Yesterday, Jack Rabinovitch announced the members of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury. This year’s award, which bills itself as “Canada’s most distinguished literary prize,” will once again be adjudicated by a panel of international judges, in what has become something of a formula for the prize in recent years.
Irish author Roddy Doyle won the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but he is arguably best known for his comic trilogy about the lives of a group of working class Dubliners – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – all of which have been made into acclaimed motion pictures.
Canadian Anna Porter is a publishing icon, having worked for McClelland & Stewart during its heyday before launching her own publishing house, Key Porter Books. Her 2008 non-fiction work, Kasztner’s Train was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction.
Russian-born, American-based novelist Gary Shteyngart is known for his tragicomic novels such as Absurdistan and 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story. Along with last year’s Giller nominee David Bezmozgis, Shteyngart was named one of The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” literary fiction writers in 2010.
The three-person jury will choose a longlist of books (hopefully without help from the general public this year), which will then be culled to a shortlist, to be announced on October 1. The gala award ceremony will take place in Toronto on October 30, where one author will take home the $50,000 prize.
Some people argue that having international jurors on the panel (each jury since 2009 has featured two members from outside Canada) denigrates Canadian literature, but I would suggest that precisely the opposite is true. If we truly believe our fiction is world class, surely it should be able to withstand world-class scrutiny. Moreover, by inviting jurors from outside our borders to sit on the prize jury, the chances for parochialism, narrowness of focus, or log-rolling (a very real concern in a closed literary ecosystem such as ours) are significantly reduced.
Moreover, the last three years have seen a range of literary sensibilities among jurors, beyond the usual naturalistic, historical romantic affinities that characterize the bulk of what has traditionally been praised as canon-worthy in this country. On that score, this year’s jury appears to be one to get a bit excited about. Doyle and Shteyngart are both comic novelists, and although Porter’s recent books have been heavy works of serious non-fiction, she is also the author of a whimsical murder mystery, The Bookfair Murders, set (not incidentally) in the publishing world. This year’s jury gives me hope that the ultimate victor might evince something fabulously rare in Giller’s nineteen-year history: a sense of humour.
For the last few years, January has been a bleak month for Canadian publishing. In January 2008, the Vancouver-based company Raincoast announced that it was dismantling its publishing program to focus on its wholesale and distribution business. In January 2010, the Canadian-owned publisher McArthur and Company lost a major source of revenue when Hachette Book Group took over distribution of its own titles in Canada. And January 2011 heralds the announcement that Key Porter Books, one of the country’s largest Canadian-owned publishers, is suspending its operations while it explores restructuring options. The company, which began as a partnership between Key Publishers and Anna Porter in 1979, was bought by H.B. Fenn and Company in 2004.
Responding to press reports that the company was being shuttered, Key Porter issued a statement yesterday that read, in part:
Key Porter Books is considering a number of restructuring options, including the sale of certain titles in its valuable catalogue of Canadian works, all with a view to continuing as a leader in the Canadian publishing industry. In the meantime, Key Porter Books is supporting its authors through the continued marketing and sale of previously published works and distribution through H.B. Fenn and Company Ltd.
The restructuring follows the abrupt lay offs of 11 staff members last September. At that time, the downtown Toronto offices of Key Porter were closed and the remaining staff relocated to Fenn’s head offices in Bolton, Ontario. In the wake of the company’s latest setback this week, Key Porter publisher Jordan Fenn said that Key Porter’s books have “played a leading role in giving a voice to the Canadian story” and pledged to “do everything possible to ensure that voice continues to be heard.”
Rebecca Eckler’s debut novel for adults, The Lucky Sperm Club, which was originally slated for publication last fall, will be released by Key Porter this month. Other Key Porter authors are not so lucky. Mark Bourrie, whose non-fiction book The Fog of War was scheduled for release on January 25, found out that publication was suspended only on Wednesday, when he received an e-mail from Jordan Fenn. The e-mail, which Bourrie posted to his blog, cites “current market conditions” that forced the company to undergo “drastic changes … to adjust and strengthen [its] position.” As for why Bourrie, who as recently as this past week had been setting up media appearances in advance of the publication of his book, was only alerted to the situation on Wednesday, Fenn blames “a significant breakdown in communication”:
It would seem that several members of our team were all thinking that the other had spoken with you, while in reality none of us had. This is regrettable. This is embarrassing and I suspect this is incredibly upsetting, frustrating, angering, and disappointing for you.
In fact, it is more than regrettable. The fact that an author who was expecting the imminent release of his book – to the extent that he secured an excerpt on his own in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald – should not be made aware of the publication’s suspension until two weeks before the book is due out is unconscionable. And despite protestations to the contrary, when a publishing house suspends its operations, it is incumbent upon the publisher to alert the affected authors. No buck passing is allowed in this situation.
Although it probably will come as cold comfort to Bourrie, it appears he was not the only person affected by Key Porter’s communication breakdown. The Globe and Mail quotes agent Rick Broadhead, who has several authors signed to the house, as saying that of late he has not “received any official communication from [Key Porter] at all.” The same article quotes Julie Devaney, whose book My Leaky Body was scheduled for release in April:
So to not be in contact with us through that process … to let people go through the whole process of finishing our books, finishing our edits, talking about marketing, talking to people outside of the publisher about ways that we might be cross-promoting our books, things like that – and then letting us find out from the media … I think it’s totally inappropriate and disrespectful.
Indeed. Alternatively, it could just be January in Canadian publishing.