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.

31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 18: “The Loop” by Alexander MacLeod

May 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Light Lifting

Alexander MacLeod’s story The Loop is about borders: between young and old, between safety and danger. It is narrated by Allan, a 12-year-old boy who makes bicycle deliveries for a local pharmacy. The title of the story refers to the boy’s delivery route, which usually begins with Barney, a shut-in who “had everything wrong with him. Diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, a liver thing and some kind of circulation issue that made his feet swell up so badly that he couldn’t wear shoes and could barely walk.” Rumours swirl around town that Barney “had a thing for kids and couldn’t keep his hands off little boys.” MacLeod’s descriptions of Barney are grotesque in their detail: he is “horrible, fat, nearly naked,” usually clad only in “a pair of nylon track shorts that almost disappeared when they got sucked between the folds of his rolling gut and his wide, hairy thighs,” and in the humid summers his “whole body would get this greasy sheen.” But Barney is renowned for one thing in particular:

He was famous mostly for his hernia. It was this red pulsating growth about the size of a misshapen grapefruit and it bulged way out of the lower left side of his stomach. It seemed like something impossible, like one of those gross, special effects from an alien movie that was supposed to make you think there was a smaller creature in there. Just the shape of it, and the way it stuck out of him, and how it seemed to come right at you, could make a person squirm if they weren’t used to it. But he refused to get it fixed and he was always making a big deal about how tough he was and how it didn’t bother him at all. He thought it was funny to pull back his shirt and scare the little kids as they walked by.

It is perhaps natural that a 12-year-old boy should fixate upon the hideous physical deformities of an older man: this is, after all, exactly the kind of thing that captures a pre-adolescent male’s attention and imagination. Still less comfortable is the boy’s admission that he is charged with taking new issues of various skin magazines with him on his rounds, magazines that Barney has no compunction about sharing with his young visitor: “‘Look at that one,’ he’d say and he’d hold up some crazed picture of an orgy that was supposed to be taking place in a working garage with five or six people, men and women, all tangled up around each other and bent over the hoods of cars.” The fact that Barney devours heterosexual porn tends to suggest that the rumours about him are exaggerated; nevertheless, there is something creepily disconcerting about his willingness to engage the 12-year-old delivery boy in discussions of sexual subject matter (one of many borders that get crossed in MacLeod’s story).

Although Barney’s behaviour around Allan is clearly inappropriate, he is by no means the only person to transgress the boundaries of good taste or propriety. Old Mrs. McKay, for instance, exposes herself to Allan and forces him to examine a boil on her breast; the distressed boy admits that this is the first time he has seen “those hidden parts of a woman’s body” anywhere other than in Barney’s magazines, which “didn’t count for anything.” Mrs. McKay’s ailment is described in close, clinical detail similar to the description of Barney’s hernia:

She’d pulled back her shirt far enough that I could see nearly her entire breast. It was a thin, used-up looking thing and almost the same white colour you’d link up with one of those ugly fish that live in some deep trench at the bottom of the ocean and have never seen light. The skin was criss-crossed with a purplish-blue network of veins and there were long, very long, black bristles growing around the nipple. Just below, you could see the problem – a big, yellowish cyst, like the biggest pimple you can imagine, but circled in a dark red sore colour. It looked very bad, almost ready to burst and there was a shiny liquid film oozing out of it.

“What do you think I should do?” Mrs. McKay asks. “You work for the doctor’s, don’t you? What do you think?” Mrs. McKay is only one of several people who treats Allan as though he were of a much more advanced age and level of experience. His employer, Musgrave, sends the boy on rounds with no thought to whether the cycling will be treacherous or the area of town he is being dispatched to might be dodgy. After a particularly bad accident on his bike, Allan returns to the pharmacy, where Marlene, one of the clerks, tends to his wounds.”There’s no place he wouldn’t send you,” Marlene says. “Nowhere is too far. Just the thought of it. On a day like today. You’re lucky you’re still alive.” Marlene, we are told, speaks to Allan as though they “were suddenly the same age and … had both been in [their] jobs too long.”

