A couple of things interest me about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, which was announced on Monday. For those who missed it, the five anointed titles are:
- 419 by Will Ferguson
- Inside by Alix Ohlin
- The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
- Ru by Kim Thúy
- Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky
The first thing that struck me was the number of people – even highly bookish people – who claimed to be unfamiliar with these titles. I realize that I operate from a position as an industry insider, but even so, these are hardly obscure books from small publishers. Certainly Will Ferguson is a known quantity in CanLit, and Alix Ohlin has been written about and discussed widely, including fallout from a notoriously vicious review she was given by The New York Times (itself not exactly an obscure organ). Ohlin also found herself on the shortlist for another major award – the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – earlier this fall. (She is the only author to appear on both lists.) Thúy’s debut novel is already a prize winner, having picked up the Governor General’s Literary Award for its original French version, and both Richler and Wangersky are authors with multiple publications to their names.
But then, perhaps my surprise is unfounded. Precious few people in English Canada pay attention to what gets published in Quebec, so it’s hardly unexpected that Anglo readers would be ignorant of a Francophone first novel, even one that has won a major literary prize. Thúy’s novel is also the most frankly literary of the five books, and not the kind of thing general readers seem to be gravitating toward in large numbers these days. Both Richler and Wangersky have tended to fly under the radar for the bulk of their writing careers.
Anecdotal evidence from booksellers suggests that none of the five nominated titles sold up to expectations prior to the Giller shortlist announcement. This, too, seems unsurprising in a year in which anything unrelated to Fifty Shades of Grey or not written by J.K. Rowling has tended to fall through the cracks.
And there are no powerhouse titles that everyone can agree on this year. Last year saw two books – Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues – dominate prize lists both here and abroad (in addition to the three major domestic prizes, both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the U.K.). This year, of fifteen spots on the power trio of shortlists for fiction – the Giller, the GG, and the Writers’ Trust – only three names overlap – Ohlin, Tamas Dobozy, and Linda Spalding – and no one appears on all three lists.
So perhaps the lack of awareness around the authors on this year’s Giller shortlist is to be expected. Still, in a year in which some really overlooked names continue not just to fly under the radar, but to vanish from the field altogether, it’s a bit startling. If a scant few readers can claim familiarity with Will Ferguson or Alix Ohlin, how many can be expected to have heard of – much less read – worthy books by John Vigna, Anne Fleming, Yasuko Thanh, Alice Petersen, Tamara Faith Berger, Andrew Hood, or Esmé Claire Keith? On second thought, don’t answer that.
The second thing that interests me about this year’s shortlist involves something that John Barber alluded to in his column for The Globe and Mail. About Monday’s shortlist announcement, Barber writes:
Although sufficiently complimentary about all five of the nominated titles, this year’s Giller jury was fulsome on the subject of 419, tipping it as the clear front-runner in this year’s competition for the $50,000 prize.
Indeed, the jury citation for Ferguson’s novel, read by juror Anna Porter at Monday’s press conference, is somewhat remarkable. It calls 419 “something entirely new: the Global Novel.” This, of course, is nonsense: globetrotting thriller writers have been writing “global novels” for years. Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy built very lucrative careers doing exactly that. Nevertheless, the language is tellingly effusive.
So, too, is the jury’s assessment that “It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius.” Note the significance of what has happened here: right out of the gate, this year’s Giller jury – also composed of American author Gary Shteyngart and Irish author Roddy Doyle – has declared one of their nominees a work of genius.
All things being equal, it appears 419 is the book to beat when the prize announcement is made on October 30.
These are a half-dozen of the heavy hitters who did not make it onto the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Also absent are word-of-mouth favourites such as Anakana Schofield, Carrie Snyder, Emily Schultz, and Lynn Crosbie.
In their place, this year’s jury, made up of Irish author Roddy Doyle, American author Gary Shteyngart, and Canadian author Anna Porter, has chosen a baker’s dozen made up of first-timers, genre writers, and previously overlooked names. Only one of the longlisted titles – Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl – is by an author who has previously been nominated for the prize. Marjorie Celona and Kim Thúy are nominated for their first books, and Cary Fagan and Russell Wangersky appear with short-story collections. Other surprises include Lauren B. Davis’s thriller Our Daily Bread, which was actually released last year in the U.S., Katrina Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, and Will Ferguson’s thriller 419.
