For better or, according to some, for worse, W.P. Kinsella was part of the popular Canadian literary canon for a stretch of more than a decade.
At his peak, Kinsella’s baseball stories, one of which (Shoeless Joe) was adapted into the 1987 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, were being published in short story collections and novels every other year. Kinsella was always a populist, though he was among the names circulating at a time when writers and journalists began to seriously ask, “What is Canadian literature?” (Atwood’s Survival appeared in the same decade as Kinsella’s debut fiction.) In his introduction to The Thrill of the Grass, Kinsella wrote, “A writer’s first duty is to entertain. If something profound, symbolic, or philosophical can be slipped in, along with the entertainment, so much the better. But if the element of entertainment is not there, the writing becomes treatise, essay, or autobiography, and the writer has no right to call it fiction. Ultimately, a fiction writer can be anything except boring.”
On the other hand, Kinsella’s other major storytelling project, a series set in the First Nations community of Hobbema, sold well, entertained some audiences, attempted to break outside of the idea that an author can only write from the perspective he has known since birth, and, to a number of writers and critics, perpetuated simplified, racist stereotypes.
In the mid-’90s, Canadian author Thomas King, who was trying and failing to get an Aboriginal anthology series off the ground at the CBC, watched as Kinsella’s Dance Me Outside received a two-season order, adapted as The Rez. Speaking to the Toronto Star, King said it wasn’t about what Kinsella wrote, but how he did it.
“I’m just talking about common sense,” he said. “I don’t mind that Bill writes about natives. I wish he’d do a better job. I don’t mind if CBC or any other network does work about Indians. I wish they’d do a better job.” Where in baseball Kinsella writes honestly about a world he knows, here he claims to be honest about a world he doesn’t know.
Now in the admitted twilight of his career, Kinsella, touring across the country to promote a new collection of his work, The Essential W.P. Kinsella, stopped at the Chilliwack library last week to read, answer audience questions, and sell a few copies of the collection. Appearing in matching turquoise bolo tie, bracelet, shirt, and ring, and marking his place in the new book with a $20 bill from a sale, Kinsella read two stories. The first, the pretentiously titled “Truth,” is from the Hobbema fiction, and gives a good idea of what his critics were criticizing: it’s full of broken English, drunken stereotypes, and broad hockey humour that had the mostly white, senior audience laughing.
“Someday, I’m going to write a story about the time Frank go to an adult literacy class,” goes a line from the story. “Now, just to show off, he read everything in the Wetaskiwin Times every week, even the ads. One day he seen a notice about a small town hockey tournament that offer a $1000 first prize.” And the story is off.
The other, “The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society,” interweaves the history of Japanese internment camps with a late-in-life romance. Kinsella called it a very personal story. Consistent with most of his work, it’s a first-person narrative where women are mostly defined by their attraction to men (they’re supportive, or long-suffering, or elusive fantasies, and they’re introduced by the way they smell), but Kinsella, drawing on his late wife’s last days, also evokes the pain and helplessness of watching a loved one grow weaker and nearer to death in the story.
In the audience conversation that followed, Kinsella reflected on changing tastes and his own waning popularity in literary circles.
“I honestly don’t think I would make it if I were starting out today, I really don’t,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time for a good number of years.” By the end of the ‘90s, Kinsella says he was off major publishers’ lists of authors worth betting on.
At the same time, Kinsella’s consistency in topic (he’s been linked to magic realism, but it might be more accurate to say Kinsella follows in a tradition whose rules were laid down in the 1950s with Angels in the Outfield) and in producing new material (he has two completed novels and a short-story collection, but isn’t interested in being published by a small press), if taken outside the peripheral vision of Canada, could have flourished today with a little luck. One can see Field of Dreams, in today’s risk-averse sequel-hungry film industry, turning Kinsella into a baseball-romantic Nicholas Sparks.
Kinsella selected half the stories for this career compilation, and Rick Wilber, an editor from Tachyon Publications, a San Francisco publisher known for science fiction tales (Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds), selected the other half. But for Kinsella, there was never any doubt about the legacy of his work.
“I never worry about it,” he said. “I love my work, I laugh out loud when I read it. I know writers who are never satisfied — even after it’s published they … want to change it, and that’s a waste of time and energy.”
The one hang-up Kinsella can’t help but comment on is academia. Though his work is stored in many libraries (including about half of his published work in UFV’s collection), Kinsella is rarely taught — his work is competent storytelling, but bears many of the tendencies of an era, more than it does thematic concerns that might open up discussions according to a professor’s progressive syllabus.
“You have to be unreadable to get studied in university,” Kinsella said. “Being incomprehensible is the main thing, because then the professors, if they don’t understand the work, they know the students can’t possibly understand it, so they can never be contradicted.”
Kinsella probably doesn’t know that UFV’s modern Canadian literature class includes the first volume of Moonshot, a graphic novel collection illustrated and written by indigenous artists. Caitlin Rosberg, reviewing the book for the AV Club, called it a work that “showcases the diversity of thought and experience these creators bring to the medium, gracefully mixing traditional tales and indigenous futurism.” While Kinsella’s sentimental baseball tales (always the underdogs, minor leaguers two or three years away from making the majors, they swear) elicit many positive responses, there’s more than one way to be entertaining, and market pressures are not the only reason older writers fail to enjoy continued success.
For now, Kinsella says, “I think I’m pretty much done writing.” After more than 25 published works, Kinsella no longer has the same desire to prove himself with new books, and has other hobbies to occupy his time.
“I wrote every day in January, I got about 14,000 words written, and it just didn’t work,” he said. “And I said, ‘I don’t think I want to revise this, and I don’t want to start another novel.’ So I haven’t done anything. I play a lot of online Scrabble and Words With Friends, and spend a lot of time on Facebook.”