David Mitchell out; Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson, and Karen Joy Fowler in on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist

September 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoAnyone who had money on David Mitchell going all the way with this year’s Man Booker Prize will need to pony up this morning. The author’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, which has been roundly hailed as a masterpiece on both sides of the Atlantic, was shut out of the shortlist for the prize, which culled a list of thirteen books down to six.

Two Americans made the cut: Joshua Ferris for his sophomore novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and Karen Joy Fowler for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler represents a populist note in a list that otherwise tilts toward more literary fare.

This was the first year the prize was open to writers outside the Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe; many critics felt that allowing U.S. authors to compete would result in another avenue for American cultural hegemony, though that worry proved chimerical, at least for the current calendar year: the other three books on the shortlist are all by authors who would have been eligible prior to the controversial rule change. (No Canadians made the 2014 longlist.)

Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the 2010 prize (and who is currently working on a “reboot” of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), got the nod for his dystopian novel J. Ali Smith, a previous nominee for The Accidental (in 2001) and Hotel World (in 2005), is nominated for her new novel How to Be Both. Australian Richard Flanagan is shortlisted for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Neel Mukherjee rounds out the list with his novel The Lives of Others.

A.C. Grayling, chair of the 2014 judging panel, is quoted on the Man Booker website as saying, “We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”

The other jurors are Jonathan Bate, author and provost of Worcester College; Sarah Churchwell, author and academic; Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist (described as “the first pure scientist to be a Man Booker judge”); Alastair Niven, fellow of Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford; and Erica Wagner, author and journalist.

This year’s prize has already caused consternation for a “lack of big names” and a number of titles that were unpublished at the time of the longlist announcement. In the same article, John Dugdale writes about what he sees as the relative provincialism of this year’s longlist of titles:

With notable exceptions, American novelists tend to write about the U.S., and none of the four – Joshua Ferris, Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers – set their selected books abroad. So although non-western countries are depicted in works by Flanagan, Neel Mukherjee, and Joseph O’Neill, there’s a marked sense of restricted horizons when set against a 2013 longlist full of travellers and immigrants, and in which [Eleanor] Catton, NoViolet Bulawayo, Richard House, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ruth Ozeki all pulled off ambitious intercontinental narratives.

The winner of the £50,000 purse will be announced on October 14. Last year’s prize went to Catton for her second novel, The Luminaries.

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.

Scotiabank Giller longlist features surprise inclusions, omissions

September 20, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

No one can accuse them of being predictable. Anyone who was trying to outguess this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury – made up of broadcaster Michael Enright, novelist Claire Messud, and novelist and short-story writer Ali Smith – likely spent most of the day scratching their heads over the 2010 longlist. Granted, most of the mainstays on CanLit prize lists don’t have books out this year, the exception being Jane Urquhart, who has indeed found a spot among the baker’s dozen announced today. I’d say she’s pretty much a shoo-in to make the shortlist, too, but if today is any indication of how things will proceed from here, such prognostication is foolish in the extreme.

This year’s jury tilted toward lesser-known names and smaller publishing houses, in the process passing over some of the best-reviewed books of the year, such as Miguel Syjuco’s Illustrado (which has already won the Asian Man Booker Prize), Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (winner of the Betty Trask Award and longlisted for the IMPAC and the Orange Prize), and Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize). In their place, the jury chose books by Johanna Skibsrud and Cordelia Strube, both of which were published in calendar year 2009, debut story collections by Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky, and a thriller set in Israel by Avner Mandelman, a virtual unknown here in Canada, despite having previously published two books with the small press Oberon. (Like Mary Swan in 2008, Mandelman’s new book doesn’t even have a Canadian publisher: it’s published by Other Press in the States and distributed here by Random House of Canada.)

Truly, this is one of the most bizarre longlists any Giller jury has produced. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The list in full:

  • David Bergen, The Matter with Morris (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Douglas Coupland, Player One (House of Anansi Press)
  • Michael Helm, Cities of Refuge (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting (Biblioasis)
  • Avner Mandelman, The Debba (Other Press)
  • Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press)
  • Sarah Selecky, This Cake Is for the Party (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press)
  • Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)
  • Joan Thomas, Curiosity (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Dianne Warren, Cool Water (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Kathleen Winter, Annabel (House of Anansi Press)

At three nominations, McClelland & Stewart leads the pack, followed by HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press with two apiece. Like The Debba, Tom Rachman’s bestseller The Imperfectionists is published by an American house, The Dial Press, and distributed here in Canada by Random. The author is Toronto-born but currently lives in Rome.

The jury also tapped Douglas Coupland for his idiosyncratic Massey Lectures, Player One, which take the form of a novel. (Writing in The Globe and Mail, John Barber says this is “the first lecture series nominated for a literary award,” which is not entirely true: John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, won the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award.) Where Coupland’s novel is concerned, at least one person would beg to differ with the jury’s assessment: writing in the Telegraph, Ian Crichtley said that the book’s characters are “more like computer avatars than people,” and that they “become more long-winded the more dire their situation becomes.”

Of the longlist, the jury writes, “This is a vibrant and exciting list. We came very harmoniously to our final decision, which, in the ranging of its featured books between astonishing debuts and brilliant new work by already well-known, major Canadian writers, and between the historical and the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, the long, the short, and the unexpected in both story and form, stands as a showcase in its own right of the vision, the energy, the internationalism, and the open-eyed versatility of contemporary Canadian fiction.”

