Kate Cayley beats out heavy hitters to win the Trillium Book Award

June 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

How-You-Were-Born-Kate-CayleyThe $20,000 Trillium Book Award, given annually to the best book in any genre by an Ontario author, is one of my favourite Canadian awards, because it is always so defiantly individual. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2009 jury that awarded the prize to Pasha Malla’s first story collection, The Withdrawal Method.) Whereas other awards often risk appearing formulaic, the Trillium seems focused entirely on merit and damn the torpedoes: recent winners have included Phil Hall (a poet) and Hannah Moskovitch (a playwright).

This year, Kate Cayley beat out established authors Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King to take the award for her debut, the story collection How You Were Born. The fact the prize went to a work of short fiction makes me happy for reasons that go without saying. (Also for the record: I was a fan of Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress.)

Beyond that, Cayley’s book is published by the small literary house Pedlar Press. (Pedlar is based in St. John’s, but Cayley is a resident of Toronto.) There is a myth that large multinationals are responsible for publishing only tired, mainstream, run-of-the-mill books, whereas small houses produce nothing but brilliant work that withers due to lack of attention and readers. While neither is true in all cases, the last part of that – the lack of attention for books from smaller houses – is an unfortunate reality, so it is nice to see an independent regional publisher receive some consideration.

Whether such consideration is merited in this case is something I (shamefacedly) can’t attest to, not having read Cayley’s book (see above re: lack of attention to work from smaller presses, even on the part of people who should know better). That I now plan to search it out probably also flies in the face of my frequent criticisms of award culture; it would appear that awards really do help to sell books, for better or for worse.

The jury that awarded Cayley the prize was comprised of poet Helen Guri, novelist Cordelia Strube, and novelist James Grainger.

Other winners:

The Trillium also awarded its poetry prize last night, to Brecken Hancock’s well-received debut Broom Broom, a suite of unflinchingly dark poems published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. The $10,000 poetry prize is awarded annually (it alternates between English- and French-language titles) for a first, second, or third book of poetry.

Michel Dallaire won the French-language prize for his novel Violoncelle pour lune d’automne, and Micheline Marchand won the French-language children’s award for her book Mauvaise Mine. Both books were published by Les Éditions L’Interligne.

Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors the surprise winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIn the end, all the prognosticators and so-called experts were wrong.

Heading into last night’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the heavy favourite to take the award was Miriam Toews for her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews had already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award the previous week, and the smart money had her taking the Giller for her heartfelt (and semi-autobiographical) book about a sister trying to come to terms with her sibling’s desire to end her life. Over the weekend, The Globe and Mail ran an infographic that included predictions from thirty industry insiders – editors, booksellers, former Giller jurors and nominees – predicting who would win. Of the thirty, nineteen selected Toews.

None of them – not one – picked the actual winner, Sean Michaels, who emerged victorious with his debut novel, Us Conductors.

In the experts’ defence, Michaels was a longshot going into last night’s event. He is a first-timer; only one other first-time writer has claimed the prize (Vincent Lam, in 2006, for the story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Johanna Skibsrud is the only other first novelist to win, in 2010. (Skibsrud had already published a volume of poetry prior to taking the Giller for  The Sentimentalists.)

David Bezmozgis, nominated for his sophomore novel, The Betrayers, had been shortlisted once before, for his first novel, The Free World. Frances Itani, nominated for her novel, Tell, is a previous winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Heather O’Neill, a shortlister for her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, won Canada Reads with her previous novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. And Padma Viswanathan, nominated for her second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for her debut, The Toss of a Lemon.

But past track record and popular opinion proved no match for a quirky debut about a Russian inventor most famous for a musical instrument that harnesses air and electricity to create its ethereal sound.


Sean Michaels (photo by John Londono)

Us Conductors is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin (which the Beach Boys famously used in the intro to their song “Good Vibrations”); prior to its appearance, its author was best known as one of the creators of the music blog Said the Gramaphone.

In an essay for Quill & Quire, Michaels wrote that the inspiration for Us Conductors sprang in part from hearing Peter Pringle playing the theremin on CBC Radio. But the story of the instrument’s inventor, the inscrutable and eccentric Termen, served as the real “catalyst” for the novel: “Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity.”

