Philip Roth for Nobel laureate

October 3, 2011 by · 5 Comments 

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):

 

 

 

 

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

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?

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?

Some thoughts on prestige, public opinion, and the Giller prize

August 4, 2011 by · 12 Comments 

Anyone who doubts the pernicious cultural impact of American Idol need look no farther than the CBC’s books coverage. Simon Fuller’s venture into prime-time karaoke was in effect nothing more than an update of the cheesy 1980s’ TV talent show Star Search, hosted by Ed McMahon, which pit pairs of wannabe performers against one another. Contestants faced off in a series of categories – male vocalist, female vocalist, dance, comedy, spokesmodel (!) – following which a panel of judges would score them using a rating system of one to four stars. The contestant with the highest average score won. Fuller’s big innovation with Pop Idol in Britain – and its more pervasive American counterpart – was to allow the general public to vote on the winner. (In the Star Search model, the studio audience was allowed to vote only in the event of a tie.) The audience participation aspect of American Idol, which permits audience members lounging on their sofas to directly influence the outcome, is as important as the narcissistic, “everybody is entitled to be a star” mentality the show promotes.

But what is significant about both Star Search and American Idol is that in neither case is the audience allowed to participate in the audition process. In other words, the contestants who land on the shows have already been vetted by professional judges, who can be assumed to hold them to a certain standard in their fields. (Whatever that standard may be based on: more about this in a moment.)

Flash forward to 2010, and the 10th anniversary of the literary elimination contest known as Canada Reads. To mark the anniversary, the CBC, which broadcasts the program each spring on Radio 1, decided to alter its usual format by allowing members of the general public to nominate one Canadian novel published after January 1, 2001. This novel would represent what the person nominating it considered to be an “essential” work of Canadian fiction published during the period of eligibility. The number of votes for each book were tallied, and the most popular 40 titles were fashioned into a longlist, from which the public was again invited to vote for their favourite book, this time for the purpose of culling the 40 titles to a shortlist of 10, from which the five Canada Reads celebrity panelists would chose one book to defend on air.

Leaving aside the rather nebulous definition of the word “essential” (the eventual winner, Terry Fallis’s comic novel The Best Laid Plans, was deemed more “essential” to CanLit than such novels as De Niro’s Game, Oryx & Crake, Three Day Road, Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, JPod, Good to a Fault, and A Complicated Kindness), what Canada Reads asserted was the primacy of popular opinion, where anyone with access to a computer could feel that they were influencing the outcome of the contest. (Sometimes in a manner that was less than fair: although there was an official limit of one vote per person, I heard many accounts of people voting several times from different computers.)

Now, let’s consider the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s most lucrative prize for literary fiction, which for the first time in five years has switched broadcast partners from CTV to the CBC. Along with their duties as the official broadcaster for the award ceremony itself, the Ceeb has promised that it will “be celebrating some of the best Canadian fiction of 2010 and 2011 with some great contests with fantastic prizes.” The first of these “great contests” is the so-called “Reader’s Choice Contest,” which allows members of the public to vote for the book they think deserves to be nominated for this year’s Giller. The public can consult a list of eligible books, available on the Giller website, and choose one they think should be included on the longlist for this year’s prize. (The list of eligible books is more inclusive than what publishers officially submit for consideration; publishers are restricted to three titles apiece, unless an author has previously won a Giller or a Governor General’s Literary Award, in which case they are automatically considered for this year’s prize.)

Here’s the relevant rubric from the CBC Books website:

This year you can make a difference by nominating a book for the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Explore this year’s eligible books and let us know which one you believe deserves to be considered for the $50,000 award.

CBC Books will tally your nominations. The book that garners the most nominations will be added to the official longlist, which will be announced on September 6, 2011. Submit your selection by filling out the CBC Books nomination form by midnight ET on August 28.

