Giller longlist highlights “essential stories” told in “familiar ways”

September 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoThe Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest award for fiction, released its longlist yesterday, and it’s safe to say that it is not a good year for small presses. Invisible Publishing scored its first ever longlist title – Elisabeth De Mariaffi’s story collection How to Get Along with Women – but otherwise, indie and regional presses were shut out of contention. Also shut out was heavyweight McClelland & Stewart, once a perennial favourite to take the prize.

By contrast, it was a relatively good day for House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada, each of which placed three titles on this year’s longlist. Anansi scored one nominee from each of its three imprints: Anansi, Astoria (short stories), and Arachnide (books in translation); newly minted HarperCollins imprint Patrick Crean Editions saw its inaugural title – David Gilmour’s latest novel, Extraordinary – appear on the longlist.

The thirteen semi-finalists for this year’s prize, which is worth a cool $50,000 to the eventual winner, are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Elisabeth De Mariaffi, How to Get Along with Women (Invisible Publishing)
  • David Gilmour, Extraordinary (Patrick Crean Editions)
  • Wayne Grady, Emancipation Day (Doubleday Canada)
  • Louis Hamelin; Wayne Grady, trans., October 1970 (House of Anansi Press)
  • Wayne Johnston, Son of a Certain Woman (Knopf Canada)
  • Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Michael Winter, Minister Without Portfolio (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

This year’s jury consists of novelists Margaret Atwood (who took her own novel, MaddAddam, out of contention to sit on the jury), Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem.

Boyden’s appearance on the list is no surprise; by any measure his is one of the heavyweight titles of the year. Also unsurprising are the nods to Messud and Moore. Boyden, Moore, Johnston, and Coady have been shortlisted for the prize previously. Winter was longlisted for his 2007 novel The Architects Are Here, but failed to make the shortlist. Boyden won the prize in 2008 for his novel Through Black Spruce; were he to do so again this year, he would become the first author to win for back-to-back books. Wayne Grady is the first author to appear on the Giller longlist as both novelist and translator.

Not represented on this year’s longlist are two titles that have been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Also absent are former Giller honourees Colin McAdam, Mary Swan, Douglas Coupland, Lauren B. Davis, Cary Fagan, and David Macfarlane.

For this first time this year, the longlist announcement took place outside Toronto, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This must have felt like something of a pyrrhic victory, since there are no West Coast authors on the list. By contrast, authors from Newfoundland did quite well: Moore, Johnston, Winter, and De Mariaffi all have ties to the province (though only Moore and De Mariaffi reside there year-round).

The jury praised the longlisted titles as “essential stories” that “offer a glimpse of who we are, who we might be.” The books are diverse in setting, but all of them privilege strong storytelling over formal technique (one reason, perhaps, that one of this year’s most formally impressive books, Douglas Glover’s story collection Savage Love, failed to make the cut).

The insistence on storytelling over style is implicit in the jury’s comment that the thirteen longlisted books “tell unknown stories in remarkably familiar ways.” This is one of the strangest comments I’ve heard from a jury for a major literary prize – a group who might reasonably be expected to value newness and fresh ways of telling stories over familiarity. It is especially surprising from a jury that includes Lethem and Atwood, both of whom have been on the vanguard of new kinds of writing in the past few years.

It’s also not clear that it’s entirely true. Boyden’s novel is set in the 1600s among the Huron and Iroquois natives and Jesuit newcomers from France: this is hardly an unknown story (think Wacousta and Black Robe, for example). What is bracing about Boyden’s book is how modern it feels: he tells a familiar story in a new way. Similarly, Johnston’s book feels like a departure for him, both in terms of subject and style, as does Moore’s.

Regardless, the emphasis on familiarity recalls the infamous Booker jury of 2011, whose contentious shortlist (which, it must be noted, included Edugyan’s Giller-winning novel Half-Blood Blues) drew criticism for promoting a false divide between quality and readability and accusations of “self-congratulatory philistinism.” The arguments in favour of privileging books people will actually read over obscure critical darlings are well-known and, in some circles, highly persuasive. But as a factor in determining a longlist for a literary award, familiarity seems passing strange.


One Response to “Giller longlist highlights “essential stories” told in “familiar ways””
  1. Jeff Bursey says:

    Steven, hi.

    It is a somewhat depressing remark by the jury — “that the thirteen longlisted books ‘tell unknown stories in remarkably familiar ways.'” — and thanks for picking up on that. You also mention the echo with the 2011 Booker concerning readability and quality, but you can stay inside Canada and look at remarks made at the 2011 Writers’ trust awards, as quoted (by me) here: