departments should be more diligent in weeding out the obvious non-performers, but the problem is age-old; the departments get paid by the student, so anyone with diligence and a smattering of ability can get a degree, which ultimately cheapens the degrees of the talented writers.
That was my chief complaint with Iowa where I saw students use the same 60-page, unrevised manuscript they used to gain entry to the workshop as their Graduate Thesis Project.
Essay Date: 2006