Here we have the same American Idol–style participatory mentality that held sway over last year’s Canada Reads proceedings infecting what is putatively this country’s most prestigious award for fiction. The difference is, whereas Canada Reads is a game, a goof, a self-conscious entertainment, the Giller is a major cultural force in this country. According to the Giller website’s homepage, the prize “awards $50,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists.” Since its inception in 1994, the Giller prize has positioned itself as the premiere arbiter of quality literary fiction in Canada. It is our Booker, our Pulitzer, our Goncourt. The website specifies that it bestows its honour on the “best” work of fiction published in this country, not the most popular.

Of course, the “best” work of fiction in any given year is a chimera: determinations of literary worth are so subjective that a final verdict is ultimately down to the sensibilities of the three people who make up the jury in each prize period. One such jury determined that Vincent Lam’s story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was superior to both the aforementioned Rawi Hage novel De Niro’s Game and Carol Windley’s story collection Home Schooling. Last year, the jury decided that Johanna Skibsrud’s flawed first novel, The Sentimentalists, was a better choice than Alexander MacLeod’s brilliant debut collection, Light Lifting. These are matters of taste that can be argued from here until doomsday.

What is inarguable is that in each case, the decision as to a title’s relative worth has been made by a dedicated cadre of three people who have been chosen for their expertise in exercising critical judgment. The jury members have been charged with a task: surveying a field of literary work and determining, to the best of their abilities, which book they consider to be the strongest. It’s a flawed system, to be sure, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Allowing the general public, out of a sense of misplaced populism, to vote a book onto the longlist devalues the work that the jury does in sifting through the submitted books and coming up with a number of choices for books they feel deserve to be elevated above the rest. Should the public choose a book that the jury has already determined will make the longlist, the process is redundant. Should the public choose a different book from those the jury has determined are worthy of longlisting, there is little likelihood that title will make it to the shortlist. (It will, however, be able to claim the status of “Giller nominated” novel or story collection.) The only event in which the public could have a tangible effect on the jury’s mindset would be if they chose a book that the jury had not yet considered (because it was eligible, but not officially submitted by a publisher) and that they subsequently felt to be worthy of distinction. But the likelihood of this happening is remote, to say the least.

In any event, the public’s nominations are tainted from the outset, because members of the general public will not have read the entire slate of eligible books, which means they are unable to make an informed determination – even on a subjective level – as to which is best among them. Indeed, the general public can’t have read many of the eligible books, since a good number of them aren’t available for sale until after the August 28 closing date for the CBC’s contest. What this means is that many people will be voting for books on the basis of an affection for their authors’ previous works, which does little to advance the perception that the Giller prize is a measure of the best fiction produced in a given year. Anyone who doubts the validity of this need only take a jog over to the CBC website, where there are already numerous people advocating for the inclusion of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, on this year’s longlist. The only problem: the book is not available yet. As a result, readers such as Jen from Vancouver are reduced to saying, “I have not read The Antagonist yet but have no doubt it will be worth [sic] of nomination.”

Needless to say, an author’s previous track record has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of a new book. Although I, too, am a fan of Coady’s work, I can’t attest to the merit of The Angagonist, because, like Jen from Vancouver, I haven’t read it. This year’s Giller jury, on the other hand, has had access to the book, and is therefore in a better position to gauge its relative worth, not only on its own merits, but also in comparison to the other submitted books in this year’s field. This is precisely why a jury is charged with the responsibility of going through a group of books and choosing what it considers to be the worthiest among them. By elevating uninformed public opinion to the same level, the value of this work is diminished.

As, it would seem, is the legitimacy and prestige of the prize itself. To make such a claim is to immediately get branded an elitist, but this too misses the point. Choosing the nominees and eventual winner for the Giller prize has always been an elitist endeavour, to the extent that it has focused – rightly, in my opinion – on the strongest works of literary fiction being produced in this country. If the prize were meant as a popularity contest, why not just take the five top-ranking books on BookNet Canada’s sales rankings each year and make that the shortlist? It should go without saying that the reason for not doing this is that sales don’t equate to literary worth.

