I killed at the palliative care conference

My new sort-of comedy career hit an important milestone this fall when I did my first-ever keynote address, as the concluding speaker at the annual Palliative Care Manitoba conference, where I bounced back and forth from my cancer-related comedy to my experiences with prostate cancer.  It seemed at the time that they 200 people in attendance enjoyed it, and that was confirmed a few weeks later when I received my copy of the audience assessment survey results. I’m still working to springboard from this to more work at conferences and support groups – not to mention comedy clubs, where I don’t just laugh about cancer. (I’m doing a bunch of travel-related comedy at an event in December.)

And now ladies and gentlemen and palliative care workers, put your hands together for our headliner!

I never imagined I would find myself doing comedy at a palliative care conference. Maybe I’ll teach you all some jokes today that you can use in your work. You know how everybody likes to get the last laugh?

Very satisfying.

You know, I’ve never done anything quite like this. I know there are some comedians who do a lot of entertaining at professional gatherings and in a variety of health care settings. So I thought I’d ask for some advice.

Told a comedian I really admire that I’m doing a conference keynote and wondered if he had any tips.

“How long is your keynote?”

“Fifty minutes.”

“What’s the longest set you’ve ever done?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Who’s the conference for?”

“Palliative Care.”

“Well, somebody’s gonna want to be put out of their misery.”

Just as an educational aside, those are “greeting the crowd” jokes. Now I’ll move into the joke jokes.

I started doing comedy just after I was diagnosed with cancer…. I like to drop the cancer reference early because it sets the fun bar nice and low.

“Hey, what’d you think of that last comedian?”

“Well, he was more amusing than cancer.”

When you’re diagnosed with cancer and you tell your family and friends, one thing you hear a lot is: “You’re strong Bob. You’re gonna fight this. You’ll win this war.”

Well, thanks, but I’d be okay with a negotiated non-aggression pact.

There was a lot more, but you know the old saying about giving away the milk when you’re trying to sell the cow. If you find yourself in need of guest speaker, you can reach me through the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, where I go by bobarmsnovelist.

Diversity: a numbers game

(I recently finished an 11-year run as a weekly book news columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. Now, without that part-time job holding me back from speaking my mind, I feel free to post an essay I wrote a few years ago on “diversity” and the literary world. Enjoy. Or not.)


A Numbers Game

If you’re a writer, you’ve seen versions of this countless times: “We aim to ensure that our catalogue is reflective of an inclusive and multicultural Canada. We especially welcome work by Indigenous writers, writers of colour, LGBTQ2S+ writers, deaf and disabled writers, and women.” (Submission guidelines, Book*hug Press)

Maybe you’ve taken it on faith that a statement like this is a necessary corrective after centuries of white, male Eurocentric domination of literature. Or maybe you last paid attention to Canadian literature in the days of Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

So you may not be aware that “especially welcome” in the statement above often means a policy of deliberate racial (and gender-based) exclusion carried out by government-grant-receiving publishers and literary organizations. The literary world today is awash in an ever-growing flood of diversity-focused mentorships, scholarships, awards, festivals, special editions of journals, publishers’ statements and committees, all of which justify their actions by pointing to white, male dominance of the literary world. I’m a Canadian, so the examples I cite will be from my country, but I’ve seen enough awards lists, calls for submissions, publishers’ statements and conference line-ups from the U.S. and the U.K. to make me confident that my diagnosis is applicable across the English-speaking world. Here are a few recent Canadian examples of what are meant to be necessary correctives to systemic bias:

  • The 2022 version of Canada’s national short story prize, the Journey Prize, was limited to black writers only (this in a country where black people made up 3.5 per cent of the population in 2016).
  • The Festival of Literary Diversity has emerged as one of the most well-funded and heavily publicized literary festivals in Canada, featuring only BIPOC (black, Indigenous, people of colour) writers, plus a few white writers who are disabled or trans/non-binary. The founder and director of this festival is the books columnist for CBC Radio’s daily arts and culture show, Q.
  • Penguin Random House Canada recently announced that it will accept unsolicited manuscripts, but only from BIPOC and LGBT+ authors. Venerable Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart also announced a one-month opening for unsolicited manuscripts as “part of our ongoing commitment to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and racialized writers.”
  • The Writers’ Union of Canada runs an Ontario Arts Council-funded conference called BIPOC Writers Connect, in which 20 established BIPOC writers read manuscripts and offer advice on writing and grant applications to emerging BIPOC writers.
  • Diaspora Dialogues, a federally and provincially funded non-profit, offers a variety of writing mentorship programs for emerging writers. Based on profiles on the organization’s website, of the approximately 180 writers mentored over the years, BIPOC writers have accounted for about 65 per cent and women have been about 80 per cent of the total.
  • VS Books, an imprint of Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press, only publishes BIPOC writers.
  • ECW Press, one of Canada’s most prominent independent publishers, has announced a mentorship program for BIPOC writers. So has children’s publisher Annick Press.
  • Many literary journals in Canada (which receive most of their income from government agencies), including Prairie Fire, Grain, Room, The Fiddlehead, Prism International, The Malahat Review and CV2, have created special Indigenous or BIPOC issues, some of them more than once, despite, of course, running works by Indigenous and BIPOC writers in their regular issues.
  • Atlantic Canada Publishers announced a writer-in-residence position in Halifax (12.2 per cent BIPOC at last census) for BIPOC writers.

All of these actions are justified on the grounds that they are necessary to give excluded voices a chance to be heard. All these actions are defended by prominent figures in the literary world – writers, academics, agents, editors – who still talk about the white, male Canlit canon as if the Canadian literary world hasn’t evolved since the 1950s, and who use this white, male domination as the reason for all of those special calls for Indigenous writers, writers of colour, women writers, LGBT writers and so on.

Perhaps this is in part because Canadians, like their American neighbours, overestimate how many people of colour there are in their country. In 2013, the Center for American Progress and the Rockefeller Foundation released a study that showed Americans on average estimated that people of colour (including Latinos) made up 49 per cent of the U.S. population, at a time when the actual figure was 37 per cent. In 2001, Gallup found that on average, Americans estimated that 33 per cent of the U.S. population was black, at a time when the census showed the correct number to be 12.5 per cent (it’s currently 13 per cent).

This distorted perception is likely greater in Canada, where, in 2016, visible minorities and Indigenous people combined made up 27 per cent of the population, an increase from 14 per cent as recently as 1996. If you think Group X makes up a much larger share of the population than it actually does, seeing that group represented in proportion to its share of the population would look like under-representation. (This doesn’t explain why Canadians might see Canlit as traditionally male, given that it emerged into prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s with Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro as standard-bearers.)

It is taken as given that the literary establishment continues to teach, publish, promote and reward white, male writers at the expense of women and Indigenous and visible minority writers. For years, I’ve been reading essays with titles like “The Unbearable Whiteness of Canlit” and feeling that this vision is deeply disconnected from the reality of what gets published and promoted today. So, armed with not a penny in government research funding, I’ve done some research.

I’ve recently calculated the ratio of white/BIPOC writers and male/female writers among those shortlisted for Canada’s most high-profile literary award (the Giller Prize, awarded since 1992) and  featured on Canada’s most high-profile book promotion (CBC’s Canada Reads, on the air since 2002) in order to get a snapshot of Canada’s most successful writers of the last three decades. I’ve also examined a sample of the lists of writers participating in literary festivals and featured in CBC “writers to watch” articles over the last few years, in order to see if the literary establishment is displaying biases right now.

And here’s what I’ve found. Shortlists for the Giller Prize (usually five books per year, occasionally six) have been fairly evenly divided among men (72) and women (81). White writers (118) appear at first glance somewhat over-represented relative to BIPOC writers (36), if you don’t consider Canada’s shifting demographics since 1992. The 23 per cent of Giller shortlist positions since 1992 occupied by BIPOC writers should be compared to the BIPOC share of the Canadian population over time, which was about 14 per cent when the Giller began and 27 per cent at the time of the last census, in 2016. So it’s hard to see a white male bias in the Giller. (It’s worth noting as well that 14 BIPOC writers have won the Giller, giving BIPOC nominees a much better batting average than other nominees.)

