It was only common sense, Thomas Paine believed, for the people of the thirteen colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain. And when, in 1775, he set out the reasons for his belief, he called the essay “Common Sense.” For Paine, what also made common—or uncommon—sense was to publish his ideas as a forty-seven-page pamphlet. In so doing, he was tramping in the footsteps of Scottish philosophers like David Hume and French authors like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot. All of them had sought to influence their societies by producing short, hard-hitting texts to supplement their longer, more considered works. Paine’s impact on American opinion was immense: in the early months of 1776, tens of thousands of copies were read and debated across the disunited states.
Dan Wells knows that history. Before he became the founding publisher of Biblioasis Press, in 2004—and long before the Globe and Mail named him one of its “Canadian arts heroes of 2020” for his bold editorial selections that proved smart, challenging books could still sell—Wells was a graduate student exploring the history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Back then, what excited him were those short philosophical texts about the failures of government, the need for religious freedom, and the rights of citizens.
Among the things that excite Wells now is the hope of reviving the pamphleteering tradition in present-day Canada. Biblioasis’s Field Notes series, launched in the fall of 2020, consists of sharply focused works of nonfiction on urgent topics of the day. “The idea,” he explains, “was to do short, fast books in as close to real time as possible.” Traditional pamphleteers would set the type by hand and have it out almost instantaneously.
“I thought we could emulate that kind of responsiveness.” Wells initially hoped each would be as brief as 20,000 words (or one-quarter the size of many books). The irony is that Biblioasis is known for publishing the almost impossibly long Ducks, Newburyport by American writer Lucy Ellmann. Her novel required more than 1,000 pages, almost all of them occupied by a single unparagraphed sentence—scaring off many publishers. Wells was hesitant himself, suspecting the book was likely to lose a lot of money. But he believed in the text, and his bet paid off when Ducks became a runner-up for the 2019 Booker Prize.
Wells founded Biblioasis as a bookshop, then launched a literary press under the same name. Its first books were poetry, but, in recent years, nonfiction has taken up more and more of its list. Wells intends his new series to speak, as Paine did, to the present moment. “We have come to understand how important at this moment works of researched nonfiction are,” he says, “whether these be history, investigative journalism, or other ‘idea’ books. Field Notes is part of how we’re trying to respond to what we see as our role and responsibility.” Each book aims to incite debate—not of the vitriolic kind so disastrously familiar from social media but based on an informed understanding of a particular issue or event.
At the front of each Field Notes book, Wells inserts a quote from Voltaire: “Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It’s the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.” The quote serves as both a declaration and a promise. It suggests these are books that will command attention; it suggests these are books that will make a difference.
Despite the high ambitions of its publisher, Field Notes got off to a rocky start. Its first title, published in October 2020, was Mark Kingwell’s On Risk. Kingwell is a consummate public intellectual and a fluent writer: he can wax eloquent about almost anything. Yet his strengths are not those of a pamphleteer. In his attempt to explore how societies aim to minimize and control risk, Kingwell meanders through childhood memories, ruminations on poker and Las Vegas, confused dismay at the COVID-19 pandemic, digressions on vintage Hollywood, and more. He scatters some provocative bons mots: “Conspiracy is a form of naïve theism: a belief that there is a controlling intelligence, albeit a cruel or deceitful one.” But On Risk needed a stronger line of argument. For a pamphlet to succeed, it’s not enough to pair a smart writer with a good topic: the author needs to have clear points to make.
The second title, Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property, appeared in February 2021. It does exactly what On Risk fails to do: deliver an eye-opening sequence of ideas in coolly passionate prose. Walcott, a Black author and professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, is a twenty-first-century abolitionist: he believes that “something more radical than reform is necessary” to vanquish what he calls, in a terrific phrase, “the plantation’s afterlife.” It’s not enough, he asserts, for policing to be made more humane; such half measures fail by their very nature. If Black lives really mattered in our society, police forces and prisons would be eliminated. Walcott then goes further. Writing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he argues that “Black people will not be fully able to breathe—a word I do not use lightly—until property itself is abolished.”
This is not, you may say, a realistic call. But neither were The Communist Manifesto or A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on the days they were published. Authors have a right to dream—or, as Walcott puts it, “The first foundational step to embracing a newfound freedom is embracing the freedom to imagine it.” Abolition of property, in his eyes, is not just a political step; it’s a means of vanquishing the ongoing legacy of slavery that distorts and deforms our lives.
Andrew Potter’s On Decline, released in August, strikes a different tone: sadder, more jaundiced, less rousing. Potter fears that the traditions we inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—notably a trust in logic and science—are now scorned by much of society and are likely to wither even further. On Decline is brimful of ideas: “What makes the present culture war so confusing, and so remarkable, is that it has seen the wholesale migration of countercultural thinking from the left to the right.” In Potter’s eyes, “The norm-flouting nihilism of the alt-right” has been met by a desire to impose rules from the left—and, instead of saying woke, he uses a brilliant alternative, “ctrl-left.” Potter is deft at ending sections and chapters with swift, memorable kickers. His glum prediction is that, because of declines on several fronts—political, environmental, economic—and an ever-growing disdain for reason, “each succeeding year will feel like the worst year ever.” Terse, direct, provocative, both On Decline and On Property shine as contemporary examples of the pamphlet form.