Should there be any doubt as to the elitist nature of the award, just read the comments by Elana Rabinovitch, one of the prize administrators, in the National Post. Asked about the changes to this year’s prize, Rabinovitch defended the decision to include a people’s choice aspect (which, interestingly, she claims originated entirely with the Giller administration, not with the CBC), as a way “of giving some attention to the longlist.” When asked about a tweet from the Giller Prize Twitter account, which suggested that genre fiction was not eligible for the prize, Rabinovitch responded, “it’s the literary fiction first and foremost, that’s why publishers don’t submit genre novels like detective, mysteries, novels that are in a series, and the like. They just don’t because I think it’s generally known that the award is for primarily literary fiction.”

It is also generally known that the people making the decisions about which books to honour are respected experts in the field of literature or, at minimum, well-read individuals from other walks of life who have acquired a level of discernment and taste. Unlike those who would instantly apply the kind of pejorative connotation to “elitist” that attaches to words such as “racist” or “homophobic,” I feel that there are circumstances in which expert opinion – elitist opinion, if you prefer – is not only desirable, but necessary. (Would we, for instance, trust members of the general public to perform open-heart surgery or assess the structural integrity of a high rise?) Adjudicating a literary prize of Giller’s stature – that is, a prize that has a measurable, demonstrable effect on the literary culture of this country – is one of those circumstances.

It is all well and good to say that Giller is only allowing the public to select one title for the longlist, and that the shortlist and the winner will be down to the official jury, but the legitimacy of the prize is nonetheless impacted. This is especially true given the nature of online voting contests, which, as was proved by last year’s experience with Canada Reads, has little to do with actual worth, and everything to do with who is most adept at marshalling the users of social media to vote for their book. The Giller prize has become significant in this country precisely because of the prestige that accrues to it. The choice it faces now is: does it continue to award literary merit, or does it become a popularity contest? It can’t be both.

Howard Jacobson wins the 2010 Man Booker Prize

October 12, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

This past weekend, Howard Jacobson published an article in the Guardian bemoaning the lack of attention comic novels receive among literary critics and readers of “serious” literature:

The novel was born of restless critical intelligence, and it was born laughing. “It pleases me to think,” said Milan Kundera, in the course of accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature in 1985, “that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.” If this is so, then talk of the comic novel is tautologous. If we are to be true to the form there will be only “novels” and they will be effusive with wit and humour; thereafter, to help the bookshops categorise, we can allow all the sub-species they have shelf-space for – the novel of distended plot and fatuous denouement, the novel of who cares who dunnit, the novel of what Orwell in his great defence of Henry Miller called “flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects,” the novel, to sum up, of anorexic mirthlessness. But let’s not forget that those are the anomalies.

Indeed.

As if to lend credence to Jacobson’s analysis, the Man Booker Prize jury, chaired by poet Andrew Motion, awarded The Finkler Question this year’s £50,000 honour, trumping the heavily favoured C by Tom McCarthy, and such heavy hitters as Room by Emma Donoghue and Parrot and Olivier in America by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey.

The Finkler Question is being touted as the first comic novel to win the award, which is not entirely true: DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is technically a satire, but it could be argued that the 2003 Booker winner is a comic novel (the distinction between satire and comedy is razor thin). Still, it’s nice to see a book that is not utterly morose and sombre walk away with a major literary award.

Of course, the second-guessing has already begun. On the Guardian‘s blog, Sarah Crown writes:

I – like quite a few others, if the comments on the books blogs are anything to go by – preferred [Jacobson’s] 2006 novel Kalooki Nights; it’s difficult to shake the faint sense that tonight’s prize is somewhat in the nature of a lifetime achievement award.

Nevertheless, Jacobson’s win is a validation of Flannery O’Connor’s assertion in the introduction to the second edition of her debut novel, Wise Blood: “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

It would appear that this year’s Man Booker Prize jury agrees.

