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Robert J. Sawyer vs. the Canada Council: Updated

By any reasonable measure, Robert J. Sawyer must be considered one of this country’s most successful fiction writers. He has just published his 22nd novel, Red Planet Blues. Previous novels have been nominated for or won the Aurora Prize, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. His books are perennial bestsellers, and his novel FlashForward has been adapted as an ABC Television series.

There is one body that has not seen fit to honour him, however: the Canada Council. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Sawyer bemoans being rejected for a writing grant “ for the 10th time.

The Council’s Grants to Professional Writers ” Creative Writing [sic] 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.)

Although economic need is not spelled out in the Canada Council guidelines, the Grants for Professional Writers program does state that the money is for “subsistence,” which would seem to privilege writers who are not able to make a living solely from their craft.

However, it might be possible to make an argument that the granting system is biased against genre writing, something Sawyer goes on to do: “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.”

He also points out that Red Planet Blues, which was turned down for a grant, debuted at number seven on the Maclean’s bestseller list. Whether this bodes well for grant application number 11 remains to be seen.

UPDATE: Following the appearance of this Quillblog post, Arash Mohtashami-Maali, the head of writing and publishing for the Canada Council, forwarded an email response to Q&Q. Mohtashami-Maali writes, in part:

I would like your readers to know that Robert J. Sawyer received Canada Council funding in 2000 through the Professional Grants to Writers program, and travel grants in 1999, 2007, and 2010. This is public information and is accessible on our website through our searchable grant listings.

It’s a very competitive process. Only a small percentage of writers who apply for a creative writing grant are successful. For our most recent competition, we received over 800 applications and were able to award under 150 grants.

Mohtashami-Maali’s note also outlines the peer assessment process for determining how grants are dispersed, and goes on to say that the committees “evaluate all grant applications and recommend funding based on artistic merit and excellence.”

The full letter from the Canada Council for the Arts can be read here.