The key word, of course, being “unexpected.” I had high hopes for this year’s jury, given that two out of the three members are from outside the country and thus not prone (one would expect) to fall back on the traditionally accepted verities of CanLit. And both Smith and Messud have boundary-pushing sensibilities, which led me to hope that we might see something a bit more out of the box emerge from this year’s prize. So far, the jury has not disappointed. This is a truly eclectic and, yes, unexpected list. If the jury maintains the courage of its convictions, the 2010 shortlist, which is to be announced on October 5, has the potential to be the most interesting group of books since 2006. Then again, we all know how things turned out that year.

Stay tuned.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 13: “Virtual” by Ali Smith

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Other Stories and Other Stories

How do we care for one another in a postmodern world? What constitutes human connection and how are these fragile bonds formed? In a world that is defined by its seemingly insatiable appetites – for food, for sex, for drugs, for technology – how do we know when we’ve had enough?

The collection that contains Ali Smith’s story “Virtual” was first published in 1999, just as the Internet was gaining real traction in mainstream society. Eleven years on, the story continues to resonate; its spare, almost minimalist technique seems perfectly suited to a society that has lost its ability to forge connections on a deep or meaningful level, and to a time when issues of self-image are defined by an increasingly artificial media and celebrity culture. Smith’s story addresses big issues – death, the nature of identity, loneliness, and isolation – but it eschews didacticism in favour of a quietly elliptical approach.

Practically no one is named in the story. There is a first-person narrator, whose aunt is in hospital for an unspecified operation involving “something unmentionable down there.” There is a girl in the bed opposite the aunt, with “dark hair and dark eyes and the paleness and seriousness of face of one of those painted Pre-Raphaelite heroines.” There are the girl’s mother, father, and younger brother and sister. Only Edith, a new patient in the aunt’s hospital room, is named. Edith never speaks in the story, and as a character she is insignificant; her only function is to listen to the aunt ramble on. (At one point we are told that Edith “was listening and nodding and adding her own commentary,” but this commentary is not provided for us.) What we have, then, is a series of nameless figures, differentiated only by generic identifiers.

Except for the “Pre-Raphaelite” girl in the next bed. When the narrator first spies her, she is struck by the beauty of the girl’s face, but when the covers are removed from the girl’s bed, the narrator is taken aback by what she sees: “Her arms were like the arms of a starving child. Her legs, swollen by the huge knuckles of their knees and ankles, were like the legs of one of those white bodies from the last war dead on the ground and bulldozed into a pit.” The girl is anorexic, and her condition has necessitated that she drop out of university. Or, as the aunt puts it, “There’s nothing actually wrong with her so to speak. She just won’t eat.”

The narrator becomes obsessed by this girl who “just won’t eat,” returning unnecessarily to the hospital on the pretext of visiting her aunt, but actually wanting to see the emaciated girl in the bed opposite. Her attempts to understand the girl are in vain, and she experiences a kind of transference, becoming psychologically absorbed by the hunger that she herself feels:

I was hungry too, even though I’d eaten all day. All afternoon and all that evening I had been eating things. It’s not that I ate more than I usually did, and it’s not that I eat any more than the average person. It’s just that today, for once, I had simply noticed the casual stream and variety of the things I put in my mouth. I had eaten an apple and a nectarine and some bread and coleslaw for lunch. I had chewed my fingers and the ends of several pens. I had eaten a chocolate bar and what was left of a packet of crisps and the whole of a packet of Polos. I ate a dinner of aubergine, mozzarella, tomato, garlic and pasta all mixed together, and after it I ate some lettuce and another apple.

This catalogue of foodis a minutely itemized tally of what most of us take for granted; if asked what we to had to eat over a given day, many of us would be unable to immediately recall. It takes the startling figure of an anorexic girl in a hospital bed to jar the narrator out of her complacency and make her aware of the patterns of behaviour that she previously engaged in almost unconsciously.

She also feeds her aunt’s fish, and feels compelled to keep giving them food, despite the fact that the aunt has warned her about the dangers of overfeeding. “I knew it wouldn’t be good for them,” the narrator says. “They still looked hungry.” A bit later the fish are explicitly connected the girl in the hospital – “I fed the fish more food. I thought of the thin girl.” But the narrator can’t apprehend the girl’s motivations any more than she can apprehend what drives the fish to eat, or to know when to stop.

The narrator’s lack of comprehension extends also to her aunt, who at one point refers to the narrator as her mother’s “bad daughter.”

I wondered what she could have meant, saying I was my mother’s bad daughter. My mother’s bad daughter. I couldn’t think which of the things about me it was, which of the things I might have done, and she might have heard about from someone else in that same hushed secret women’s tone, that constituted bad.

Self-awareness proves chimerical for the narrator, but this is understandable since the very nature of identity in Smith’s story is so malleable. It turns out, for example, that the aunt isn’t really related to the narrator at all, but was only a good friend of the narrator’s late mother.

On her final visit to the hospital, the thin girl engages the narrator in conversation and shows her the object she has been given by her family: a Japanese Tamagotchi, a “virtual pet” that has been proffered to her in the misguided notion that she will learn to take care of herself if she has something else to take care of. For her part, the girl finds the electronic noises the pet emits “really irritating.” “Well if you want it to shut up,” her brother suggests reasonably, “you could just take the battery out.”

Of course, humans operate differently from electronic gadgets; our needs can’t be satisfied nor can we be shut off simply by removing a battery. What will it take to satisfy us? What is required to isolate a stable identity in a world that seems diametrically opposed to such stability? The only epiphany the narrator arrives at is that she doesn’t know the answers to these questions. “I couldn’t imagine what to do next,” she says, “or how to be able to do it right.”