The Giller jury, comprised of writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, must have agreed. In awarding Michaels the prize, which this year increased to a cool $100,000, they simultaneously defied expectations and validated the potential of emerging writers in Canada. Not bad for an award that has been criticized in the past as being hidebound and in thrall to an establishment mentality.

And not bad for an author the experts had all but written off until the moment the envelope was opened last night.

Patrick Modiano wins the literature Nobel; English-language readers react with confusion

October 9, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Dora_Bruder_Patrick_ModianoIf my Twitter feed is any indication, I have something in common with the vast majority of English-language readers in North America: prior to this morning, I had never heard of Patrick Modiano. Today, the Swedish Academy announced that Modiano is the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature. The eleventh French writer to win the prize, Modiano is virtually unknown outside France. Inside France, it would seem, Modiano is something of a celebrity. Writing in France Today in 2011, Julien Bisson calls the novelist “the greatest French writer alive” and says that Modiano is among “the few French writers to achieve both critical and public success.”

The official Nobel press release indicates that the award – worth the equivalent of more than $1 million – was bestowed upon Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.”

Born in 1945 in a suburb of Paris, Modiano won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures. He has written about the Jewish experience in the Second World War, but most reports talk about his flirtations with the detective genre and his focus on memory as a theme. In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood writes:

Modiano says that like every other novelist he is always writing the same book, “on fait toujours le même roman.” Modiano more than most, perhaps. The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings. They follow the footsteps of vanished people, snooping on the world of others like unemployed private detectives who can’t find anything else to do. They have what I take to be Modiano’s own interest in Paris streets, particularly those of the outskirts, and they ceaselessly list addresses, consult old directories, make calls to telephone numbers no longer in service. His narrators are often given pieces of Modiano’s own identity, his age, his parents, his incomplete schooling, and sometimes his career – the narrator of Dora Bruder, for instance, has written Modiano’s books. But then presumably much of Modiano’s actual identity is also left out. These are versions of the author, reminders that we and he are historical beings, not attempts at confession or exorcism.

The Guardian quotes the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, as saying that Modiano writes “small books, 130, 150 pages, which are always variations of the same theme – memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity, and time.”

Though not well known outside Europe, Modiano has been translated into English. Constance Markey calls Modiano’s novel Honeymoon, translated by Barbara Wright, “a poignant commentary on the fragility of human existence.” English writer Rupert Thomson refers to Honeymoon as “a conundrum and a lament” and says that “Modiano conjures up a world so delicate and elliptical, so fraught with uncertainty.”

Next April, Yale University Press will publish three of Modiano’s novellas, translated by Mark Polizzotti, under the title Suspended Sentences.

Notwithstanding the bigger names that had been bandied about as contenders for this year’s prize – among them Haruki Murakami or, again, Philip Roth – one of the most interesting results of the announcement has been the surprise among English-language readers on social media, most of whom, as Mark Medley pointed out, responded “with some variation of, ‘Who?'” This was much the same response that greeted the news that Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer had won the prize in 2011.

This brazen astonishment and almost proudly defiant ignorance of world literature should not be celebrated; it testifies to a shocking provincialism that refuses to look outside one’s own borders for entertainment or enlightenment. We all know Murakami – who is an international literary rock star – but how many North American readers have dipped into the more obscure translated material published by, say, New York Review Books or Europa Editions? (Elena Ferrante, the newly minted international literary rock star, doesn’t count.)

Sure, we’re aware of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, and a lot of people read the English versions of The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, though in those cases readers could be forgiven for not even knowing they were encountering works in translation, since the translators’ names are not usually listed on the books’ front covers. (This is a sneaky move on the part of publishers, akin to film studios that leave out the dialogue in foreign-movie trailers, to fool people into going to films with subtitles.)

But there continues to be a persistent and maddening aversion among English-language readers in North America to reading works in translation, or works that originate outside one of the “ABC” countries (America, Britain, and Canada). Readers steeped in a diet of American middlebrow or young adult literature are highly reluctant to seek out writing from places like Latin America, Russia, West Africa, or the Arabian Peninsula; it’s no wonder none of us (and here I include myself) had ever heard of “the greatest French writer alive.”