Davis, Selecky, and Livingston on Frank O’Connor longlist

April 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Three Canadians have made the longlist for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Brian Joseph Davis was nominated for Ronald Reagan, My Father; Sarah Selecky for This Cake Is for the Party, and Billie Livingston for Greedy Little Eyes. Each author was recognized for a first collection; Davis and Livingston have been published previously, but this is Selecky’s debut. They are in good company, sharing the longlist with such heavyweights as T.C. Boyle, Sam Sheppard, and Richard Bausch.

The longlist will be whittled down to a half-dozen finalists in July and the winner will be announced in September.

The Frank O’Connor Award is sponsored by the Cork City Council. Previous recipients include Haruki Murakami, Simon Van Rooy, and Miranda July.

Herta Müller wins Nobel Prize for literature …

October 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Nobel Literature… and looks just pleased as punch about it.

The Romanian-born author is little-known in North America, but has a following in her adopted home of Germany, where she emigrated to in 1987. Müller was a vocal critic of the Ceausescu regime in her native country, and according to the Guardian received death threats when she refused to become an informant for the regime’s secret police. Because of her outspoken opposition to Ceausescu’s government, her books were banned in Romania, but her novel The Land of the Green Plums won the Dublin IMPAC Award in 1996.

From the Guardian:

According to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, Müller’s “moral momentum” means she fits the criteria for the award “perfectly.”

“On one hand she’s an excellent author with truly fantastic language,” he said, “and on the other she has the capacity of really giving you a sense of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship, also what it’s like to be part of a minority in another country and what it’s like to be an exile.”

Englund also praised Müller’s “extreme precision with words.” “She has been living in a dictatorship which constantly misused and abused language, and this has forced a sort of scepticism in her regarding the use of words, the use of language,” he said. “She has a very, very fine-tuned precision in her language.”

That’s the same Peter Englund who earlier this week worried aloud that the Nobel was becoming too Eurocentric. (Only two of the winners since 1994 are not European citizens.) Eurocentric or not, yr. humble correspondent’s going to go out on a limb and say that the award may still be a wee bit gender biased: Müller is only the 12th woman to win the award in 108 years.

Hilary Mantel wins Man Booker

October 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

So, along with the Giller shortlist announcement, apparently there was some other prize being awarded today across the pond? Seems like it went to Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall.

From the Man Booker website (where the person pressing the “publish” button must have had a live link-up to the banquet hall):

Hilary Mantel is tonight (Tuesday 6 October) named the winner of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall, published by Fourth Estate.

Wolf Hall has been the bookies’ favourite since the longlist was announced in July 2009.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was picked from a shortlist of six titles. A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee,  Adam Foulds, Simon Mawer, and Sarah Waters were all shortlisted for this year’s prize.

Giller longlist defies expectations

September 21, 2009 by · 5 Comments 

It didn’t take long for the grousing to begin. The Scotiabank Giller longlist had barely been announced before critics started crying foul. Where are the men? asks The Globe and Mail. (Same place the women were last year.) Where are the non-European writers, tweets The Walrus. (Was there a major novel by a Canadian writer of non-European descent published this year?) Indeed, last year, out of 15 longlisted authors, only three (Emma Donoghue, Marina Endicott, and Mary Swan) were women (Endicott and Swan went on to place in the shortlist). And seeing as Giller has in the past honoured Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji (twice), Vincent Lam, Austin Clarke, and Michael Ondaatje, the argument that there’s a white, European bias to the award seems like a non-starter (Giller is guilty of many sins, but that isn’t one of them).