Now let’s look at Canada Reads. In 21 seasons since it debuted in 2002, men have been slightly over-represented (57 men, 48 women, an imbalance resulting from the 29-21 male-female imbalance in the first decade of the show). If we look at the racial breakdown, we see that BIPOC writers are over-represented relative to Canada’s population, getting 44 per cent of 105 spots in the annual battle of the books. The balance has been shifting further in recent years. Since 2014, three to five of the books featured each year have been by Indigenous writers or writers of colour.

I’m confident that the Giller Prize and Canada Reads are not anomalies and that, especially for the last decade, many other institutions in literary culture would show a similar or more marked tendency. I recall in 2018 when the five-book shortlist for the City of Toronto Book Prize was 100 per cent BIPOC writers and this was hailed in one headline as “diverse.” As if there is no diversity of insight or experience among the other 47 per cent of Torontonians.

Now, it might be argued that the make-up of two prominent awards doesn’t indicate that the publishing industry as a whole lacks a pro-white-male bias. But it seems improbable that Canada’s leading literary gatekeepers (editors, publishers and prominent authors) might exhibit such a bias in their day-to-day work but then set it aside when sitting on award juries.

Now let’s shift the focus from the last few decades to the last few years. Which writers are being published? And perhaps more importantly, of those who are being published, which writers have the promotional resources of their publishers placed at their disposal to give them a chance at meaningful sales? To gauge this, I counted the numbers of male/female and white/BIPOC writers at four randomly selected literary festivals (Ottawa and Vancouver 2019 and Eden Mills and Winnipeg 2020) and did the same with two “writers to watch” articles for each of 2018, 2019 and 2020 published on the CBC Books website. (Those “X buzz books for this spring” pieces you see all the time online are less the product of digging by whatever media publish them than they are curated lists of the books that received the most marketing push from publishers.)

Here’s what I saw. The Vancouver festival featured 108 writers in 2019: 61 women, three trans/non-binary and 44 men. Of those 108 writers, 62 (57 per cent) were white, and 46 (43 per cent) were BIPOC. The Ottawa festival that year was 58 per cent female and 35 per cent BIPOC. In 2020, the Eden Mills festival was 61 per cent female and 39 per cent BIPOC. The 2020 Winnipeg writers’ festival was 50/50 male and female and 33 per cent BIPOC. (The Winnipeg racial tally is skewed somewhat by a contingent of Francophone writers, all but one of whom was white. Among Anglophone writers at the 2020 Winnipeg festival, 39 per cent were BIPOC). So the evidence suggests that, at writers’ festivals, women and BIPOC writers are represented in numbers somewhat greater than their share of the population.

Now let’s look at those “writers to watch” pieces on CBC Books. Looking at two of these per year for three years, I came up with a total of 74 books by men and 124 by women getting this kind of valuable advance promotion, and 133 by white authors and 86 by BIPOC authors. So, a 40 per cent share for BIPOC writers and a 63 per cent share for women.

You may have recoiled a little at the idea that I have spent many hours googling writers in the news in order to count them by racial category. Me too. I’m appalled that I found it necessary to do this in order to counter this narrative of white, male hegemony in current literary circles.

I am not calling for awards, contracts and publicity to be given out on a proportional basis. Women buy more books than men, so it’s no surprise if more women want to write and there’s no injustice in the industry catering to women’s interests when it comes to signing and promoting authors. The experience of being in a racial or cultural minority might be more likely to inspire people to become writers – witness the flowering of American Jewish literature in the 20th century. The desire to write and the talent to do it very well make for a rare combination and we can’t expect that combination to show up by quota. Maybe the “disproportionate” results I see are purely innocent.

Except that they are accompanied by countless indicators of a literary culture that is working to create much more disproportionate results in the future, when all those beneficiaries of race-based emerging writer awards and mentorships are ready to move into positions of literary leadership.

