College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews The Joy of Writing: A Guide for Writers Disguised as a Literary Memoir
Pierre Berton
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2003

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Pierre Berton is too quickly fading from memory. To most of our students, his name is unfamiliar. That is partly because most of our students do not read very much, and partly because of the nature of his craft. He was a journalist (a term he once rejected as too “high-falutin”), and except for those who are attentive to the trade, journalists are as interesting as yesterday’s news.

Berton, of course, was an usual sort of journalist. He made no pretense to objectivity; he preferred to tell the truth. From his early days of high school self-publishing to the end of his career in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and authorship of over fifty books, he demonstrated a remarkable consistency in style and substance. He wanted to tell real stories, and he told them very well by the standards of his time and his audience, which were the only standards he really cared about.

I had noticed his columns in Maclean’s magazine and the Toronto Daily Star for many years before two small volumes appeared, “The Comfortable Pew” in 1965 and “The Smug Minority” in 1968. These open attacks on self-satisfied religions and hypocritical bourgeois values did not alter my life a whit. I had already disconnected from anything remotely like organized religion and was cheerfully occupied in the study of existentialism, phenomenology and various strands of the already unraveling Marxist canon. Pierre Berton’s slightly impolite and sometimes impolitic twitting of the Canadian elite and vacuous middle classes was nothing new, and was often rendered in fuddy-duddy prose that I found unappealing.

Still, he won my respect and affection as a man willing to say what he thought, even if the thought was neither intensely intellectual nor acutely analytical. Besides, while sitting about in his absurd plaid jackets and bow-ties, he unnerved people whom I had long found insufferable. The enemy of my enemy … and all that.

One of the things that profoundly disturbed pretentious Canadian academics was Berton’s carefree plunge into the writing of Canadian history. He was sometimes annoyingly fond of the idea that history should be a grand narrative of exciting adventure, the stuff of pride and patriotism. He was also occasionally gullible, as when he abandoned the NDP to support Pierre Trudeau during the height of “Trudeaumania,” only to think badly of the decision in the days following the invocation of the War Measures Act.

Pierre Berton’s endorsement was not easily won; but, when he did get excited about something, he could be led to flights of peculiar fancy. In the mid-1970s, for example, he became excited by the growth of Canadian Studies in schools, colleges and universities across the country. He immersed himself in the documentary evidence of our failure, from elementary school on up, to teach our citizens about their culture and their heritage. He was excited by the challenge to change our ways and to take our country to heart. He applauded the early enthusiasts of Canadian Studies and expressed confidence that they would alter our educational landscape profoundly and for the better.

So, in October, 1976, in one of my earliest published articles, I poured a little cold water on the notion that anyone in authority was serious about such ventures, except perhaps as a temporary public relations gesture to milk the last drop of energy from the nationalistic high jinks of the Centennial Year and Expo 67. I take no pride in having being right. I had, after all, designed the Canadian Studies program at Seneca College in 1969 and was pleased to have been associated with this pioneering venture. By the mid-1970s, however, the program was already being dismantled, and today it remains only as a sort of cruel joke. Meanwhile, it is now possible to graduate from high school in Ontario with a single credit in Grade 10 Canadian history since 1914 (a one-semester course) and, in Alberta, students can enter college or university without having taken any history at all.

This grim saga did not deter Mr. Berton, who re-fought the War of 1812, dreamed the National Dream, drove the Last Spike, surveyed the bloody fields of Vimy Ridge and found time to identify the flaws and failures of Hollywood’s Canada. It was all stirring stuff and made for some tolerable television which will no doubt be rebroadcast from time to time, especially if the CBC survives the onslaught of privatization without further pandering to the market mentality and yielding up programming that reflects the bad taste of Leeza Gibbons more than the vision of Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt.

For his efforts, he was grandly rewarded by the publishing industry and almost universally condemned by (largely jealous) professional historians. Berton was mostly indifferent, largely amused and certainly unapologetic in the face of academic snobbery. He was, for example, uncomfortable with academic affectations. He condemned extensive footnotes and made no effort to suppress his distaste. Excessive citations might give a book an “air of authority,” he said, but they also “make the book sound pretentious; after all, I’m not Harold Innis.” He certainly wasn’t.