The longlist in full:
- Y by Marjorie Celona
- Our Daily Bread by Lauren B. Davis
- My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan
- 419 by Will Ferguson
- Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough
- One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
- The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
- Inside by Alix Ohlin
- Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad
- The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson
- The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
- Ru by Kim Thúy
- Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky
Random House of Canada has the largest number of nominations with four, and House of Anansi Press, Penguin, and HarperCollins Canada each clock in with two. The remaining publishers, Cormorant Books, McClelland & Stewart, and Thomas Allen Publishers, have one apiece. For those who count such things (you know who you are), eight of the authors are women, and five are men.
When the jury was first announced, I expressed optimism that the diverse sensibilities of the three members might produce a list that broke with tradition in some interesting ways. They have done this, and then some. Whatever you may think of today’s announcement, you’ll probably agree that this is the most surprising longlist in the nineteen-year history of the Giller Prize.
The shortlist will be revealed on October 1, with the winner announced on October 30.
Here’s a question for you: how many of these books have you read?
- Gethsemane Hall by David Annandale
- Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay
- The Age of Hope by David Bergen
- Swallow by Theanna Bischoff
- Psychology and Other Stories by C.P. Boyko
- Y by Marjorie Celona
- What You Get at Home by Dora Dueck
- The World by Bill Gaston
- The Tale-Teller by Susan Glickman
- Carnival by Rawi Hage
- The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
- Anna from Away by D.R. MacDonald
- Love and the Mess We’re In by Stephen Marche
- Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney
- Dark Diversions by John Ralston Saul
- The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin
- Baggage by Jill Sooley
- The Purchase by Linda Spalding
- Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen
- The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji
- The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster
Unless you’re a reviewer, bookseller, publisher, or industry insider, I’d venture to guess the answer to that question is, “None of them.” Why? Because they are all books from the upcoming fall 2012 publishing season; none of them is available yet through the trade.
That fact, however, does not prevent CBC Books and the Scotiabank Giller Prize from encouraging you to throw your support behind one or the other of them, sight unseen. For the second year in a row, the Giller has added a public participation aspect to its annual award. In conjunction with the CBC, they are asking the public to “[n]ominate an eligible book … and tell us why you think this book deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The list of eligible books is online at the Giller website, and includes the titles above, along with others from late fall 2011 and spring 2012 that are currently available to the public. Unlike last year, this year’s “Crazy for CanLit” contest appears only to solicit nominations from the public; there is no promise, as with last year’s contest, that the book with the most votes wins a spot on the official prize longlist.
The problem is with the language. It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t read the above titles (which effectively means most people who will be submitting nominations to this contest) to say with any legitimacy why any of them “deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The language implies merit, but it’s not possible to assess merit in these cases; all readers have to go on is prior affection for a given author’s work. When the Ceeb suggests that this contest is a way for readers “to share great Canadian literature [they've] discovered this past year,” it is being similarly disingenuous.
During the run-up to last year’s Giller, prize administrator Elana Rabinovitch was quoted in Quill & Quire as saying, “When it comes to inviting the public into the process to share their voice on their favourite book, I don’t believe that there’s any danger of tarnishing the reputation of the prize.” Maybe so, but that’s not exactly what is being asked of people here. Prognostication and judgments based on previous experience hardly qualify as literary assessment, even on a subjective level. People are not necessarily being asked to cast a vote for their “favourite book,” but for a favourite author. It bears repeating that an author’s previous track record has nothing to do with the relative merit of a new book. The only way to assess the latter is by reading the book, which is the one thing that participants in this contest can’t, in many cases, do. (The contest closes on August 14; all of the books listed above have later publication dates.)
It will be argued that this contest helps draw attention to the forthcoming books and drum up anticipation for them. Which is well and good, but is also entirely separate from asking people to choose their “favourite.” In any case, in a year in which the most popular fiction title is Fifty Shades of Grey, you might forgive me for feeling a bit jaundiced when it comes to the so-called “wisdom of crowds.”