If literary gatekeepers – the publishers, editors, conference organizers and the like behind those exclusionary measures I referred to above – are going to use race-based criteria to bar the majority of the nation’s population from many of their programs and publications, there had better be compelling evidence to justify those measures. But the success of BIPOC writers over the last two or three decades, and especially in the last five years, suggests that these extraordinary measures are not justified. Remember, books promoted between 2018 and 2020 were written and landed publishing deals before the affirmative action initiatives that I listed above, and yet BIPOC  writers managed to be moderately over-represented in Canadian literary circles without them. (And that some of these measures target women generally as excluded from Canadian literature is so preposterous as to be laughable.)

But far from easing off on the affirmative action, the people piloting the good ship Canlit are pushing the throttle harder.

The chair of the Canada Council, our largest arts-funding body (a federally funded institution that had a $360 million budget in 2021), in an interview with the Toronto Star, called the institution he headed a “colonial” institution that needs to be changed. Given that this is a man who campaigned to destroy a white author and editor’s career over an awkwardly worded call for writers to work to bridge cultures (the Appropriation Prize kerfuffle of 2017), we can guess what this might mean. In my own province, the government-funded arts council, which dispenses financial support to individual artists and arts groups, has recently announced a new set of “strategic priorities” focused on equity, diversity, reconciliation and projects that “build communities.” The money quote in this document reads: “Refine program assessment criteria that favour a Eurocentric concept of excellence to instead focus on impact.”

Of course, it has always been difficult to find a publisher and an audience. Being a writer has always been a struggle, often a lonely one, to convince the world that one has something to say that is worth reading. But for a not statistically insignificant share of the population, that challenge is becoming increasingly difficult, as opportunities of all kinds become more rare, as the traditional indifference of the world turns to outright hostility and as literature increasingly becomes a subsidiary branch of the greater enterprise of gender and racial social justice. A few of us are still keeping at it, even as it becomes increasingly clear that we aren’t welcome and the audiences who might be interested in our work are being isolated or even driven away.


Moral intuitionism and the “Search the Landfill” debate

The number-one issue in my home province of Manitoba in 2023 – whether or not to spend roughly $180 million searching a local landfill for the bodies of two murdered Indigenous women – offers a case study in the ways we go about coming to moral conclusions.

For those not from Manitoba, here’s a summary. A man is charged with the murder of four Indigenous women, one of whose remains was found in the city-owned Brady Road landfill (Winnipeg’s only public dump). The bodies of two of the others are believed to have been hauled away to the private Prairie Green landfill, which handles commercial dumping from businesses and heavy industry as well demolition scrap. A feasibility study determined that it would be possible to search the landfill – despite the presence of hazardous material such as asbestos – at a cost of up to $180 million. The provincial government, led by Premier Heather Stefanson, has said it will not fund such a search. In response, Indigenous people, including family members of the victims, blockaded the Brady Road landfill and later, following a court injunction, moved their protest camp to the grounds of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The case has now become a national issue and if you’re Canadian you may have seen the message “Search the landfill” show up on you social media feed.

Generally, the case has been presented as one of compassion versus penny-pinching, with Stefanson branded as “Heartless Heather” and many accusations of racism. It has, of course, been politically polarized, with the federal minister of Indigenous Services (a Liberal) speaking out against Stefanson (leader of a Conservative government).

But I’d like to step away from the politics of it and look at the case from the perspective of moral intuitionism, as described by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

I believe the controversy shows how different moral frameworks can lead to different responses.

The argument for searching is that the families need to be able to bury their loved ones, that allowing the bodies to remain in the landfill (if they are in fact there) is an indignity, that refusing to search sends a message that these women and Indigenous women in general are not worthy of society’s concern.

The argument for not searching is that $180 million is a great deal of public money that could otherwise be spent on services for living people, that there’s no certainty the search would find anything, that conducting the search might further delay the trial of the suspect and that searching an industrial dump site risks harming the searchers. (With an estimated 60,000 tonnes of debris to be searched, this would be a project involving teams in full-body protective gear working full-time for up to two years. The price estimate is $80-$180 million, but recent experience with government projects suggests that the upper figure would likely turn out to be the starting point, with probable cost overruns.)

