Surprising Giller longlist avoids big names

September 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoMargaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donoghue. Thomas King.

These are among the heavy hitters of CanLit who failed to land a spot on a startling 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. In their place are two collections of short stories, a debut novel from 2013, and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Air India disaster.

The longlist in full:

  • Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu (ECW Press)
  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada)
  • American Innovations by Rivka Galchen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Tell by Frances Itani (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (ECW Press)
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Random House Canada)
  • Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo (Doubleday Canada)
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)
  • My October by Claire Holden Rothman (Penguin Canada)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
  • The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada)

Of the dozen books that made the cut, only the Toews was a foregone conclusion. All My Puny Sorrows is not only the novelist’s best-reviewed book since her 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, A Complicated Kindness, it is an early contender for book of the year on many commentators’ lists.

Other than that, the longlist is a bit of a shock, as much for what is excluded as for what appears. House of Anansi Press (which published last year’s winner, Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing) was shut out for the first time since 2007. Toronto’s ECW Press, on the other hand, scored two spots on this year’s list, one of them for a book (LoveGrove’s debut novel) that was published in late fall 2013.

HarperCollins Canada is the big winner, with four entries; Random House Canada and its various imprints count for another four. (Of course, if you count Penguin Random House as a single entity, it dominates the list with five out of twelve.)

Biblioasis is represented for the first time since 2011, when Clark Blaise’s story collection The Meagre Tarmac was longlisted for the prize. The Windsor, Ontario, publisher appears on the 2014 longlist with another story collection, for my money, one of the strongest books of the year. Rivka Galchen is the author of the other longlisted collection, her follow-up to the well received 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Geographically, Montreal is the big winner this year: Basu is based in the city, as is Michaels, and two of the other books have strong ties there. Rothman’s novel uses the FLQ crisis as a springboard for a family saga, and O’Neill’s sophomore novel has been called a Two Solitudes for the millennial generation. (Rothman and O’Neill both also reside in the city.) This year’s longlist announcement took place in Montreal, and also contained news that the prize money is doubling, with $100,000 going to the winner and $10,000 to each of the other shortlisted authors.

The 2014 jury consists of Canadian novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin, British novelist Justin Cartwright, and American novelist and essayist Francine Prose. In a statement, the jury says, “We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences. Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”

The idea of “writers brave enough to change public discourse” carries with it a whiff of sanctimony: like the recent iteration of CBC’s Canada Reads, it appears the driving impulse behind choosing this list is not what is good, so much as what is good for us. (Which is not to deny the real literary strength of a number of the longlisted titles.) Large themes dominate – war (Tell), terrorism (The Ever After of Ashwin Rao), assisted suicide (All My Puny Sorrows), gender politics (Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab), Zionism (The Betrayers), religion (Watch How We Walk) – but books more focused on aesthetic performance and story (K.D. Miller’s All Saints, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress) or that play with form in ambitious or unconventional ways (André Alexis’s Pastoral, Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters, Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country) have been left out.

The story collections, typically, represent the most stylistically audacious books on the list; Basu has written what might be described as an existential mystery novel, while Sean Michaels’ novel is an unconventional fictionalized biography of the man who invented the theremin (and was also a Soviet spy).

But on points, this longlist is surprising. The shortlist of five (or possibly six) titles culled from this dozen could go in numerous directions: it could feature mostly smaller, quirkier works, or it could be made up exclusively of novels from two multinational houses. Or (more likely) it could fall somewhere in between. If I were a betting man, I’d suggest the only sure thing is that Toews finds a place on the shortlist, probably alongside O’Neill and Bezmozgis. Then again, when betting on the Giller, previous experience (and the current longlist itself) has shown that safe bets are often illusory, and the house usually wins.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of nominations for Random House Canada and its imprints. The post has been amended to reflect the actual number.


4 Responses to “Surprising Giller longlist avoids big names”
  1. This isn’t in any way a comment on the merits or otherwise of the books nominated or not nominated, but what I’m really curious about is why the commentary following these announcements inevitably tends to centre around whether “big names” were left on or off. Why the assumption that just because someone is a big name author they’ve written a good or great book?

    Case in point (a non-Canadian example), Ian McEwan’s latest, The Children Act. Pretty much a dud. From the guy who wrote Amsterdam, Atonement, The Cement Garden, and Solar, etc — it happens. There must be myriad reasons a masterful writer writes a bad, dull, or mediocre book.

    So why is it a big deal when a debut novel, or a collection of short fiction (gasp!)* gets a nod? And why is it surprising when a small house (in this case ECW) has a couple of nominees?

    They’re all a crap shoot anyways, right, these fall greyhound races?

    *I’m talking about the collective gasp etc, not about your personal take, Steven.

  2. Jeff Bursey says:

    “These are among the heavy hitters of CanLit who failed to land a spot on a startling 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. In their place are two collections of short stories, a debut novel from 2013, and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Air India disaster.”

    I wonder about the phrase “In their place,” as it seems to imply (and this may be entirely incorrect) that while the big names were absent from the awards room their seats were taken by the equivalent of literary placeholders, and that it’s only a temporary matter till all gets back to normal again. Pretty sure this is not what you mean, Steve, for after all, you championed Chris Eaton and S.D. Chrostowska’s latest novels. Maybe part of the change in “public discourse” mentioned by the jurors is getting away, in some fashion, from the ever-familiar names and encouraging lesser-known writers.

  3. André Alexis says:

    I’m no convinced there’s a “collective gasp” – at least, in Canada – where literary prizes are concerned. And I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about the mention of “big names” in these commentaries on prize nominations. The mention of Atwood or David Adams Richards or (choose your “heavy hitter”) has to do with name recognition. A newspaper’s or magazine’s readers are more likely to recognize Atwood, et al. Expressing surprise at the exclusion of the writer of a good but obscure book will draw blanks. By definition beginning writers or “obscure writers” are unknown commodities to the public. So, the commentator would in effect be saying “this thing you’re likely to know nothing about has been excluded from consideration for this prize”. Not a winning headline, even if true. Headlines trump truth.

    The same applies to mentions of smaller presses, I guess, but here I kind of agree with you, Zsuzsi. Small presses, in Canada, have traditionally been the places where the “heavy hitters” come from or get their start. In the past, they’ve been pilot fishes: essential to the health of literature if not of publishing. Nowadays, though, a press like ECW is one of the rare alternatives to the conglomerates who’re looking only for what will sell in bulk. I do think ECW or Biblioasis or (pick a small press) have become more precious, in these times, and we should be celebrating them, rather than being content to express surprise at their “successes” – that’s if you believe that a Giller nomination is proof of “success”, as opposed to the by-product of chance and circumstance.

    (Just by the way: yes, it’s more than possible for a good writer to write a dud. I like some of Ian McEwan’s work but Amsterdam – a terrible novel – won the Booker. I bet even McEwan wonders why this book won and that one (Black Dogs, say) didn’t? As a writer, one hopes for a nomination, because nominations bring attention to one’s work. But why juries choose what they choose is, as they say, a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, and served with lettuce.)

  4. The Lit Bandit says:

    When jurors decide to base their selections on an arbitrary “world view,” awards fail. Perhaps next year’s Giller will honor those works which best portray the wholesomeness of dairy products. Concept: how about a Canadian literary prize whose purpose is to reward great writing and writers? It would at least have the appeal of novelty…