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Truth be told: Canadian writers discuss David Rakoff’s influence

(photo: Paul Roossin)

When David Rakoff died of cancer last August at the age of 47, he left behind a legacy as one of the most gifted and influential essayists of his time – and a newly finished manuscript of a novel in verse.

Published in July by Doubleday Canada, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a marked departure from the non-fiction for which Rakoff is best known. Thematically, it’s not so different from his essays: a critical but empathetic glance at the harshness of the human experience.

Awkward but poignant truth-telling was part of Rakoff’s stock-in-trade, and his influence extended into journalism.

“David was in the forefront of and became one of the finest practitioners in a new, highly personal approach to journalism,” says Linden MacIntyre, who makes an appearance in the online book trailer for the posthumous novel.

MacIntyre, a journalist and Scotia­bank Giller Prize–winning novelist,­ argues that Rakoff was among a generation of writers who made a strong case for distinguishing between the “personal” and “subjective” in non-fiction. “[Rakoff demonstrated] that an unsentimental point of view, enriched by humour and fidelity to truth, can take journalism to a level that has greater honesty and value than the old-fashioned and often contrived struggle to achieve ‘objectivity,’” he says.

The debate is hardly new – in 1922, Virginia Woolf wrote that “literal truth-telling” is “out of place in an essay” – but the current popularity of memoirs and first-person essays brings up questions about the balance between objectivity and narrative.

In 2007, Rakoff’s friend and mentor David Sedaris came under fire after a thorough fact check by The New Republic found several of the events and characters in his work had been made up. This discovery prompted vigorous debate as to whether an author has the right to fudge facts under the non-fiction banner. But these distinctions sell the reader short, argues Canadian-born author and essayist Michelle Orange, whose debut collection of essays, This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was released this spring.

“I tend to think that readers are savvy enough to distinguish between what is a hard piece of reporting and what is more of a narrative non-fiction,” says Orange. “There’s a line, and both writers and readers intuitively know what it is.”

Toronto novelist and essayist Stacey May Fowles describes that line in terms of “hard” versus “soft” truths. “Journalism is intended to be an objective telling of the facts of an issue or event, whereas the personal essay allows the writer room to interpret the facts through their own lens, insert feelings, and find meaning,” she says.

Fowles describes her own process of essay writing as a means of “wearing the truth” and making traumatic events easier to understand. This approach is apparent in Rakoff’s work as well, from depictions, in 2001’s Fraud (Anchor Canada), of the “touch of cancer” that he escaped as a twentysomething, to his wry reflections upon diagnosis of the “rather tenacious sarcoma” that would ultimately claim him.

Iain Reid, author of the family memoirs One Bird’s Choice and The Truth About Luck (both published by House of Anansi Press), believes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction isn’t as relevant anymore. “What matters is having a story,” he says.

Whether this attitude helps or harms the practice of journalism is something that could be debated endlessly, Reid says. Ultimately, he thinks the quality of the output justifies the approach, citing David Foster Wallace’s essays for Harper’s magazine, such as the now-iconic 1994 story “Ticket to the Fair,” as examples of writing that walks the line between journalism and “wandering-eye” narration that flirts with the conventions of fiction.

In Rakoff’s case, these narrative flourishes – the eye and the “I” – complemented his distinctly Canadian voice, despite the Toronto-bred author’s well-earned expat status in New York City.

“The first thing that stood out was how much heart his essays have,” says Mac-­Intyre. “They aren’t mean-spirited pieces, and often the joke ends up being on Rakoff. That’s pretty Canadian, if you ask me.”

Reid concurs that Rakoff’s legacy can rightfully be claimed for Canadian letters. “Even though he could be very biting,” he says, “there was this underlying heart.”

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