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.”

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