Saul began his writing career while living in France and his first novel, which he finished after returning in Canada in 1975, was originally published in French. The Birds of Prey (1977) was an international bestseller, selling more than 2 million copies in France alone. In Saul's next three books, The Field Trilogy, he examines the interaction between individuals and the contemporary holders of power. Baraka, or the Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor of Anthony Smith (1982) is set in the world of international oil deals and arms trade. In The Next Best Thing (1986) Saul takes readers into the underground art market. The Paradise Eater (1988), which won Italy's Premio Lettarario Internazionale, centers again on international intrigue and illegal arms traders. He moves his focus to corporate power in De si bons americains (1994).
The themes that underlie Saul's fictional works are brought to the surface in his non-fiction, in which he examines and critiques western civilization and its power structures. Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992) claims that the western elites have anointed classical reason above all other forms of knowledge and thought, and in doing so have corrupted reason to create systems that serve the elite and not the public good. In 1994 Saul published The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, in which he shows how language has been corrupted by power holders to serve their own ideas and interests.
Saul's 1995 Massey Lecture, The Unconscious Civilization, won the 1996 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD for non-fiction. Here, Saul contends that western civilization has become increasingly conformist and corporatist, and that its contemporary citizens are unaware ("unconscious") of what has been lost. Saul argues that we must rediscover the true meaning of terms like "individualism" and "democracy" to again become a conscious civilization. Saul's 2001 On Equilibrium summarizes and concludes his critique of and ideas about modern society.
Saul has also written on the nature of the contemporary Canadian nation. In Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997), Saul explores the idea that Canada is not a country in the "monolithic state" mode, such as the United States. Saul labels Canada a "soft" country, a nation based on continually evolving and shifting cooperation between many groups, an unstable condition that Saul views as a strength. Saul had also written about the political ramifications of changes in the global economy in "The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World" (2005).
Throughout his career, John Ralston Saul has been involved with many organizations that promote a more civil and humane society. He is past president of the Canadian chapter of PEN International, a founder of French for the Future, and an advisor to Engineers without Borders. A recipient of many honorary degrees from Canada and around the world, Saul was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was awarded the Pablo Neruda International Presidential Medal of Honour in 2004.
Saul is married to former governor general Adrienne CLARKSON.