A year ago, when On Risk turned Field Notes from a dream into a sputtering reality, Wells expected that more titles would quickly follow. Instead, the series has developed slowly, with four books released in its first year. Why do so many authors find short books hard to write? An obvious answer goes back to French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “I have made this longer because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.” Potter points to a subtler hurdle. Writing his 30,000-word book required him to wrestle with a new form, not the same as an essay or a long blog post. “It had to have proper chapters, which is a much different challenge,” he tells me. “You need a structure for the book as a whole, and then each chapter has to have its own internal logic. In writing, structure is destiny.”
The structure of the most recent Field Notes title is that of a nonfiction thriller. Elaine Dewar’s On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: An Investigation examines China’s obfuscation about the vexed beginnings of COVID-19. “Elaine is,” Wells says, “in real time, grappling with everything that’s been going on. It’s fascinating and terrifying.” Her persuasive conclusion is that the virus almost certainly did not have a natural origin; it emerged as a leak from one of two laboratories in Wuhan.
As recently as May, Wells was unsure if Dewar’s work would fit in Field Notes: at 121,000 words, not counting the copious endnotes, it’s a long book by any standards. He eventually decided it belongs there because it “represents, in spirit and fact, what we aimed to accomplish with this series: we can’t exclude it merely because it came in much longer than we anticipated.” Wells shook off the usual timelines of Canadian publishing so as to get the work into the hands of readers as fast as possible: Dewar’s final chapter refers to a statement published on June 22, and her book was in print by late August. In this respect, though not in its length, the work resembles a traditional pamphlet.
Field notes arrives at a critical time. “More Canada,” a 2018 report by a volunteer think tank of national publishers, found that “Canadian-authored books today represent only 13 per cent of total book purchases [in the country] . . . . The creative side of Canadian book writing and publishing is in good shape. But the consumption side is in serious trouble. Supply is strong; awareness and readership are weak.” In contrast to the free-falling number of newspaper readers, the number of people who read books has remained stable. It’s the reading of Canadian books that has eroded. The report noted that smaller, independent presses such as Biblioasis “are the source of 80 per cent of the new books by Canadian authors published every year in English Canada.”
How to address this issue is the perennial question. The generation that grew up reading Harry Potter has no fear of long fiction. In fact, many seem to demand it. But are readers willing to devour—and pay for—short nonfiction works?
Martha Kanya-Forstner, now publisher of Knopf Canada, edited David Chariandy’s 2018 I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You when she was editor-in-chief at McClelland & Stewart. Chariandy’s beautiful meditations on race and home take up a mere 128 pages, and Kanya-Forstner insists she had no worries that the result was too brief. Knopf Canada is the Canadian publisher of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent eighty-page Notes on Grief, and Kanya-Forstner waxes lyrical about its merits. “It’s an intense, ferociously honest book. At greater length, it would have lost that immediacy. The space it occupies in my imagination and memory goes far beyond the time it took to read it.”
For commercial publishers, however, such books are an exception. Wells believes that this country’s larger presses no longer show much sense of public responsibility. “What Canadian nonfiction the multinationals are publishing,” he says, “is largely made up of celebrity-authored titles, memoirs, and other pop-cultural works. Researched history, political or social criticism, makes up a minuscule part of their list—at a time when these books, as we reconsider our own troubled history and current practices, are more important than ever.”
Can Wells meet the challenge he has set himself? “I have a habit,” he admits, “of biting off more than I can chew.”
“But Dan has a lot of things going for him,” says Bruce Walsh, the recently retired publisher of House of Anansi Press. “He’s considered ‘hot’ in the publishing industry, so he’s going to get a lot of attention. And he trusts his instincts. You’re a gambler when you’re a publisher—and, if the gamble pays off, it’s going to pay for everything.” A few commercially successful titles can subsidize the many good books with disappointing sales. So far, the sales figures for Field Notes titles have been mixed. While Kingwell’s On Risk faltered, Walcott’s On Property raced through its initial print run of 4,000 copies within a few months, and Wells says the reprint has also done well.
With the promised appearance of 2022 books by Mireille Silcoff (on illness) and Deborah Dundas (on class), and with more women signed up for 2023, the initial gender imbalance of Field Notes appears to be correcting itself. What remains uncorrected is a bias toward Toronto authors. Biblioasis is proudly based in the unglamorous city of Windsor, Ontario, and over its history, it has published many writers from across the country. Yet nonfiction writers outside Toronto are largely absent from Field Notes and seem likely to remain so well into the future.
Now more than ever, publishing is an act of faith, a beacon in the night. “I had always harboured this desire to write a pamphlet,” Walcott says. “I see myself as part of a Black tradition in the academy that doesn’t always play by the rules.” Books are central, he adds, to any good activist work. Wells too is a believer in books, “physical and otherwise, in their power and value. So it’s only natural for me to want to engage with the world in this way.” The experience of handling Dewar’s study of the pandemic’s origin has left him more determined to showcase investigative work with depth and lasting value. “There’s a hole here which needs filling,” he says. “Editing and publishing and promoting Elaine’s book has been an education under fire, but it’s made us more committed to this kind of publishing in the future.”
Potter is no activist, but he likewise says that “I wouldn’t have agreed to write the book if I didn’t think it would find an audience and hopefully have an impact. I’m increasingly pessimistic about the online world and its effect on our lives—part of my argument is that the online world is making it harder to think straight about things, undermining our capacity for collective action. Maybe there’s still room for books to counter that.”
A frail hope, but one that informs the Field Notes series. To combine timeliness and permanence in a way that affects what Canadians think and believe: it may not be quite the revolution dreamt of by Walcott and Voltaire, but it’s still a serious reform.