The final border that gets crossed is physical: the threshold of Barney’s house, which Allan had sworn to himself he would never set foot over, just in case the town’s rumour mill was accurate. But one day he goes to make his usual delivery and spies Barney through the window, collapsed and unmoving on the floor. The boy’s first thought is that this is how Barney entices his young victims into the house before assaulting them. But he quickly realizes that the man is in deep trouble, and against all his instincts, he ventures into the house and performs mouth-to-mouth while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. When the ambulance attendants show up, they too treat Allan as though he were an adult and assume that he will follow them to the hospital to care for Barney.

The end of the story has the boy deciding to leave Musgrave’s employ and try to recapture some of his lost innocence. “More than anything,” he muses, “I wanted to go home and be exactly my own age for as long as I could.” Having crossed the threshold into Barney’s home, however, having voluntarily taken on such a profound responsibility for another human being, it is impossible to return to his previous existence. In a real way, he has left his childhood behind – prematurely, no doubt, but irrevocably.

When he returns to Musgrave’s after his bicycle accident, Marlene helps him by applying rubbing alcohol to his abrasions. “It’s going to hurt, Allan,” she says. “But what can you do?” MacLeod’s story of borders and lost childhood is in many ways a comment on the travails of life itself: it’s going to hurt, but what can you do?

Notable books of 2010

December 15, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future, or so the song has it. It is December, which is the time of year for list-making, for looking back on the previous 12 months and cobbling together roundups of the best books, movies, music, etc. Traditionally, December is the time I take stock of how much I haven’t read: how many interesting or well-received titles have slipped by in the crush of work obligations, paid reviews, reading for literary juries and panels. This is not to suggest that these endeavours don’t yield riches, but I’m constantly amazed at this time of year how much I have fallen short of the mark in terms of what I intended to read. At the beginning of October, I compiled a list of eight books I wanted to read if I could find the time. By the middle of December, how many of that octet have I managed to get to? Precisely zero.

Which is not to say that I haven’t been reading: my various professional obligations ensure that I’ve been doing little else. Anyone who reads for a living will inevitably find that much of what gets published is unremarkable: of the thousands of books that are produced each year, any number will be competently executed, even enjoyable, but very few leave a lasting impression. Glancing back over my reading in 2010, I’m struck by how much of it was adequate, but forgettable; how many books were perfectly serviceable, but have not lingered in my memory.

Still, there were some high points. What follows is not a list of the best books of the year, because there’s no way for me to know (have I mentioned how many books I haven’t read from the past year?). Rather, these are books that stayed with me. For whatever reason, these books made an impression.

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: It’s rare to find a work of fiction that so carefully and lovingly details the specifics of people working. Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 collection, Once, did this, and so does Alexander MacLeod’s remarkable debut. The characters MacLeod focuses on are not the recondite aesthetes or romantics of so much CanLit: they are bricklayers and delivery boys, runners and auto mechanics. The details of their exertions are rendered so vividly, with such precision, that a reader comes away from these stories feeling almost physically wounded. MacLeod’s interest in characters at decisive moments in their lives is reminiscent of O’Connor; his ability to evoke entire worlds in the span of 30 pages rivals Munro. Truly one of the most impressive literary debuts in a long, long time.

Kaleidoscope: Selected Poems by P.K. Page: The year got off to a melancholy start; January saw the death of P.K. Page, one of Canada’s towering poets. Page’s longtime publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has inaugurated a ten-year scholarly project that will collect all of the poet’s work online, and will be accompanied by a series of print volumes. The first of these, edited by Zailig Pollock, offers a chronological overview of Page’s development as a poet, including work from 1941 right through 2009’s Coal and Roses. The poems in Kaleidoscope are a testament to Page’s wit, erudition, spiritualism, and complete poetic mastery.

Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s “climate change comedy” is a return to form following a group of lacklustre novels. The story of Michael Beard, a slovenly, overweight physicist whose wife has finally left him after a string of infidelities, Solar marries blistering comedy with McEwan’s penchant for cascading ironies, and bundles it all into a fast-paced, tightly constructed narrative.

The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter: Channelling the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood and the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song, novelist Winter crafts a corrosive work of “documentary fiction” from the story of a St. John’s woman who was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1993. Employing a fractured narrative that incorporates police wiretaps, court transcripts, and interviews with the participants, the author builds a collage-like tale of institutional corruption, betrayal, and a brazen miscarriage of justice. Though it’s by no means an easy book, The Death of Donna Whalen is nonetheless one of the most technically ambitious novels I encountered in 2010.

