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.


12 Responses to “Some thoughts on prestige, public opinion, and the Giller prize”
  1. AJ Somerset says:

    Two things:

    1. Canada Reads is, indeed, a goofy game, but it’s not entirely lacking in cultural impact. Its producers like to brag about the “Canada Reads effect” being more pronounced than the Giller effect, and while sales is not an indicator of merit, our culture is defined by what people actually read, rather than by those books that gather dust until ChaptersIndigo returns them. The winner of Canada Reads may end up being taken far more seriously than it deserves to be. Consider that, when last I visited Halifax, The Bookmark had shelved The Best Laid Plans under “literature,” with the classics and major prize winners, rather than in the ghetto on the other side of the store, labelled “fiction.”

    2. There is no need to hold back. It is not inappropriate to observe that the essential novel of the past decade is not simply perhaps less essential than other things, but a very bad book indeed — this despite the fact that it is shelved under “literature” thanks to winning Canada Reads.

    Finally, I was interested to read that this move was intended to celebrate the long list; to me, it has the opposite effect.

  2. Nice article, Steven.

    Having been a part of the jury for the recent BC Book Awards for fiction – won by Gurjinder Basran – I have a different perspective.

    I respect what the Giller is doing. Not saying that it’s perfect. Rabinovitch definitely needs some communications training and should have done a better job of explaining the changes before dropping that galling tweet about genre fiction.

    I wish that the BC Book Awards were trying to actually engage the public, open up the process a little bit and let people participate. I have expressed this to them in writing.

    I would even go so far as to say that it would be interesting – and possibly amazing – to allow the general reading public (all 12 of them) access to the judges during or after adjudication. Maybe this could happen in the form of an online chat or a radio talk show, whatever. I think that, as an experiment, it could bear some interesting fruit.

    It would also increase the level of accountability among the judges, the prize organizers and the reading public by opening up the communication and tinkering with transparency. It could spawn some really interesting close readings of the books that capture the public imagination and illustrate the differences between the jury’s decision and the public’s reading choices.

    Each side could, over time, start to influence the other in ways that might be really beneficial for books and for public opinion of what constitutes literature and/or what’s valuable to our culture in the moment.

    The debates would be epic and open. And the arbiters of taste from all corners could have their say. The conversation threads of TSR would set records, no doubt!

    So long as we preserve the differences between the two groups and protect their autonomy. You’re absolutely right about the need for a free jury of experienced readers to decide the winner of the Giller Prize.

    But, you know, I am pro-inclusiveness and experimentation.

    Ok… this is turning into several different arguments at once, so let me close by saying this: I love that you give a shit about this and dedicate time to expressing your ideas. More people should do this. I think that it’s an important part of literary culture in Canada and I think that our awards – Giller, provincial, local, international, etc… – should embrace the conversations that are happening in places like this.

    They should respond to the web and try to be more inclusive to the reading public and I believe that this should include de-cloaking some aspects of the traditionally cloistered jury process (and yes, I have had my ears filled with rebuke to this idea several times recently, but I don’t care).

    The autonomy and power of the jury will not be compromised but enhanced by this. Awards and literature can gain from experimenting in this place.

    Readers, writers, books, publishers, bookstores, etc… gain from increased conversation, passion, openness and the insane public debates that would ensue.

    That is the kind of world that I want to live in: one where people care and one where conversation and experimentation are encouraged.

    Thanks again, Steven, for writing this!

  3. Further: we encourage and reward innovation, imagination, experimentation from our creators – writers, musicians, artists, architects, etc…

    Critics and passionate/dedicated participants in these fields keep everyone accountable. Identifying new talent, encouraging development, critically evaluating new work, working and reworking historical context, etc…

    Our public awards should be held to an equally rigorous standard by people with experience and those who care about Canadian writing.

    We should demand that they adapt, change, become better and more responsive to the needs of our literature as it changes.

    If this is the reason behind these changes at Giller then I am ok with it. If it’s a part of a focused plan to do more than ‘market’ itself – if this is merely a marketing decision then let the pillorying begin!.

    There’s a lot of change happening right now. The Giller Prize needs to get better. Last year’s fiasco and Giller’s inability to mediate the conversation around the Sentimentalists and the prize process was brutal.

    So I’m glad that there’s some newness coming out of Giller.

    But you’re right to hold them to account and demand a high level of responsibility to the process and jury accountability. I only argue that I think that it’s time to open up the process to include the critical voices of readers, critics, writers who are a part of the cultural fabric that supports the prize and makes it relevant.