A reading of Haidt’s book inspires me to look at the moral foundations supporting these two sets of arguments and to conclude that they are based on different foundations.

In a nutshell, Haidt argues, citing decades of psychological research, that morals are based on intuitions that humans evolved over millions of years as social beings and that moral reasoning is a process we use mostly to support conclusions we intuitively arrive at. Some societies have in recent centuries emphasized one or two of these foundations more than others. Some societies are based on a mixture of six foundations.

The foundations, represented as concepts we intuitively like paired with their opposites, are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

People in western liberal democratic societies tend to draw most of their moral responses from the care/harm and liberty/oppression foundations. That is, we believe the goal of laws and public policy is to reduce harm to people and to allow people freedom to go about their lives so long as they are not harming others.

Those are the moral foundations on which the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism is based. Utilitarianism states that “the good” is that which maximizes happiness and/or reduces suffering for the largest number of people while allowing people the greatest amount of freedom, so long as they are not impinging on the happiness of others. But as Haidt points out, there are many societies around the world that draw very strongly on the authority/subversion or sanctity/degradation foundations.

Let’s return to the landfill debate. The argument against the search is clearly based on a utilitarian calculation. Spending $180 million to search the landfill might relieve some of the suffering of family members, but that money, if spent on addiction services, supported housing or remodelling a dangerous intersection, might save many lives. Furthermore, the potential harm to the searchers, who might face long-term health effects like those of World Trade Center searchers, provides another utilitarian argument against the search.

The argument for the search, though it does draw on sympathy for the suffering of the families of the victims, is based primarily on the sanctity/degradation foundation. Signs during posters read “We are not trash.” Search proponents conjure the image of loved ones abandoned under mounds of garbage.

Speaking with a friend recently, I heard a statement along the lines of “I know some people say the money could be spent on other important things, but to me it all boils down to the idea that these women are buried with dirty diapers.”

That’s a powerful gut response, and it’s hard to counter that with calculations based on the cost of building additional units of public housing or additional beds in treatment facilities.

Not all societies depend heavily on the sanctity/degradation foundation for their moral responses. As Chait suggests, educated, multi-ethnic, trade and technology-based societies learn to suppress some of their visceral responses to things that go against their sanctity/degradation instinct. You have to, in order to do business with people who are different from you.

For smaller, more embattled groups, sanctity may play a role in ensuring group cohesion, which was essential for all human survival during the millennia when we all lived in small clan-based communities. (As another example of the sanctity response, think of armies with a “no man left behind” ethos. You might not be able to justify on a care/harm foundation sending soldiers into danger to recover the body of a fallen comrade. But many armies do this, because it creates greater group cohesion and thereby increases combat effectiveness.)

Certainly, sanctity seems to play a smaller role in the moral responses of most Canadians today than it would have in generations past. Consider, for example, the lack of response when churches were burned in the aftermath of the discovery, in 2020, of potential unmarked burial sites near some former residential schools. Consider as well the level of public support for medically assisted death, which goes against centuries of teachings about the sanctity of life.

But this doesn’t mean we’ve done away with the sanctity response entirely. Consider the public anger when somebody tags a war memorial or a national park rock formation with graffiti. Or perhaps consider the feeling of disgust you may have felt seeing a photo on social media of Donald Trump Jr. proudly displaying a leopard or elephant that he’s killed.

So if the theory of multiple intuitive moral foundations explains why people have such different responses to the landfill question, are we doomed to find no common ground?

I hope not. And perhaps, if we could better understand the foundations of others, we could find ways through this.

Perhaps the provincial government could better recognize the power of the sanctity response and propose at least a pilot-project search to determine if the full search would be as difficult and time-consuming as it seems. This might be a show of good faith. And perhaps, if we wish to argue that $180 million could better be spent on saving the lives of the living, we could put our money where our mouth is. A commitment of, let’s say, $30 million per year for six years – over and above what’s already budgeted for these areas – to new supported housing and/or addiction services would demonstrate that the decision not to search is in fact based on the care/harm moral foundation and not on simple cheapness.