A Hunter’s Confession by David Carpenter: Not so much an apologia for the practice of hunting as an examination of its cultural, philosophical, and spiritual aspects, Carpenter’s book is a heartfelt attempt by an erstwhile hunter to grapple with the conflicting emotions and ambivalence the subject provokes for him. He examines hunting from a variety of perspectives: hunting in literature, women and hunting, the importance of hunting to Native societies. Ultimately, he concludes that there is an unavoidable morality attached to the hunt, and that it is not necessarily contradictory to claim that one is simultaneously a hunter and an environmentalist. Whatever a reader’s personal feelings about hunting, Carpenter’s book represents a serious, thoughtful, and eloquent paean to a way of life that “has fallen out of favor and out of fashion.”

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips: The high-school novel for young adults is difficult to make fresh; Phillips pulls out all the stops by telling her story in verse and shuffling the perspective between four students and their officious English teacher. Phillips does a remarkable job characterizing the students using only their various voices: Natalie, the manipulative new kid at school; Kyle, the would-be musician; Tricia, the good girl who gets caught up in Natalie’s world of partying and danger; and Miguel, the Central American immigrant struggling to adapt to a world that seems utterly foreign. The teacher, who criticizes Miguel for the violence in his description of a massacre in his home country, is a vivid example of the ways in which adults become entirely disconnected from the concerns of the adolescents they are charged with helping. Phillips won a Governor General’s award for this innovative, provocative novel.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter: This book snuck up on me. By all rights I shouldn’t have liked it, because it includes a number of elements toward which I’m normally antipathetic: a family saga, lyrical writing, a narrative steeped in a sense of place. But Winter’s strong feeling for story, her refusal to reduce her characters to a simple set of binary opposites, and her achievement in creating one of the most memorable fictional fathers in ages set this one apart for me. This story of an intersex child struggling to carve out an identity for himself, and the community that alternately helps and hinders him, is one of the most pleasant reading surprises I had this year.

Fauna by Allisa York: Another novel with a strong sense of place: this time the hidden corners of Toronto’s Don Valley. York’s story of a group of misfits who populate an ad hoc animal shelter in the city’s core showcases the author’s skill with juggling multiple storylines and her facility for crafting beautiful sentences.

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess: If David Cronenberg ever adapted an Alice Munro story, it might turn out something like this.

Girl Crazy by Russell Smith: The story of Justin Harrison, a professor at a technical college who becomes obsessed with a younger woman he saves on the street, Smith’s novel shines an often uncomfortable light on the subject of male sexuality and its attendant desires and perils. As Justin spirals deeper into a miasma of lust and desperation, the story becomes increasingly dark, finally releasing the protagonist to pursue a course that can only end badly. Smith’s satiric eye is in fine form here, as is his careful hand in structuring a novel. Part dark comedy, part neo-noir, Girl Crazy is a brisk, bracing book that takes the reader for one hell of a ride. Love it or hate it, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 4

November 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Light Lifting. Alexander MacLeod; $19.95 paper 978-1-897231-94-1, 224 pp., Biblioasis.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Journey Prize (“Miracle Mile,” nominee 2009)

From the publisher: “These are elemental stories of work and its bonds, of tragedy and tragedy barely averted, but also of beauty, love, and fragile understanding.”

From reviews: “Almost all MacLeod’s stories revolve around people being bustlingly active at work or play. His characters swim and play hockey, they lay bricks and they build cars. All these exertions are described with such knife-sharp precision and finesse that your own muscles may start tensing up as you read them.” – Jeet Heer, National Post

“The narrators of Light Lifting are often working-class men and boys, and the Windsor-raised MacLeod, a holder of three university degrees and the son of noted author and professor Alistair MacLeod, struggles at times to inhabit their thoughts.” – The Walrus

“This collection blew me away, start to finish.” – Rebecca Rosenblum

“It really is a stone motherfucker of a book.” – Robert J. Wiersema

My reaction: There is a brute physicality to Alexander MacLeod’s prose in these seven stories. Whether he is describing the tension in a runner’s body or a swimmer’s early immersion in unforgiving water, MacLeod’s prose zeros in on the precise details of physical exertion and activity; he is a master at creating what Flannery O’Connor referred to as “a world with weight and extension.” Note the almost surgical exactitude with which he describes the incremental damage that bricklayers’ bodies undergo in the collection’s title story:

Anyone who’s ever done this kind of work can tell you that bending over is the worst part of it. Bending over and getting up, and then bending over and getting up again – it’s like you’re folding and unfolding your body all day. You get creaky. And just that little bit of weight – just the weight that’s in a couple of bricks – that’s enough to grind you down. Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage. Maybe it’s just thirty pounds and it starts off slow, but it stays with you all day and then it hangs around in your arms and legs even after you leave. That kind of lifting hits you in the knees first and then in your shoulders and neck. It used to surprise our summer student kids. It would catch them off-guard, usually in the early afternoon, just after lunch. One minute they’d be loud and laughing and tossing the brick around like it was nothing and then, all of a sudden, that little grinding pain would wind up and get hold of them. You could almost see it tightening around them. It was like they got old all at once. They’d hunch over and get really quiet and start concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong.

The language here is flayed to the marrow; the movement of the paragraph from the general to the specific, from the idea of “folding and unfolding your body all day” to the stark surprise in “that little grinding pain,” is tightly controlled and deliberately released. The image of the summer kids who “got old all at once” and ended up hunched over, “concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong,” is perfectly appropriate and perfectly unobtrusive: like the best stylists, MacLeod never calls attention to his technique, but embeds it seamlessly into his narrative.

The stories in Light Lifting involve characters at decisive moments in their lives, moments that reverberate with implication. The young bicycle delivery boy in “The Loop” crosses the threshold of a house that may contain imminent danger; his action changes him irrevocably, such that he can never return to the innocence of his childhood, no matter how much he may want to do so. A woman who struggled mightily with her fear of the water takes a daredevil dive off the roof of a hotel into the Detroit River. And a competitive runner explodes in a moment of violence when the endeavour he has devoted his life to is unthinkingly called into question.

Tough, urban, and contemporary, these stories offer unflinching glimpses into individual lives; they are stylistically assured and emotionally resonant. And throughout, MacLeod accomplishes one of the most difficult tasks a fiction writer can undertake: he makes his work appear effortless.

Alexander MacLeod speaks about Light Lifting

October 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Alexander MacLeod, author of the kick-ass, Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted story collection Light Lifting, gets interviewed by some jackass.

A Giller shortlist that could make a curmudgeon squee

October 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Apologies for being tardy to the party, but yr. humble correspondent has been out celebrating. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced at a press conference in Toronto yesterday. Two thirds of this year’s jury, Claire Messud and Michael Enright, were on hand (the third juror, Ali Smith, was unable to attend), and announced their choices for the final five with dignity and poise. The same could not be said of one frequently bitter and acerbic member of the audience, who, tucked away in the back corner of the room, was almost turning cartwheels as each successive name was read.

Basically, this year’s jury delivered my dream shortlist, a group of books that favour small presses over large, new names over old, and a startling array of genres and approaches. The shortlist in full:

  • The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)
  • This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

In case you’re keeping track, that makes two collections of short stories (both from debut authors), and two first novels. Four of the five books are published by small or medium-sized presses, all of which are Canadian owned.

Even the one heavy hitter, David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris, is something of an anomaly. The novel, which has been compared favourably to Saul Bellow’s Herzog, sees the author eschewing the ponderous heaviness of his most recent books, The Time In Between and The Retreat in favour of a more comic mode and a more personal story. The book is a return for Bergen, in more ways than one. On the publishing side, it marks a return to HarperCollins, Bergen’s early publisher, after a handful of books with McClelland & Stewart. One of those, The Time in Between, nabbed him the Giller in 2005, meaning he’s not only the lone member of this year’s finalists to be making a return appearance at the gala dinner, he’s also in the running to join Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji as one of the only authors ever to win the prize twice.

I wouldn’t lay any money on that outcome, however. If this year’s jury has proven anything at all, it’s that they are beholden to no orthodoxy, and willing to toss all accepted verities to the wind. We could still see a repeat of 2006, when the lone book from a multinational house walked away with the prize, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. At the very least, there is no clear frontrunner this year, which means that the November 9 broadcast of the awards ceremony should be an exciting affair (for a change).