Yesterday, Jack Rabinovitch announced the members of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury. This year’s award, which bills itself as “Canada’s most distinguished literary prize,” will once again be adjudicated by a panel of international judges, in what has become something of a formula for the prize in recent years.
Irish author Roddy Doyle won the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but he is arguably best known for his comic trilogy about the lives of a group of working class Dubliners – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – all of which have been made into acclaimed motion pictures.
Canadian Anna Porter is a publishing icon, having worked for McClelland & Stewart during its heyday before launching her own publishing house, Key Porter Books. Her 2008 non-fiction work, Kasztner’s Train was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction.
Russian-born, American-based novelist Gary Shteyngart is known for his tragicomic novels such as Absurdistan and 2010′s Super Sad True Love Story. Along with last year’s Giller nominee David Bezmozgis, Shteyngart was named one of The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40″ literary fiction writers in 2010.
The three-person jury will choose a longlist of books (hopefully without help from the general public this year), which will then be culled to a shortlist, to be announced on October 1. The gala award ceremony will take place in Toronto on October 30, where one author will take home the $50,000 prize.
Some people argue that having international jurors on the panel (each jury since 2009 has featured two members from outside Canada) denigrates Canadian literature, but I would suggest that precisely the opposite is true. If we truly believe our fiction is world class, surely it should be able to withstand world-class scrutiny. Moreover, by inviting jurors from outside our borders to sit on the prize jury, the chances for parochialism, narrowness of focus, or log-rolling (a very real concern in a closed literary ecosystem such as ours) are significantly reduced.
Moreover, the last three years have seen a range of literary sensibilities among jurors, beyond the usual naturalistic, historical romantic affinities that characterize the bulk of what has traditionally been praised as canon-worthy in this country. On that score, this year’s jury appears to be one to get a bit excited about. Doyle and Shteyngart are both comic novelists, and although Porter’s recent books have been heavy works of serious non-fiction, she is also the author of a whimsical murder mystery, The Bookfair Murders, set (not incidentally) in the publishing world. This year’s jury gives me hope that the ultimate victor might evince something fabulously rare in Giller’s nineteen-year history: a sense of humour.
The literary prize juries are spreading the wealth around this year. As is probably common knowledge by now, two sophomore novelists – Esi Edugyan and Patrick DeWitt – have been competing head to head for the three most important prizes for fiction in this country: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (They were both nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well: that award went to British novelist Julian Barnes.) Last week, DeWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust award for his neo-Western, The Sisters Brothers. Yesterday, it was Edugyan’s turn at the podium.
Half-Blood Blues, a novel about jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the early years of the Second World War, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The jury, composed of novelists Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O’Hagan, selected the book from an uncommonly strong field of six titles, the other four of which were David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, The Free World; Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist; Zsuzsi Gartner’s sophomore story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; and Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, The Cat’s Table.
This year’s jury read a record 143 titles to come up with its shortlist of six, which was culled from a longlist of seventeen. The longlist included one title, Myrna Dey’s Extensions, selected by popular vote on the part of the general public. The jury ended up (correctly, in my opinion) ignoring the public choice and promoting a shortlist that ranks among the finest in Giller history. There wasn’t a dud title in the bunch: not a single book of which it could be said, “Yeah, that really doesn’t deserve to be there.”
Of the winning title, the jury had this to say:
Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that’s Esi Edugyan’s joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues. It’s conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes. Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this book next to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” – these two works of art belong together.
The win marks the second time Thomas Allen Publishers was responsible for bringing out the victorious book, the first being Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe in 2002. The win for Thomas Allen, and in particular its publisher, Patrick Crean, is particularly sweet, since they were responsible for rescuing Half-Blood Blues from oblivion when its original Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books, ceased operations at the beginning of the year. This year was also remarkable for being the second year in a row in which the country’s largest multinational, Random House of Canada, was completely shut out of the shortlist (Ondaatje is published by McClelland & Stewart, which is 25% owned by Random House). DeWitt and Coady are both published by House of Anansi Press; Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins Canada.
Edugyan takes home the $50,000 grand prize, and each of the other shortlisted authors take home $5,000. One note: this does not, as some sources would have it, make the Giller the most lucrative literary prize in Canada. The Griffin Poetry Prize awards two separate purses (one Canadian, one international) of $65,000 apiece, and the newly minted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction is worth $60,000 to the winner, as well as $5,000 apiece to the other shortlisted authors. Not that anyone’s counting.
