The perfect storm: CanLit’s risk aversion, government grants, and Shteyngart-gate

January 10, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

If you were on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have noticed an odd occurrence. It was American writer Gary Shteyngart channelling Rob Ford.

The author of the novels Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, as well as the newly released memoir Little Failure, was in serial-apology mode. His infraction? Canadian media had picked up on an interview Shteyngart and author Chang-rae Lee did for the website That interview, a lengthy discussion that touches upon everything from dystopian literature to the immigrant experience in America to the authors’ affinity for fast food, caught the eye of the Toronto Star‘s Dianne Rinehart for one brief exchange in which Shteyngart addresses his experience as a juror for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize:

GS: Fiction is good. If it had a readership, it would be even better, but it’s good.

NY: What do you think, then – should it be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be –

NY: No, you’re not.

As any seasoned CanLit observer knows, the only thing more egregious than attacking the country’s granting system is equating that system with a resultant lack of excitement in the nation’s literary output. Indeed, there may be a false equivalence here: if there is a general lack of risk-taking among Canadian writers, grants from the government may not be the root cause.

In any event, the knives came out pretty quickly. Dorris Heffron, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, was quoted in the Star as saying that Shteyngart’s comments were “ignorant,” and Lynn Coady, who won the 2013 Giller, called his remarks “a lazy fallacy.” (Coady went on to temper her comment, joking that “Mr. Shteyngart has no idea of the beer-sodden hours that have been whiled away here in Canada by writers bemoaning the inscrutable tastes of our funding bodies” and saying that she forgives him for “talking smack about Canadian writing.”)

The blowback led to the first apology from the American writer:

This was followed by several others, in quick succession:







What all of these have in common is an obvious humour, something also apparent (but typically missed by many) in the original Vulture interview.

The other thing many observers missed is that Shteyngart had a point. He may have mistaken the culprit, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that vast swathes of CanLit do play it safe, often more safe than is either necessary or desirable. Naturalism remains the dominant mode in Canadian fiction, and most readers gravitate to books that tell familiar stories in comfortable ways. As an establishment prize, the Giller has a vested interest in privileging this kind of writing, and a quick glance at its two-decade history will show that, with very few exceptions, these are the kinds of books that win. Even in the year Shteyngart was on the jury: whatever adjective one wants to apply to Will Ferguson’s thriller 419, “risky” is probably not the first that springs to mind.

The same is true of Terry Fallis’s gentle satire The Best Laid Plans, a book that Heffron singles out (along with the recent CBC Television adaptation) as an example to counter Shteyngart’s assertion. Praising Fallis’s novel for its riskiness seems passing strange, especially when there is authentically provocative work being produced in this country on a fairly regular basis. Last year alone saw the appearance of Douglas Glover’s Savage Love, Norm Sibum’s The Traymore Rooms, Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography, and Cynthia Flood’s Red Girl Rat Boy, all stylistically innovative, thematically challenging works. None of them was nominated for the Giller. Colin McAdam’s formally ambitious novel A Beautiful Truth, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, was also shut out of Giller contention. As was Permission, S.D. Chrostowska’s startling nouveau roman, a novel so risky it had to be published outside the country, by the American press Dalkey Archive. As Adam Pottle pointed out on Twitter, “Some Canadian writers take risks. They just don’t get noticed.” Pottle should know: he’s the author of Mantis Dreams, a stylistically audacious debut novel from 2013 that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.

So while it is not true that CanLit as a whole is risk averse, it is probably true that the vast majority of books that get noticed fall into this category. There are exceptions – Coady’s Giller champ, Hellgoing, for example, or anything by Alice Munro (whose work is far more subversive than most general readers seem to realize) – but the books that gain traction in this country, by and large, don’t push the envelope too far. As poet and critic Sina Queyras quipped on Twitter, “The only thing worse than someone taking a cheap shot at CanLit is when they get it right.”

Though, it might be possible to argue that the one worse thing is the hyperbolic, wounded response to this type of cultural criticism. As Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey put it, “Hey, guys, someone insinuated that we are overly self-conscious and parochial, let’s get really upset, that’ll show him.” Or as Coady wrote, “‘And with that, the Canadians never let themselves be troubled by the Big Bad Cultural Inferiority Complex again.’ *closes storybook*.” We might close the storybook, but it would be best not to place it back on the shelf just yet. As this most recent tempest in the CanLit teapot goes to show, this is one story we love to hear over and over again.

Doyle, Porter, Shteyngart form 2012 Giller jury

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

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.