In the wake of today’s Nobel announcement, Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry tweeted, “English speakers could start demanding more books in translation. It’s a big world out there, and we don’t read enough of it.” Were we to do so, we’d not only be more cosmopolitan and knowledgeable about the world, but we might not have to scratch our heads and collectively ask “Who?” the next time someone outside our pinched little frame of notice wins one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Unsurprising Giller shortlist plays it safe

October 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIt’s turning into a very good year for Miriam Toews.

Last week, the Toronto-based author was tapped as one of the five shortlisted names on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and this morning she became one of six authors to appear on the shortlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the only book to appear on both lists, meaning that she is the only author still in contention for the CanLit award trifecta, which will be determined when the Governor General’s Literary Award shortlists are announced tomorrow.

Joining Toews on a bulked-up Giller roster are David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; Frances Itani for Tell; Sean Michaels for Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

For those keeping track of such things, that’s four women and two men. Geographically, Montreal remains strong, with two contenders (Michaels and O’Neill) residing there, and a third (Viswanathan) having once called the city home (she currently lives in the U.S.).

On the publisher front, it was a very good showing for HarperCollins Canada, which scored with three out of four longlisted books (Bezmozgis, Itani, and O’Neill; the fourth was Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations). This was a sharp contrast from the publisher’s “Black Monday” of 2007, when they had five longlisted titles and nothing on the shortlist. The three other books are from imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.

By any estimation, this year’s jury – comprising writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose – has delivered a safely predictable list. Toews (whose novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller) has been a critical and reader favourite since All My Puny Sorrows appeared in April, and Bezmozgis, O’Neill, and Itani are not exactly literary outsiders. Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, lost the 2011 Giller to Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, but went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. O’Neill’s debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, and was nominated for both a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Orange Prize. And though this is Itani’s first Giller-nominated title, her novel Deafening won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Even Viswanathan, arguably less well-known than the others, had her previous novel, The Toss of a Lemon, shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (Canadian and Caribbean regions). The real outlier is Michaels, better known as a music critic, who is shortlisted for a first novel about the man who invented the Theremin and also acted as a Soviet spy.

But all of these are big books from big houses, leaving the smaller, Canadian-owned houses on the longlist – ECW Press (for the novels Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu and Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove) and Biblioasis (for the story collection Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page) – out in the cold. It’s a bit of a retreat for a jury that confounded expectations by choosing a longlist that ignored some of this year’s marquee names – among them David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue, and David Bergen – in favour of younger or lesser-known writers. By contrast, the six shortlisted titles comprise the most traditional half of the 2014 longlist.

Neither of the short-fiction collections – easily the most technically adventurous books on the longlist – made it to the final round, nor did Basu’s debut, which is part existential quest, part road trip. And though they share themes of religious fanaticism and violence, Viswanathan’s sprawling epic about the fallout from the Air India disaster is much more recondite than LoveGrove’s scabrous novel.

When the longlist was announced, the jury commented that they were “celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse,” and that impulse certainly seems to have been borne out in the six shortlisted titles. Once again, big themes abound: terrorism (Viswanathan); assisted suicide (Toews); cultural tension (O’Neill); war (Itani); Israel and the Middle East (Bezmozgis). Only Us Conductors feels less self-consciously serious. Which is not to suggest humourlessness: both Toews and O’Neill employ humour as a narrative tactic. Nor is it meant to slight the prowess of any of these authors. (Bezmozgis, in particular, has written a strong book, one that is unafraid to deal with politics in a forthright and uncompromising manner.)

But elevating books that emphasize moral uprightness and rectitude over more ambiguous pleasures such as aesthetic innovation or linguistic flair does tend to indicate that this jury is interested in improving readers as much as entertaining them.

So who will take home the prize, which has doubled to a cool $100,000? This is a robust year for Canadian fiction, but an unfortunate one for any writer who is not Miriam Toews. Unless all indications are amiss, she’s the one to beat when the winner is announced on November 10.

Surprising Giller longlist avoids big names

September 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoMargaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donoghue. Thomas King.

These are among the heavy hitters of CanLit who failed to land a spot on a startling 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. In their place are two collections of short stories, a debut novel from 2013, and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Air India disaster.

