[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Canada Council

Sci-Fi: Taken For Granted

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city, Monday, April 8, 2013; this is the definitive version of the text.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

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 tenth time for a grant to write a novel. The Council's "Grants for 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:

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 Canada Council-sponsored public readings under the title "Foresight: Speculative Fiction in Canada," with authors paid $150 fees — less than 1% 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 writing 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, hitting #3 on the Maclean's fiction 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.

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