There were surprises on this year’s longlist, beginning with the exclusion of Lisa Moore, whose second novel, February, was widely considered to be a strong contender to take the prize. Also absent from the longlist were Douglas Coupland (dodged a bullet there, hm, Panic?), Michael Crummey, Lori Lansens, Bonnie Burnard, John Bemrose, and Shinan Govani. (Just making sure you were paying attention.) In their place, first-time novelists Claire Holden Rothman and Jeanette Lynes nabbed spots, as did Martha Baillie, for a book published with the small Ontario press Pedlar. These could not have been considered safe bets by anyone trying to outguess this year’s jury, which is composed of author Alistair MacLeod, U.S. novelist Russell Banks, and U.K. author and journalist Victoria Glendinning.

Atwood and Michaels are, of course, represented. It’s likely Munro would have been too had she not taken her collection, Too Much Happiness, out of the running. But a number of the names on this year’s longlist are by no means intuitive. The dirty dozen, in full:

  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Martha Baillie, The Incident Report (Pedlar Press)
  • Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada)
  • Claire Holden Rothman, The Heart Specialist (Cormorant Books)
  • Paulette Jiles, The Colour of Lightning (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Jeanette Lynes, The Factory Voice (Coteau Books)
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
  • Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada)
  • Colin McAdam, Fall (Penguin Canada)
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Shani Mootoo, Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi Press)
  • Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company)

What is distressing, notwithstanding the jury’s assertion that the books “vary stylistically and structurally and connect with and extend a range of novelistic traditions,” is the preponderance of stories told in the same, blandly naturalistic style of most Giller-bait fiction. Really, the only stylistically adventurous title in the bunch is The Incident Report. Even Atwood’s futuristic dystopia employs the same flashback style that she’s been using at least since Cat’s Eye, if not well before. And if we had to have a novel about a freed slave on the list, I’d much rather it was Ray Robertson’s lively David than Jiles’s The Colour of Lightning.

Still, an interesting list. I’ll be watching for the shortlist, when it’s unveiled on October 6.

Man Booker 2009 shortlist emphasizes big names

September 8, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The 2009 Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, and it’s long on heavy hitters. Coetzee, Byatt, and Waters are all present and accounted for; James Laxer, author of the satiric mock memoir Me Cheeta and Canada’s own Ed O’Loughlin were cut.

The list in full:

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The list is not much of a corrective to Boyd Tonkin’s complaint that this year’s nominees are highly anglocentric and lack a certain adventurousness. Three of the six (Byatt, Coetzee, and Waters) are veterans of the Booker list; Byatt won in 1990 for Possession and Coetzee has won twice, in 1999 for Disgrace and in 1983 for The Life & Times of Michael K. The £50,000 prize will be awarded on October 6.

2009 Man Booker longlist lacks adventure, says one critic

July 29, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Only in Canada, eh? Well, apparently not. Followers of yr. humble correspondent’s perennial complaints about the timidity of many award juries in this country may be surprised to learn that the same complaints do occasionally surface elsewhere. Specifically, Boyd Tonkin, writing in the Independent, takes on what he feels to be a lack of boldness on the part of this year’s Man Booker jury:

We should never have expected a jury as orthodox in taste as the one James Naughtie chairs to seek out as waywardly extravagant a novel as Joseph’s Box by the Scottish doctor-author Suhayl Saadi, which drives us deep into the history and myths of Europe and south Asia alike. But, in a bolder year, he and other writers from non-corporate imprints might have stood a better chance. For all the formidable works that feature on this Man Booker baker’s dozen, it thumpingly embodies the conventional wisdom of 2009. Whiffs of cordite from the coming battle between A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin and Hilary Mantel (to pick four impressive top contenders) have been perceptible in print for several months already.

It remains to be seen whether the jury will go for a shortlist composed entirely of big names (Byatt, Coetzee, Mantel, Tóibín, and Waters), or whether they will branch out to include underdogs such as James Lever’s mock memoir Me Cheeta, about Hollywood film star Johnny Weismuller’s chimpanzee sidekick. Whatever the final outcome, however, this year’s retreat into anglocentric orthodoxy is undeniable.

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