Expanding the field: the Man Booker Prize to accept submissions from U.S. writers

September 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoIn news that is sure to shake up the literary establishment, The Telegraph is reporting that in 2014, for the first time in its history, the Man Booker Prize will accept submissions from American authors. Previously, the award has been restricted to English-language books published in the U.K. and written by authors from the U.K., Ireland, and the Commonwealth. The Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years, considers writers from around the globe, and is given for a body of work rather than an individual book.

Quoting a report in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph indicates that Booker administrators found the exclusion of American writers “anachronistic,” and that considering them will help “ensure the award’s global reputation.”

Writing on the Literary Saloon, M.A. Orthofer suggests that the Booker administration might have been cowed by the appearance this year of the competing Folio Prize, which considers work by English-language writers worldwide. On its website, The Folio Prize bills itself as “the first major English language book prize open to writers from around the world. Its aim is simple: to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.” It will release its inaugural shortlist in February 2014.

The Booker rule change alters the landscape of the prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world, and is worth £50,000 to the winner. Even if publishers are restricted to two submissions, the relatively large number of books published in the U.S. will tend to crowd out those from other countries.

The change is sure to spark debate about the globalization of literary culture, and the utility of nationalist restrictions on prizes. In Canada, the three major prizes for fiction – the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award – confine themselves to books written by Canadian citizens (even those, like Patrick DeWitt or Eleanor Catton, who have lived the majority of their lives outside Canada). The Griffin Poetry Prize is the only major Canadian literary award I’m aware of with an international component; arguments have been floated for folding the Canadian and International prizes together to bolster the award’s perceived legitimacy.

At least one dissenting voice has already been heard in Britain. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg claims to be “disappointed” by the move, which he says will eradicate the Booker’s “distinctiveness.” He compared the new rules to “a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.”

This argument risks charges of xenophobia, but it would be ironic if, in an effort to be more inclusive, the new rule ended up turning the Booker into yet another instrument of American cultural hegemony.

And they’re off: the fall award season begins

September 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Early September marks – for better or worse – the start of literary awards season, and the first indicators of the frenzy to come are already being noted.

Man_Booker_Prize_logoYesterday, the jury for the Man Booker Prize – which comprises chair Robert Macfarlane and jurors Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Natalie Haynes, Martha Kearney, and Stuart Kelly – released the shortlist for the 2013 award. The six books on the shortlist include two by Canadians: Eleanor Catton’s sophomore novel The Luminaries, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The other nominees are NoViolet Bulawayo for her debut novel We Need New Names, Jim Crace for The Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland, and Colm Tóibín for The Testament of Mary.

The official Man Booker announcement calls the shortlist “the most diverse in recent memory,” and there is some validity to this. Catton, the youngest nominee in the history of the prize, was born in London, Ontario, and lives in New Zealand. American-born Ozeki resides in British Columbia. Bulawayo is the first shortlisted author from Zimbabwe. Only two of the authors – Crace and Tóibín – have been nominated for the prize previously. The longest book on the list (Catton’s) is 848 pages; at 104 pages, the shortest (Tóibín’s) is virtually a novella. Catton’s novel is set in 1866 New Zealand; Bulawayo’s in contemporary Zimbabwe; and Tóibín’s in biblical times.

Calling the list “fiendishly difficult to categorise,” the official announcement continues:

It is clear that the perennial complaint that fiction is too safe and unadventurous is a ridiculous one; [the shortlist] shows that the novel remains a multi-faceted thing; that writing and inspiration knows no geographical borders; that diaspora tales are a powerful strand in imaginative thinking; and that human voices, in all their diversity, drive fiction.

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoHere in Canada, some are thinking that the fall award season will amount to a showdown between two heavyweights: Catton, and Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. This will begin to come clear next Monday, when the Scotiabank Giller Prize unveils its longlist. This year marks the Giller’s 20th anniversary, and for the first time, the longlist is being unveiled outside Toronto, at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. (Lest anyone fret that Toronto’s status as the centre of the universe might be in jeopardy, the shortlist announcement and the gala dinner to crown the victor both take place here.)

This year, for the first time in the history of Canadian literary prizes (so far as I am aware), the Giller jury will appear in public to speak about the process of settling on the longlist. The event, called “Behind the Curtain,” will take place on October 7 at the Manulife Centre branch of Indigo Books and Music (located in – yes – Toronto). Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q, will interview this year’s Giller jurors, novelists Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem. According to a press release, they will discuss “the longlist, the upcoming shortlist, and what’s it like to read close to 150 books to make their decisions.”

Because this event takes place before even the shortlist is announced, the jury will necessarily be curtailed in what they are able to say, but this is nevertheless an interesting development. It does not represent going behind the curtain, so much as cracking the curtain slightly to peer inside, but it does offer some small glimpse into a process that has historically been shrouded in secrecy. It’s not likely that any of this year’s jurors will go so far as former juror Victoria Glendinning, who took to print to declaim that most of the CanLit she read was frankly mediocre, but the discussion could prove to be an interesting one, depending upon how free the jurors feel to be honest.

Of unfamiliarity and genius: a couple of thoughts about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist

October 3, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

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.

Giller jury serves up astonishing longlist

September 4, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

David Bergen. M.G. Vassanji. Donna Morrissey. Rawi Hage. Linden MacIntyre. Vincent Lam.

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.

Crazy for CanLit: which unread book is your favourite?

August 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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
  • 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.”

Doyle, Porter, Shteyngart form 2012 Giller jury

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

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.

Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“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 medium and the message

October 18, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

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.

“Twenty-five dollars.”

“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.

New names, surprise inclusions mark Giller shortlist

October 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

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