The longlist in full:

  • Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu (ECW Press)
  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada)
  • American Innovations by Rivka Galchen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Tell by Frances Itani (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (ECW Press)
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Random House Canada)
  • Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo (Doubleday Canada)
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)
  • My October by Claire Holden Rothman (Penguin Canada)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
  • The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada)

Of the dozen books that made the cut, only the Toews was a foregone conclusion. All My Puny Sorrows is not only the novelist’s best-reviewed book since her 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, A Complicated Kindness, it is an early contender for book of the year on many commentators’ lists.

Other than that, the longlist is a bit of a shock, as much for what is excluded as for what appears. House of Anansi Press (which published last year’s winner, Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing) was shut out for the first time since 2007. Toronto’s ECW Press, on the other hand, scored two spots on this year’s list, one of them for a book (LoveGrove’s debut novel) that was published in late fall 2013.

HarperCollins Canada is the big winner, with four entries; Random House Canada and its various imprints count for another four. (Of course, if you count Penguin Random House as a single entity, it dominates the list with five out of twelve.)

Biblioasis is represented for the first time since 2011, when Clark Blaise’s story collection The Meagre Tarmac was longlisted for the prize. The Windsor, Ontario, publisher appears on the 2014 longlist with another story collection, for my money, one of the strongest books of the year. Rivka Galchen is the author of the other longlisted collection, her follow-up to the well received 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Geographically, Montreal is the big winner this year: Basu is based in the city, as is Michaels, and two of the other books have strong ties there. Rothman’s novel uses the FLQ crisis as a springboard for a family saga, and O’Neill’s sophomore novel has been called a Two Solitudes for the millennial generation. (Rothman and O’Neill both also reside in the city.) This year’s longlist announcement took place in Montreal, and also contained news that the prize money is doubling, with $100,000 going to the winner and $10,000 to each of the other shortlisted authors.

The 2014 jury consists of Canadian novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin, British novelist Justin Cartwright, and American novelist and essayist Francine Prose. In a statement, the jury says, “We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences. Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”

The idea of “writers brave enough to change public discourse” carries with it a whiff of sanctimony: like the recent iteration of CBC’s Canada Reads, it appears the driving impulse behind choosing this list is not what is good, so much as what is good for us. (Which is not to deny the real literary strength of a number of the longlisted titles.) Large themes dominate – war (Tell), terrorism (The Ever After of Ashwin Rao), assisted suicide (All My Puny Sorrows), gender politics (Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab), Zionism (The Betrayers), religion (Watch How We Walk) – but books more focused on aesthetic performance and story (K.D. Miller’s All Saints, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress) or that play with form in ambitious or unconventional ways (André Alexis’s Pastoral, Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters, Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country) have been left out.

The story collections, typically, represent the most stylistically audacious books on the list; Basu has written what might be described as an existential mystery novel, while Sean Michaels’ novel is an unconventional fictionalized biography of the man who invented the theremin (and was also a Soviet spy).

But on points, this longlist is surprising. The shortlist of five (or possibly six) titles culled from this dozen could go in numerous directions: it could feature mostly smaller, quirkier works, or it could be made up exclusively of novels from two multinational houses. Or (more likely) it could fall somewhere in between. If I were a betting man, I’d suggest the only sure thing is that Toews finds a place on the shortlist, probably alongside O’Neill and Bezmozgis. Then again, when betting on the Giller, previous experience (and the current longlist itself) has shown that safe bets are often illusory, and the house usually wins.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of nominations for Random House Canada and its imprints. The post has been amended to reflect the actual number.

David Mitchell out; Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson, and Karen Joy Fowler in on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist

September 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoAnyone who had money on David Mitchell going all the way with this year’s Man Booker Prize will need to pony up this morning. The author’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, which has been roundly hailed as a masterpiece on both sides of the Atlantic, was shut out of the shortlist for the prize, which culled a list of thirteen books down to six.

Two Americans made the cut: Joshua Ferris for his sophomore novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and Karen Joy Fowler for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler represents a populist note in a list that otherwise tilts toward more literary fare.