There have been rumblings of concern from booksellers who fear that the smaller houses such as Biblioasis and Gaspereau Press won’t be able to supply sufficient stock to satisfy customer demand for the shortlist. Skibsrud’s book, which was published in 2009, is already out of stock at many locations across the country, and although publisher Gary Dunfield told Quill & Quire that the company planned to reprint, they were busy printing their fall books, which makes scheduling an issue:

According to Dunfield, the press is going to do everything it can to capitalize on the nomination, but it can’t afford to postpone forthcoming titles. “That would be a very bad idea,” he says.

This is a problem for small houses nominated for big prizes: in some cases, the nomination actually costs them money. For all the talk of a “Giller effect,” it isn’t clear that people will buy the entire shortlist (despite Jack Rabinovitch’s annual claim that the shortlist can be purchased for the price of a meal in a Toronto restaurant). Most people seem to wait for the winner to be announced, then buy that book alone. Not surprisingly, publishers of this year’s nominated titles are being cautious in the size of their reprints.

The other problem this year will be in marketing the prize itself. There are no household names on the list; instead of trumpeting the iconic status of the authors, the people promoting this year’s prize will need to introduce these authors to the book-buying public. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that they have their work cut out for them.

But one thing a prize of Giller’s stature should accomplish is broadening the focus of Canadians’ ideas about their national literature, and encouraging the literary heterogeneity that frequently goes unnoticed amidst the clamour of blockbuster books and celebrity authors. On this score, the 2010 Giller jury has done a remarkable job. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this is the most exciting shortlist in the prize’s 17-year history.

Once again, I will read (or in MacLeod’s case, reread) the five shortlisted books. The difference this year is that instead of staring down this task with a sense of encroaching dread, I approach it with anticipation and delight. All thanks to this year’s runaway jury for giving an inveterate curmudgeon something to smile about.

Alexander MacLeod’s Toronto launch tonight

September 21, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Put it this way: if you ever wanted to cross over that gap, if you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else. You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done. There’s nothing new about this stuff. You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good – I mean truly good – at anything. Burner and I, and all those other guys, we understood this. We knew all about it. Every pure specialist is the same way so either you know what I’m talking about of you do not.

“Miracle Mile,” Alexander MacLeod

Sometimes a debut collection appears that’s so assured, so confident, so poised that it’s hard to believe it’s the author’s first time out of the gate. This was true of Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 debut, Once, and it also applies to Alexander MacLeod’s newly Giller-longlisted collection Light Lifting. (Like Rosenblum’s book, Light Lifting is published by Biblioasis, a press which seems to have some kind of alchemical formula for discovering talent in the short fiction arena.)

Not that MacLeod’s book appeared fully formed as if out of Zeus’s head. The author published his first story when he was 21 years old. He’s now on the cusp of 40, so the seven stories in his collection have clearly been percolating for quite some time. Such patience and dedication is apparent on every page of MacLeod’s staggering debut, which collects a group of tough-minded urban tales about people at defining moments in their lives – moments that often involve a recourse to violence or harm.

Each story is a small stylistic marvel. “Adult Beginner I” features a potent, vertiginous scene – one of the most visceral in recent memory – of a swimmer attempting a daredevil dive off a hotel roof into the Detroit River. “Wonder About Parents” employs staccato, declarative sentences to trace the trajectory of a relationship through the prism of a head lice infestation at an elementary school. The title story, about the macho dynamics of a bricklaying crew, opens with a scalding description of a sunburn: “You could see it right through his shirt. Like grease coming through waxed paper. Wet and thick like that, sticking to him. Purple.”

The standout is the opener, “Miracle Mile,” about a pair of competitive runners who spend their free time outrunning locomotives in a grimy tunnel. It begins with a moment of violence – Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear – and ends with a very different act of violence that opens the implications of the story and its characters outward in a manner both bruising and vaguely mysterious.

Unsparing and crystalline, each of these superbly crafted stories contains a fully realized glimpse into a corner of the world that is unique and coruscating. Comparisons with Alice Munro are not unwarranted.

The Toronto launch for Light Lifting happens tonight at the Gladstone Hotel, featuring an onstage interview with the author, conducted by yr. humble correspondent, and music by the MacLeod family in support of their newly released CD, For Sale As Is. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. and there is a $5.00 cover charge.