“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)
“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”
Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:
Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.
And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”
From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.
Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:
Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.
The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.
Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.
Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)
Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.
*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.
The Sisters Brothers. Patrick DeWitt; $22.95 paper 978-1-77089-032-9, 336 pp., House of Anansi Press
Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan; $24.95 paper 978-0-88762-741-5, 312 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers
In her essay, “Writer, Reader, Words,” Jeanette Winterson argues that literature is necessarily sui generis, incapable of being replicated in any other medium. Any work of literature that aspires to the status of art, Winterson writes, “can only be itself, it can never substitute for anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it.” On the other side of the equation, “Readers who don’t like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature, they are missing it altogether.”
Our 21st-century culture, so besotted with the primacy of the image, with pictures and screens and video games, tends to privilege books that are “printed television”: fast-paced and easily digestible, strong on narrative, peopled by clearly defined, frequently unambiguous characters. Scenes that are cut sharply and edited tightly, and plots that propel themselves forward through readily discernible stages of beginning, middle, and end. Readers and, increasingly, award juries are gravitating ever more frequently toward books that eschew specifically literary techniques in favour of those that resemble, in design and execution, movies on paper. Two of this year’s most lauded books evince this tendency.
It’s no accident that Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was optioned for film even before it appeared on bookstore shelves. The story – about two hired guns, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who travel from Oregon City to California during the Gold Rush to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm – comes virtually pre-packaged for the big screen. The wide-open expanses of Western landscape the Sisters brothers traverse, juxtaposed with the chaotic industrial sprawl they discover in San Fransisco, is almost defiantly cinematic, calling to mind the sumptuous cinematography in John Ford’s The Searchers or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. In its focus on a trio of men who travel cross country to kill a pair of rustlers who have assaulted a prostitute, Eastwood’s film also provides an antecedent for the plot trajectory of DeWitt’s novel, though DeWitt’s story is more insistently comic than David Webb Peoples’ rather downbeat screenplay.
The dialogue, too, crackles and pops with the rhythms and cadence of spoken speech – hardly surprising given that DeWitt is also a screenwriter. The exchanges between his characters practically cry out to be declaimed aloud:
“Make me an offer on the black horse,” I said.
“He is worth fifty dollars.”
“Thirty dollars with the saddle.”
“Don’t be ignorant. I will take forty, without the saddle.”
“I will give you thirty-five dollars.”
“Thirty-five dollars without the saddle?”
“Thirty-five, without the saddle, minus a dollar for the shoes.”
“You expect me to pay for shoes on a horse I’m not keeping?”
“You asked me to shoe him. Now, you must pay for the service.”
“You would have shoed him anyway.”
“That is neither up nor down.”
“Thirty-four dollars,” I said.
The stable hand’s rejoinder, “That is neither up nor down,” is particularly sharp, and elicits an easy laugh from the reader.
DeWitt unfolds his story in short, dramatic scenes that are packed to bursting with incident. Eli, the more sensitive of the two brothers, watches helplessly as his beloved horse, Tub, gets mauled by a grizzly bear, an injury that will cost the horse one of its eyes. The sequence in which the eye is removed is especially potent in its gruesome comedy: it feels tailor-made for adaptation by filmmakers with the off-kilter sensibility of the Coen Brothers. A set-piece involving a gunfight between the Sisters brothers and two trappers in the town of Mayfield is similarly forceful and exciting, and feels similarly cinema-ready.
There is a good deal of emotion in the novel, particularly where Eli Sisters is concerned. Charlie, the tougher of the two, is a drunkard and a fairly obvious psychopath, but Eli, who narrates the novel, is articulate and thoughtful, frequently given to self-doubt and uncertainty. There is a lovely sequence of scenes in which Eli appalls his brother by ordering small portions and healthy foods at mealtimes because he is trying to lose weight to appear more sexually appealing to a woman he has come to fancy. Eli’s discovery of a magical tooth powder that helps freshen the breath is also charmingly effective. And there is a running joke about an anesthetic to deaden pain that the brothers appropriate from a dentist and employ on Eli’s wounded horse, as well as on each other (“A smart man could make use of this,” Charlie tells his brother).