This was the first year the prize was open to writers outside the Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe; many critics felt that allowing U.S. authors to compete would result in another avenue for American cultural hegemony, though that worry proved chimerical, at least for the current calendar year: the other three books on the shortlist are all by authors who would have been eligible prior to the controversial rule change. (No Canadians made the 2014 longlist.)

Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the 2010 prize (and who is currently working on a “reboot” of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), got the nod for his dystopian novel J. Ali Smith, a previous nominee for The Accidental (in 2001) and Hotel World (in 2005), is nominated for her new novel How to Be Both. Australian Richard Flanagan is shortlisted for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Neel Mukherjee rounds out the list with his novel The Lives of Others.

A.C. Grayling, chair of the 2014 judging panel, is quoted on the Man Booker website as saying, “We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”

The other jurors are Jonathan Bate, author and provost of Worcester College; Sarah Churchwell, author and academic; Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist (described as “the first pure scientist to be a Man Booker judge”); Alastair Niven, fellow of Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford; and Erica Wagner, author and journalist.

This year’s prize has already caused consternation for a “lack of big names” and a number of titles that were unpublished at the time of the longlist announcement. In the same article, John Dugdale writes about what he sees as the relative provincialism of this year’s longlist of titles:

With notable exceptions, American novelists tend to write about the U.S., and none of the four – Joshua Ferris, Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers – set their selected books abroad. So although non-western countries are depicted in works by Flanagan, Neel Mukherjee, and Joseph O’Neill, there’s a marked sense of restricted horizons when set against a 2013 longlist full of travellers and immigrants, and in which [Eleanor] Catton, NoViolet Bulawayo, Richard House, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ruth Ozeki all pulled off ambitious intercontinental narratives.

The winner of the £50,000 purse will be announced on October 14. Last year’s prize went to Catton for her second novel, The Luminaries.

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker Prize

October 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Eleanor_CattonAt twenty-eight years of age, Canadian-born, New Zealand–raised Eleanor Catton has become the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Catton won for her second novel, The Luminaries, which, at close to 850 pages, is also the longest volume ever to claim the prize.

Of the winning book, chair of judges Robert Macfarlane said, “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control.”

According to The Globe and Mail, the author referred to her award-winning novel as “a publisher’s nightmare”: “The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but – even more egregious – astrologically impossible.”

In her acceptance remarks, Catton spoke about the difference between value and worth, which is cheering, but also somewhat ironic for an author claiming a prize of £50,000. Catton is also in the running for the English-language Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Catton’s win comes at an auspicious time: next year, the Man Booker Prize will change its submissions criteria to allow any novel in English published in the U.K. to be eligible for consideration, regardless of the nationality of the author. Previous rumours indicated that the award, till now restricted to authors from the U.K., Ireland, or the Commonwealth, was being opened only to U.S. authors.

We wait with bated breath to see whether the Scotiabank Giller Prize will follow suit.

We all live in Alice Munro Country

October 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Alice_MunroShe has been called “our Chekhov,” and is routinely cited as one of the greatest living English-language writers. She has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for fiction, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two O. Henry Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. “Among writers themselves,” said Margaret Atwood, “her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

Today, those tones will be anything but hushed.

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the thirteenth woman out of 110 laureates. In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy calls Munro “a master of the contemporary short story.”

While the reaction from observers is likely to be raucous, the author’s own response was typically gracious and understated. A Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail quotes Munro as saying she is “amazed and very grateful.” Also typically, Munro goes on to shift the focus off herself: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Munro has been a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, and this year the betting house Ladbrokes ranked her second in odds, after Haruki Murakami.

Although the 82-year-old Ontario author has been remarkably consistent in her themes over the course of a career that spans four-and-a-half decades and fourteen books (excluding anthologies and best-of retrospectives), she has not remained stagnant as a writer. In a Quill & Quire review of her latest collection, Dear Life (2012), James Grainger points out:

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionistic form of storytelling.

Yet her subjects have remained the same: sexual politics, domestic violence – physical and, more often, psychological – and self-awareness in the lives of girls and women. “‘Dreariness of spirit’ is one of the great Munro enemies,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the 2009 volume My Best Stories:

Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people’s deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness, and perversity.