“The Joy of Writing” tells us a great deal about who Pierre Berton was, and the kind of example he tried to set for young people eager to join the writers’ club. Berton was a gifted raconteur, but he was also a very practical practitioner of the reporter’s trade. He understood the business of writing for a living.

Pierre Berton sets out an old-fashioned agenda. He reiterates all the rules that beginning authors should know by heart, adds special emphasis to some and contributes a couple of ideas of his own. The rules are repeated and illustrated with unfailing good humour. Most are well known. Write simply. Write with an audience in mind. Write what you know. Above all, read. To Berton, writing is not an innate skill nor is it something that can easily be taught. He quotes approvingly, a famous line from Sinclair Lewis who was invited to speak to a class in creative writing. “How many of you here really want to write?” he asked. A forest of hands shot up. “Then why the hell aren’t you home writing?” he said, and stomped out of the room.

Berton understood that writing begins with reading and disdained the notion of an untrained genius channeling her muse into her keyboard with neither thought nor training. He understood, as well, that writing is a demanding mistress. Berton was also a man of his time, and his time shows sad signs of having ended.

Commercial success is no guarantee of quality. It never was, but now the notion of high publishing standards has been eroded by the manic anarchy of technology. Berton warns against the “vanity press,” but self-publishing especially using high level information technology permits at least a few niche writers to earn a handsome living without the need for inconvenient and irascible editors and bone-head marketing departments. Even this would not have unduly troubled Pierre Berton if he had been made fully aware of the options that technology provides to the committed scribbler. He was, as I have said, a clever entrepreneur.

Berton’s history books were the product not only of his skill as a wordsmith but also of the research assistance he acquired. One of this cardinal rules was this: “Never do anything yourself that somebody else can do just as well and for less money.” Time is money and Pierre Berton’s special skill was in translating notes into flowing prose. He was an expert organizer, and he reveals his methods in the narrative and in examples from his manuscripts, notebooks and file cards that have now been replaced by the far less efficient and soul-deadening computers. He was also a great production manager. An especially charming section of the book is entitled “The Joy of Recycling.” Berton let nothing go to waste. Old newspaper columns were cobbled together to make new books. Twenty-six television interviews, for example, became “Voices from the Sixties.”

If all of this sounds a bit crass and just a little too close to the spirit of the factory manager rather than the “auteur,” we should recall that Pierre Berton was fully aware of the inherent limits of writing as a way to make a living. For him, it was a vocation but that did not encourage in him the luxury of genteel poverty. He is impenitent on the subject of success: “to stay alive in this country,” he stresses, “a freelance writer must use his wits. He has to be a salesman with all the chutzpah of a used-car dealer.”

“The Joy of Writing” is replete with sage advice and entertaining asides. It has its faults, including a certain obsolescence resulting from the rapid passing of an age in which cynical reporters, gruff editors and eager readers indulged in their own form of information triangulation. Mostly, though, it presents a common sense approach to style, to imagination and to the responsibility of popular non-fiction writing, which is to capture the attention of a reader, to tell a story well, to teach a manageable lesson and especially to make the experience of reading a pleasure.

Pierre Berton went to his grave knowing, I am sure, that his collection of lively, personal encounters with history missed most of the deep structure of events and contributed nothing of interest to philosophers of history, cultural theorists or students of social dynamics. He was interested in personalities. He was interested in dramatic events. He was interested in describing people and places and, for that matter, the weather on days when notable events transpired. It would be a shame if his style of historical writing were ever to become the norm for the writing and teaching of serious history, but Pierre Berton also went to his grave knowing that he had acquainted more Canadians with some important elements of their history than the combined work of all the scholars slaving away in their research carrels and quarreling over footnotes in obscure journals that no one but themselves will ever read.

Pierre Berton can take pride in his legacy, and we can happily applaud his success.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology