News and Interviews

Ten Questions, with Michael Bliss

Michael Bliss has been hailed as one of Canada's leading intellectuals and is often approached for his opinion on political, cultural and historical issues. His achievements have earned him an Order of Canada as well as a spot as a fellow in the Royal Society of Canada.

A prolific writer in addition to his academic career, Michael Bliss' most recent book is Writing History: A Professor's Life, where he turns his biographer's eye on his own experiences.

He talks with Open Book about his new book, his storied career and what makes a truly great professor.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book, Writing History.

Michael Bliss:

Writing History: A Professor’s Life is a full-length memoir or autobiography. After having written four major biographies plus a book of biographical essays, I turned to my own life, and have tried to write the kind of book about it that a biographer should write. So the book covers the whole period of my life, from 1941 to the present, tracing the formative influences (growing up in south-western Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s, being the son of a doctor in a somewhat dysfunctional family, etc.), my education, early career choices, my very long career as a history professor at the University of Toronto, my activities as a “public intellectual” in Canada and above all how I put together the books of history and biography that I hope will outlive me.

I have tried to write about both my public and my private lives, and have tried to avoid some of the pits that memoir writers fall into: I do not bore readers with details of foreign travel, do not feel obliged to present them with my opinions on topics of the day and, most important to me, do not become a “creative” non-fiction writer by inventing incident and dialogue, a practice that as a historian I find utterly abhorrent. I’ve tried to write nothing but the truth about a writer’s and professsor’s life in our times.

OB:

After spending much of your writing life as a biographer, what were some of the challenges and pleasures of writing about your own life?

MB:

This was by far the most difficult book I’ve written. The pleasure of writing autobiography is, of course, egotistical: you’re writing about your favourite subject; you wallow in the first person; you can write almost endlessly off the top of your head and from memory. No wonder that many memoirs are ridiculously long.

The challenge, of course, is to do it right: to write about one’s self in a way that readers will find interesting and compelling; to parade the self but to control it; to think about the reader’s interests more than one’s own; to try to strike balances; and, as with all writing, to try to make every sentence shine.

There is a further major problem with writing so close to the present. When you’re dealing with dead people and the distant past it’s possible to be brutally frank. In a book about the living it’s extradraordinarily difficult to strike the right balance between truth-telling and sensible discretion. There’s no point in writing only happy, positive things about life, events and people; but neither should the memoirist trespass on other people’s privacy and good will. Choosing what to say and what not to say, and doing it with professional integrity, is very hard. The manuscript of this book was rewritten and revised more times than I’ve to with any project in the last thirty years.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MB:

I try to write all my books for an audience ranging from intelligent high school students through Ph.D.s. I try to make my prose intelligible and interesting to any general reader. But as this is a book about being a professor, writing history and commenting on public affairs, I suppose it will be of greatest interest to other professors, other historians, a lot of people who attended university in the last few decades and to people interested in politics and the media. I’d like to think it also contains a lot of interesting social history, particularly about Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

OB:

How has academia changed since you began your career as a professor?

MB:

In a way it takes my whole book to answer this question. When I entered the University of Toronto as an undergraduate in Honours Math, Physics and Chemistry in1958 we were still part of a small intellectual elite. We often wore jackets and ties to lectures. Our professors seemed godlike. It’s all very different today, as the universities have vastly expanded, become far more egalitarian and accessible, and, in some ways, have lowered their standards precipitously. One of the main themes of my memoir is the almost constant dissatisfaction I felt about academic life: I did not believe in tenure, in automatic sabbaticals, in grantsmanship, in excessive specialization and much else. I kept trying to reach outside the university, partly because I had an older notion of the professor as public intellectual, partly because I was often disgusted with the trivialities of the ivory tower.

OB:

When you were originally writing your journals, were you considering the possibility of a future book? How have the journals shaped Writing History?

MB:

Early in life I found that I had a compulsion to keep records (no wonder I become a historian!) and this fairly quickly mutated into compulsive diarizing. My journals begin in the 1960s, become substantial in the 1970s and now are not only literally voluminous but continue to grow by the day. They give me a wonderful documentary basis for writing about my life — I have a written record of what I was doing, who I was meeting, what was on my mind, etc., for virtually every day of the last 45 years.

I did not keep diaries with the idea of a future book — for many years it wasn’t at all evident that anyone would be interested in my life or my journals, and in any case a diary meant for publication is almost certain to be a dishonest exercise. My journals serve all sorts of other purposes, not the least being therapeutic. Of course the thought of publishing excerpts from the journals has crossed my mind fairly frequently in the last ten years or so. They’re particularly important as a record of how I conceived the books I wrote, how I put the books together and my reactions to all sorts of events in life. As I mention in the book, there are times when the journals are unprintable; nor could they be published verbatim during my lifetime. I hope the excerpts I publish in Writing History are a fair sampling of the larger whole.

OB:

What makes a great professor?

MB:

My most successful classes were small seminars, run almost entirely by the students, in which my principal role was, as my daughter put it, to sit at the back of the class and look mean. I don’t know whether I was myself a very good professor, because although I liked lecturing and taught very large and popular classes for many years my heart wasn’t totally in teaching. I much preferred to be a writing scholar. I believed that professors should be on the forefront of scholarship — they should be publishing because they should have something to say — for otherwise we could turn university education over to well-trained secondary school teachers. Graduate teaching, of which I did a great deal, is particularly difficult. I think there are very few great professors at any time. There’s too much feeding at the public trough in academia, too little hard work.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MB:

1. Susannah Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush
2. Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
3. John English’s two-volume life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who was the greatest Canadian of my lifetime)

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MB:

Never be content with a sentence. Try to make every word better. Polish, polish, polish.

This was the fundamental lesson in good writing drilled into my by my high school English teacher, Evelyn Hicks, at Kingsville District High School in the 1950s. Miss Hicks was the most influential teacher I ever had. She also usefully told me that I could only begin to experiment with breaking the fundamental rules of grammar and syntax and style after I had published my first book. Thanx Miss Hicks!

OB:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

MB:

Listen to the Miss Hicks of the world — i.e. to your teachers, editors, agents, and other critics. Keep trying — keep writing — but above all try to be as professional and clear-headed as possible. It’s a terrible climate out there for writers today and too many people have an unrealistic view of their prospects in both the literary and the academic worlds. Life is too short and too rich in other possibilities to be spent ploughing the sand publishing articles in obscure journals that no one will ever read or going into debt to qualify as an academic proletarian, i.e. an unemployed Ph.D.

OB:

What is your next project?

MB:

Jack Granatstein and I are the principle organizers of “History Wars” a series of debates on public issues in the light of Canadian history. We had a terrific success with the first “History Wars” series at the Royal Ontario Museum last year, and will be presenting a second series this year, as well as a special series in Ottawa working with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

I have a dozen ideas for more books, in Canadian history, in medical history and in various other fields, but when given the choice find that the best way to spend any given morning is reading someone else’s good book to one of my grandchildren.

Writing History

Michael Bliss, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, has written numerous books in the fields of Canadian politics, medicine and business, including the Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal and Sir William Osler: A Life in Medicine. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about Writing History please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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