DeWitt’s picaresque follows a conventional, chronological path. By contrast, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, shuttles back and forth in time to tell the story of a group of black jazz musicians who run afoul of the Nazis in the early years of the Second World War. Like The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues is heavy on incident and plot, with robust characters and (the focus on music notwithstanding) a strongly visual narrative.
However, Edugyan is generally more willing than DeWitt to allow herself recourse to passages that are more written, especially where jazz is concerned. It is notoriously difficult to capture the aural and emotional charge of music via the written word, but Eduygan manages to pull it off, for example in the following passage, which describes trumpet prodigy Hieronymous Falk jamming with jazz legend Louis Armstrong:
It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.
The metaphorical language here has a legitimate claim to being literary: the comparison of Hiero to sunlight and Armstrong to water is appropriate and evocative, as is the image of golden ropes of sound winding around one another.
Edugyan is also adept at fusing the cultural impact of jazz in prewar Europe with the rising tide of racial intolerance under the Nazis. Hiero is a German of African descent, a “half-breed,” and consequently, he is a symbol of racial impurity for the Nazis; where African-Americans are allowed passage out of Germany and occupied France, Hiero would be sent to a concentration camp if caught. In a stirring passage, Edugyan explicitly links the racial hatred experienced by blacks and Jews with the anarchic impulse that gave rise to the jazz movement in Germany:
Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.
In Edugyan’s hands, the jazz musicians officially labelled “degenerate” by Joseph Goebbels become a force for resisting the Aryan ideology making insidious toeholds in the Europe of 1939 and 1940. This is powerful, provocative, and – not incidentally – political writing, a fictional repudiation of the extremes of Nazi intolerance and hatred more potent than most anything found in a straightforward history of the war.
And yet. The novel’s strongly literary passages are sprinkled like seasoning on a narrative that is fuelled by suspenseful scenes of the fugitive musicians hiding from the Nazi menace, venturing out fearfully, trying to avoid capture at every turn (including, in one tense sequence, a border crossing between Germany and France, during which the characters undergo interrogations from officials on both sides of the divide).
Told from the perspective of Sid Griffiths, a bass player who harbours acute feelings of professional jealousy for his more prodigiously talented – not to mention younger – bandmate, Hiero, the novel is propelled by feelings of guilt resulting from a wartime betrayal: although another member of the band, Chip, has already publicly accused Sid of complicity in the arrest of Hiero at the hands of Nazi soldiers in Paris, the true nature and extent of Sid’s betrayal is not revealed until the end of the novel.
Half-Blood Blues is in part an examination of artistic envy; Sid says of Hiero at one point, “It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales.” The bitterness of Sid’s envy leads to the situation he and Hiero find themselves in at the opening of the book, in which they decide somewhat intemperately to venture out into the streets of occupied Paris, despite all the warnings to remain concealed. Even with the benefit of hindsight, once the novel has unfolded its entire plot and the context of the characters’ experiences has been made clear, this scene rings false.
It is, however, a dramatic opening to a novel that contains no shortage of drama. The vividness of its historical setting, the stakes facing its characters, and the scenes of danger and tension they must negotiate, are gripping, but here we return once again to the notion of the novel as printed cinema: it is no less difficult to picture Edugyan’s scenes unfolding on a movie screen than it is with DeWitt. Half-Blood Blues, like The Sisters Brothers, is propulsive, suspenseful, and entertaining, but it’s not clear that either novel could “never substitute for anything else,” to use Winterson’s phrase.
Let’s be clear: these are both solid, enjoyable books that could be given with confidence to any reader in search of a good story and engaging characters. But it’s also important to note that juries for no fewer than four major literary prizes – the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and the Governor General’s Literary Award – have deemed both books to be among the best works of fiction published this calendar year. In so doing, these juries are implicitly privileging cinematic narratives and visual sensibilities over more obviously and essentially literary works. Whether or not that is desirable depends on how strongly one agrees with Winterson’s assessment of what constitutes literary art.
This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.
Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.
The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.
Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40″ Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.
What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.
Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)
The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.
The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.
*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.
This post has been updated (October 4, 2011, 8:47 a.m.)