Quoted on the website NDTV, Munro herself claims, “There are no such things as big and little subjects. The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

In an interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about the influence of Southern American writers on her own sensibility:

The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Munro has, over the course of a truly remarkable career, incorporated that influence, and also transcended it. Her stories rank as some of the most subtle, provocative work produced not just in Canada, but internationally in the past forty years. Previous recent choices of Nobel laureates have caused controversy, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with knowledge of world literature arguing seriously that Alice Munro is undeserving of the honour.

The term “Alice Munro Country” is typically applied to a small patch of land in rural Ontario; today, the Swedish Academy has ensured that designation has a much broader connotation. We all live in Alice Munro Country. And we are all immeasurably better for it.


I had come to Victoria because it was the farthest place I could get to from London, Ontario, without going out of the country. In London, my husband, Donald, and I had rented a basement apartment in our house to a couple named Nelson and Sylvia. Nelson was an English major at the university and Sylvia was a nurse. Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort had made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

– “The Albanian Virgin,” by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

UPDATE: I’ve been taking some heat on social media for stating that Munro is the first Canadian Nobel laureate, since Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. For the record: I have never considered Bellow a Canadian author. He was raised and educated in the U.S., did all of his writing there, and is most closely associated with Chicago. He considered himself an American writer, as do I. But, for those who wish to argue, I acknowledge his place of birth as Canada, and have amended the above post accordingly.

Surprise inclusions, omissons characterize this year’s Giller shortlist

October 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoLeave it to Margaret Atwood to confound expectations.

If you’d asked me (or, likely, pretty much any literary observer) prior to this morning, I’d have said the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. A staggeringly ambitious book about Europeans’ first contact with Native Canadians and the collision of ideologies and cultures that led – for better or worse – to the creation of this country, Boyden’s story appeared as the quintessential Giller novel. Compared to Herodotus by Charles Foran in The Globe and Mail, called “a classic” by the National Post and “a magnificent literary beast” by Quill & Quire, The Orenda seemed like the book to beat this year for the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada.

At the announcement of the Giller shortlist this morning in Toronto, when it became apparent that Boyden’s novel did not make the cut, an audible gasp permeated the room.

Atwood and her fellow jurors – former Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American novelist Jonathan Lethem – culled from a longlist of thirteen titles a shortlist that is as surprising as it is intriguing. Only two of this year’s shortlisted authors – Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady – have been previous Giller finalists. Heavy hitters such as Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, and Claire Messud were left off the list of five contenders for the $50,000 prize. In their place are a genre thriller set in postwar Vienna, a story about the fallout from two brothers’ conflicted history, and a violent tale about a cop and a criminal in Niagara Falls.

The finalists for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)

Anansi is the only wholly owned Canadian press to feature on the shortlist. With two titles, this brings Anansi’s total nominations, over the twenty-year history of the prize, to thirteen. Thirteen in the year 2013 seems auspicious, but even if you’re not superstitious, at first blush this appears to be Lisa Moore’s year. She’s been nominated twice before – for her story collection Open and her first novel, Alligator – and this book, about an escaped drug runner who embarks on one last score, seems like the perfect confluence of accessible genre thriller and literary sensibility to nab the prize.

At the shortlist announcement, it was made explicit that the jury chose the five finalists at the same time they settled on the thirteen-book longlist – this was, arguably, a preventative strike against those who might have surmised that the jury changed its mind about David Gilmour’s longlisted novel, Extraordinary, after the controversy surrounding the author’s comments on a Random House–sponsored website last month.

What is clear is that this year’s Giller jury privileges books with strong narratives over more technically or stylistically innovative works. This year’s Giller shortlist comprises reader-friendly, plot-oriented fiction – stories told, as the jury statement that accompanied the longlist put it, in “remarkably familiar ways.” However, the books on this year’s shortlist – to say nothing of the shortlist itself – are not without surprise or interest, and observers will be paying close attention when the winner is announced at a gala dinner in Toronto on November 5.

UPDATE: A post on the Giller Prize’s Facebook page indicates that, contrary to the impression given at the shortlist announcement, the jury chose the shortlist “approximately one week after the longlist was announced.” The post goes on to stipulate, “This jury’s timing was unique to their particular judging process, which differs from every other Giller Prize jury and from other literary award juries and judging processes.”

