Scrupling Canadian women’s nonfiction writing

to scruple

In a CBC-Radio interview on The Current, the distinguished Canadian peace activist and scientist Ursula Franklin introduced me to the Quaker tradition of “scrupling.” In response to my interest, Ursula Franklin emailed me in November 2010: “delighted that you understand my reasoning to revive the old notion of “scrupling” as an activity and the use of scrupling as a verb. Today we google. High time – I say- to scruple also.”

“To scruple” means “to hesitate as a result of conscience or principle.” This hesitation, a pause to reflect, is a move that invites a critical distance, a useful antidote to the status quo. The etymological root of “scruple” is —

from O.Fr. scrupule (14c.), from L. scrupulus “uneasiness, anxiety, pricking of conscience,” lit. “small sharp stone,” dim. of scrupus “sharp stone or pebble,” used figuratively by Cicero for a cause of uneasiness or anxiety, probably from the notion of having a pebble in one’s shoe. The verb meaning “to have or make scruples” is attested from 1620s.

Canadian women nonfiction writers need  a “small sharp stone” to prick at the conscience of editors, publishers, literary prize jurors and reviewers. To think about the context in which Canadian women’s nonfiction is produced, is to suddenly feel a pebble in one’s shoe, an irritation that irks.

We also need to prick at the psyches of those who minimize the value of writing, education, the arts, and critical thinking. Our ability to communicate ideas and insight to others makes us natural candidates for engagement in public discussion and debate. We need spaces to share information, to publish reviews and observations about writing and life, to invite writers to investigate the politics and poetics of our cultural life and our everyday.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to locate a digital meeting place of writers and readers, an archive of work, a space for reviews and reflections. What would it look like? What would it do? How might it help us innovate in our own writing, share the insights of others, provide us with information about how to break down and through institutional barriers? How might it influence and inform? How might a collective writing space explore and undo limiting attitudes, even those that remain unspoken.  How could we make common cause to ensure that ethnocentrism and racism don’t remain the unarticulated status quo of the way things tend to work in our world?

sounding gendered differences: the nonfiction genre & the status of women

In 1993, I published Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers (U Toronto P)a collection that almost entirely excluded discussion of nonfiction writing. At the time, I was blind to my own genre limits though I did mention the cross-genre “fiction theory” of Nicole Brossard whose innovative writing shifted between categories as well as the nonfiction critical race interventions in the sharp-witted writing of M. Nourbese Philip. From the early 1980s, my standard Canadian literature courses focused on poetry and fiction and drama as the genres of choice — I was no exception to the general rule. My interest in Canadian women’s nonfiction writing grew over time and accelerated when I began to reflect on my own experiments with nonfiction writing. Almost ten years ago, I began to teach creative writing courses. The focus on the contemporary notion of literary nonfiction renamed “creative nonfiction” drew on new resources, edited anthologies with content almost exclusively written by non-Canadian writers.

And while there are few collections of “creative nonfiction” expressly designed for Canadian courses, searching through Canadian magazines, one discovers a gendered world.

Here’s one example — The Walrus describes itself as “a national general interest magazine about Canada and its place in the world. We are committed to publishing the best work by the best writers from Canada and elsewhere on a wide range of topics for readers who are curious about the world.” However over the course of this magazine’s history, essays written “by the best writers from Canada” have been mainly and sometimes exclusively male. While there has been progress in Canadian women’s lives over the years, like the ongoing lack of equity in Canadian women’s incomes, the status of Canadian women’s nonfiction writing appears to have lagged behind.

Here in Canada, gender and genre play out in particular ways. in an August 2010 article in The Toronto Star, Vit Wagner asked “Will women rule Canada’s book prize season?” 

“Last year, 10 of the 12 books longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize were written by women — even if, granted, the eventual winner was Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man. Beyond that, four of the five Governor General’s Award finalists, including winner Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing, were by women. The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, which included three female finalists, was won by Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean — the only book to be nominated for all three prizes. The past three winners of the Amazon First Novel Award have all been women.By contrast, the past six winners of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction were men. Since the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction was introduced six years ago, four of the winners have been men. It’s unwise to read too much into any of this — one can easily find exceptions on either side of the equation — but a perusal of the Canadian fall publishing lists seems similarly skewed.”

I would beg to differ. We need “to scruple” the writing and the status of Canadian women’s nonfiction. Literary festivals can be scrupling sites. In a recent distinguished international festival of writing, only two out of fifteen writers invited from away were women.

Karen Connelly introduced me to Claire Messud’s Guerenica essay “Writers, Plain and Simple” about how American women’s fiction is left off of “best of” lists and book prizes.

In a comment about Messud’s essay, American writer and activist Meredith Tax writes:

“The problem you describe has a name: gender-based censorship. And it applies to a lot more than lists and prizes. Like institutionalized racism, gender-based censorship is a structural mechanism, so prevalent it is unseen; it permeates the social locations where voice is an issue: newspapers, the web, the halls of political and corporate power, and systems of literary and intellectual prestige. Women’s position in the literary world reflects our position in society as a whole. And if women are still not equal in the US–check out the stats on income–we are even less so in most other parts of the world. Feminist writers have been defining and fighting this problem for the last forty years. (Some of the historical records are on my website: One of the highlights of this struggle was a protest at the 1986 Congress of International PEN in New York, a meeting billed as bringing together “the best writers in the world,” which had only 16 women speakers out of 117. Norman Mailer, in his inimitable way, explained that the poor representation of women was because this was a conference of intellectuals, not just writers, and while there were plenty of women writers, there was only one woman intellectual, Susan Sontag. There is always room within the gates for an exceptional woman or two. But only when a critical mass of women tear down the gates and open up the territory will gender-based systems of value change for good. This may be an unpleasant thought for anyone who thinks literary acclaim is won by merit alone, but in the real world, locations of power and prestige are guarded like fortresses.”


2 thoughts on “Scrupling Canadian women’s nonfiction writing”

  1. I hope you will respect my pseudonym.

    As I said I am a new kid on the block. I found your blog through the CNFC web site, an organization I joined mostly to see what it is all about. One of my first curiosities was, of course, what classified as creative non-fiction. Obviously that does not apply to this web site, yet neither does this site disqualify such writing.

    1. Of course I will respect your pseudonym!.. Thanks for writing. Some of the writers here work in creative nonfiction, but some don’t fit the large baggy britches the genre wears.

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