  4. Trish says:

    I love Sean’s idea of opening up the dialogue between the jurors and the public. I have been trying to read all the Giller longlisted titles for the past year few years and plan to do so again this year — it would be great to chat with the jurors after the shortlist is selected to see why their picks did or didn’t match up with mine. (It seems to me that this would be an effective way to encourage more people to pay more attention to the longlist, too.)

    I very much value the opinion of the jury but was so turned off by all the scandal surrounding the jury and last year’s winner. More transparency would definitely be welcome. Video/audio recordings of jury discussions? Shared transcripts of email conversations published on the Afterword? That would be fascinating to see.

    Anyhow. Great post, Steven.

  5. Steph says:

    Excellent points, both of you, Steven and Sean. Lots to process here, because I see both sides.

  6. Pete says:

    I lodged a protest vote. Ignoring the whole “elitism” aspect (which you’ve eloquently covered), I focused on the absurdity of my choosing a favourite when so many of the books are not yet available. That, I figured, was the protest likelier to register with the organizers.

    To my surprise, the comment-vetters allowed my protest vote onto the nominations page. (It’s listed as “Pete for Large Harmonium by Susan Sorensen.” In the nomination/comment, I explain that this yet-unpublished novel, about which I have no foreknowledge or inside info, may in fact turn out to be my favourite of the year; I have no way of knowing otherwise. So how can I in good conscience withhold my endorsement from it?)

    I’ll add, though, that the Porcupine’s Quill interview with the Giller director gave me a bit more sympathy toward the initiative. They’re trying to attract more attention to the longlist. And heck, it’s their own private award, they can do whatever they like with it. But I do think the credibility takes a hit, as you’ve argued.

    Oh, and one thing I haven’t seen discussed so much in all this: isn’t it terrific that there’s now one more prize in pursuit of which writers will be expected to tweet/spam/call/harrass all their friends and co-workers and great aunts to solicit votes? Because what kind of jerk would punish her publisher and agent et al. by failing to pursue a Giller nomination?!

  7. Ruth Seeley says:

    Canada Reads is a bit of fun and it’s great to get people talking about books, of course. But a juried award with a substantial monetary reward shouldn’t have to emulate reality TV. There’s a difference between ‘best-selling Canadian novel published in 2011’ and ‘best Canadian novel written in 2011.’ If we have no awards that even attempt to identify the latter, what are we left with in critical terms?

  8. Kerry says:

    What makes me nervous is the prospect of another intiative hijacked by authors who are being pushed to self-promote and have no instincts with which to understand where the limits of self-promotion need be.

  9. AJ Somerset says:

    I agree, Kerry, but let’s not forget that one of the Canada Reads books (The Complete Essex County) was there due to a concerted promotional campaign by its publisher, which urged readers to vote early and vote often with the aim of getting a graphic novel onto the list. It’s not just authors who hijack the process.

  10. Have been under a summer rock, so just read this post today. I agree 100%, Steven. I’ve found it a head-scratcher that yet-to-be published books are garnering multiple votes. All these people have ARCS?! (I kid, of course)

    The Beaver Awards the Ceeb did, were a lark (larkier than Canada Reads) and I admit to emailing tons of people urging them to vote for Darwin’s Bastards, a book I edited, for best Sci-Fi or Fantasy (and won! beating out William Gibson, so that’s wacky enough).

    But I would be deeply ashamed to ask even one person to “vote” for a book of mine to be included on Giller long-list, as any author should be. How utterly embarrassing it would be to find yourself on the list simply because you have a large extended family and/or excellent social media skills.

    This whole enterprise casts a pall on the 2011 Giller, and I’ll be very interested to hear the judges’ views on this “contest” sometime in the future. I’ve been asking myself, if I were a Giller judge, would I agree to continue in light of a people’s choice contest like this? I don’t know, but would feel incredibly uncomfortable and conflicted and would certainly protest it.

    A bit of advice for reader/voters: If you want to support book culture in this country and make authors happy, “vote” with your pocket book and buy the book you love and buy for it for all your friends.

  11. “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.”

    Are you f*cking kidding me?

  12. Shannon Rupp says:

    Nice piece Steven. I agree with you whole-heartedly: I’m not interested in finding out which author has the greatest command of Twitter. I don’t believe that’s what any reader is looking for in a book.

    But more than that, I find it embarrassing to watch writers lobbying for votes like political campaigners. I think it’s degrading. I cursed the whole wretched business over at “Why call it Canada Reads; Should be Authors Beg”