Giller longlist highlights “essential stories” told in “familiar ways”

September 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoThe Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest award for fiction, released its longlist yesterday, and it’s safe to say that it is not a good year for small presses. Invisible Publishing scored its first ever longlist title – Elisabeth De Mariaffi’s story collection How to Get Along with Women – but otherwise, indie and regional presses were shut out of contention. Also shut out was heavyweight McClelland & Stewart, once a perennial favourite to take the prize.

By contrast, it was a relatively good day for House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada, each of which placed three titles on this year’s longlist. Anansi scored one nominee from each of its three imprints: Anansi, Astoria (short stories), and Arachnide (books in translation); newly minted HarperCollins imprint Patrick Crean Editions saw its inaugural title – David Gilmour’s latest novel, Extraordinary – appear on the longlist.

The thirteen semi-finalists for this year’s prize, which is worth a cool $50,000 to the eventual winner, are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Elisabeth De Mariaffi, How to Get Along with Women (Invisible Publishing)
  • David Gilmour, Extraordinary (Patrick Crean Editions)
  • Wayne Grady, Emancipation Day (Doubleday Canada)
  • Louis Hamelin; Wayne Grady, trans., October 1970 (House of Anansi Press)
  • Wayne Johnston, Son of a Certain Woman (Knopf Canada)
  • Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Michael Winter, Minister Without Portfolio (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

This year’s jury consists of novelists Margaret Atwood (who took her own novel, MaddAddam, out of contention to sit on the jury), Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem.

Boyden’s appearance on the list is no surprise; by any measure his is one of the heavyweight titles of the year. Also unsurprising are the nods to Messud and Moore. Boyden, Moore, Johnston, and Coady have been shortlisted for the prize previously. Winter was longlisted for his 2007 novel The Architects Are Here, but failed to make the shortlist. Boyden won the prize in 2008 for his novel Through Black Spruce; were he to do so again this year, he would become the first author to win for back-to-back books. Wayne Grady is the first author to appear on the Giller longlist as both novelist and translator.

Not represented on this year’s longlist are two titles that have been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Also absent are former Giller honourees Colin McAdam, Mary Swan, Douglas Coupland, Lauren B. Davis, Cary Fagan, and David Macfarlane.

For this first time this year, the longlist announcement took place outside Toronto, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This must have felt like something of a pyrrhic victory, since there are no West Coast authors on the list. By contrast, authors from Newfoundland did quite well: Moore, Johnston, Winter, and De Mariaffi all have ties to the province (though only Moore and De Mariaffi reside there year-round).

The jury praised the longlisted titles as “essential stories” that “offer a glimpse of who we are, who we might be.” The books are diverse in setting, but all of them privilege strong storytelling over formal technique (one reason, perhaps, that one of this year’s most formally impressive books, Douglas Glover’s story collection Savage Love, failed to make the cut).

The insistence on storytelling over style is implicit in the jury’s comment that the thirteen longlisted books “tell unknown stories in remarkably familiar ways.” This is one of the strangest comments I’ve heard from a jury for a major literary prize – a group who might reasonably be expected to value newness and fresh ways of telling stories over familiarity. It is especially surprising from a jury that includes Lethem and Atwood, both of whom have been on the vanguard of new kinds of writing in the past few years.

It’s also not clear that it’s entirely true. Boyden’s novel is set in the 1600s among the Huron and Iroquois natives and Jesuit newcomers from France: this is hardly an unknown story (think Wacousta and Black Robe, for example). What is bracing about Boyden’s book is how modern it feels: he tells a familiar story in a new way. Similarly, Johnston’s book feels like a departure for him, both in terms of subject and style, as does Moore’s.

Regardless, the emphasis on familiarity recalls the infamous Booker jury of 2011, whose contentious shortlist (which, it must be noted, included Edugyan’s Giller-winning novel Half-Blood Blues) drew criticism for promoting a false divide between quality and readability and accusations of “self-congratulatory philistinism.” The arguments in favour of privileging books people will actually read over obscure critical darlings are well-known and, in some circles, highly persuasive. But as a factor in determining a longlist for a literary award, familiarity seems passing strange.

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