And on the other side, it might help if there were some recognition that calling somebody “heartless” is not an argument, that counterfactuals (the oft-repeated “if this were two white women…”) are cheap, that spending public money effectively is, in fact, based on a moral foundation.

I confess, though, that I’m not holding my breath.


Comedy: the crackpipe of writing

A writer’s life is one of pleasure deferred.

You may enjoy some of your writing time: those days when the ideas are flowing, when you’re finding just the right word or phrase to capture a thought or an image, when a writing project is emerging before your eyes, like the figure Michelangelo was said to liberate from within a block of marble.

But often in order to write you have to be able to put off more immediately enjoyable activities, skip that movie or pass on a trip to the beach in order to spend hours sitting at a desk.

And after you’ve completed a piece of writing the deferred pleasure continues. Now it’s time to submit it for publication. You send out your work to journals or publishers and wait for months for a response. Usually the response is “no thanks.” You may have no sense from the response that your work was even read, and if so, no idea what the reader may have enjoyed about it. Even if your work is accepted for publication, you have a lengthy wait to see it in print and when you do, you have no idea of how readers responded to it. (You may suspect, in fact, that if it appeared in one of the smaller literary reviews, the ones whose circulation is largely limited to the contributors, the majority of readers likely skipped past your work to get at the ones with their own names on them.)

All of this may explain why most of the writing I’m doing these days is in little two-page bursts of set-ups and jokes.

I began performing stand-up in early 2020 just before covid hit and just after I was diagnosed with cancer. It was, I suppose, an outlet in a dark time. After my surgery and recovery, I continued doing stand-up online during the time when bars were closed and open mics were on indefinite hold.

When things opened up again in 2022, I started going back on stage, getting into action just as Winnipeg started to have a comedy boom. Open mics and invited shows have abounded in this city and since the end of lockdown I’ve performed semi-regularly at four Winnipeg clubs that host open mics, plus at an invited show in a popular restaurant and at Winnipeg’s oldest full-time comedy club. This month (July 2023), I’m doing two invited shows at another club. And last summer I did an open mic at one of New York’s major clubs, The Stand. (Invited shows typically feature a half dozen comics who may go for seven to 10 minutes and get paid a few bucks, whereas open mics will feature up to 25 comics doing four to five minutes each and at most the comics will get a drink ticket out of it.)

Now I’m parlaying my cancer experience and my comedy into a gig as a keynote speaker at a health conference in Winnipeg this September.

Why comedy?

As a writer, I find it a great alternative to the deferred pleasure of novels and short stories. Thoughts that pop into my head while walking or biking can be turned into jokes as soon as I get home. Within hours I can have a few minutes’ worth of material that seems as if it’ll work. Then I just have to get a slot at one of the many open mics and try it in front of an audience.

It’s instant feedback.

I’ll learn which lines work well, which might work and which don’t work at all. Then I can rephrase the set-ups or change the order or hit the punchline just slightly differently and try the material again a day or a week later. I’m playing with the meaning, sound and rhythm of words, just like any other writer, and I’m deriving much the same satisfaction as when I’m making progress on a novel or story. It’s great when you have that feeling that you’ve found a line that seems to jump off the page. But with comedy, you can find out if it really does and if so, how far.

Maybe a five- or 10-minute set of jokes will never provide the kind of personal satisfaction as a 3,000-word story or a 100,000-word novel. In stand-up you’re not creating people or worlds from scratch. But it does provide an instant dopamine hit.

Going for instant dopamine hits is not typically viewed as a healthy and productive activity. More slowly achieved satisfactions are typically regarded as longer lasting and more sustainable. So, while I’m batting around several ideas for new novels and about to begin work on a new draft of the sequel to my novel Prodigies, I do have some concern that it will be hard to put down the crackpipe of stand-up long enough to work on a year-long project of pleasure deferral.