Rumour has it that the mysterious cabal comprising the Swedish Academy will announce this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature later this week, and I’d like to take this opportunity to add my name to The Millions’ endorsement of Philip Roth for the honour.
When Roth published Sabbath’s Theater in 1995, there were those who suggested it was his magnum opus; with Sabbath’s Theater the author had reached the logical culmination of everything he had been working toward and he might thereafter be expected to retire gracefully into the sunset. Two years later, in 1997, Roth published American Pastoral, the first novel in his American Trilogy – a book that not only proved the predictions wrong, but which stands today as the author’s finest achievement and, in my opinion, one of the finest American postwar novels, period. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, won the PEN-Faulkner Award, as did Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, which made the author the only three-time winner in the award’s history (he also won in 1993 for Operation Shylock). In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review unveiled its list of the best American books published in the past twenty-five years, no fewer than six of Roth’s novels made the cut: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.
In 2010, Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, a laurel that did not come without controversy. One of the jurors, Carmen Callil, resigned the jury in protest, saying at the time, “I don’t rate him as a writer at all … Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him?” What I would say in response is simply this: Roth’s very first book, Goodbye Columbus, which won the National Book Award, was published in 1959. His most (in)famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which appeared on both the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, appeared in 1969. Both remain in print today. (As, indeed, does Roth’s entire backlist.) Roth is the only living writer to have his works included in the canonical Library of America series.
But none of the awards and recognitions that have been bestowed on Roth adequately testify to the power of his prose, or to the coruscating effect of reading him. What many of his detractors fail to mention is Roth’s apparent inability to write an uninteresting sentence; his blistering irony; his searing intensity.
What critics seem most often to focus on is his putative misogyny, his self-hating Jewishness, and the explicit sex in his novels. Much of the trouble seems to arise out of Roth’s almost defiant recourse to the facts of his autobiography in his fiction. When Roth published I Married a Communist, a novel that centres on a tell-all book by the protagonist’s estranged wife, many people remarked on the fact that Roth’s own ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, had the year before published a tell-all book called Leaving a Doll’s House, about her life with the author. The writer Linda Grant enumerated the similarities between Eve Frame, the wife in Roth’s novel, and Roth’s own recent biography: “Frame is a Jewish actress, so is Bloom. Frame’s second husband is a financier, so was Bloom’s. Eve Frame has a daughter who is a harpist, Bloom’s girl is an opera singer. Ira tells the daughter to move out, Roth did the same. Ira has an affair with the daughter’s best friend; Roth, Bloom alleged, came on to her own daughter’s best friend.” If Roth has a response, it is arguably contained in his novel Exit Ghost, when he has his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, remark on “the deadly literal-mindedness and vulgarity that attributes everything to its source in a wholly stupid way.”
Regardless, Grant goes on to say that she “would rather read a dozen books of Rothian misogyny (and if there ever was a misogynist, Roth is one) than a single page of Alison Lurie or Carol Shields or Margaret Atwood or E. Annie Proulx,” because in her estimation “Roth may be the last gasp of the novel, the dominating authorial voice with some ideas on how to live and how to live with others: how we are strangers to so many of the details of our own life stories.” Roth’s “dominating authorial voice,” which is inextricably tied up with his power to provoke, is one of the quintessential aspects that gives his work such force. As The Millions accurately points out:
The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.
Finally, this is probably the source of Roth’s enduring power: his willingness to take his material further than pretty much any other writer around, and if readers don’t enjoy the experience, well, he couldn’t really care less. Because, in the end, it’s the emotional honesty of the work that’s important. It’s a kind of brutal honesty that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But to my reading, it’s unparalleled in modern fiction.
UPDATE: And for those who disagree, there’s always this (via The Lisa Simpson Book Club and the CBC’s Erin Balser):
So, how was everyone’s summer?
After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.
I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?
In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:
- The Free World, David Bezmozgis
- The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
- The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
- The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
- The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
- Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
- The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
- Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
- Solitaria, Genni Gunn
- Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
- A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
- The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
- Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
- The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
- A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Touch, Alexi Zentner
Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.
As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.
As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:
- The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
- Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
- Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
- Snowdrops, A.D. Miller
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)
Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:
- Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
- The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
- Fauna, Alissa York
Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?