New names, surprise inclusions mark Giller shortlist

October 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.

Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.

The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.

Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.

What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.

Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)

The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.

*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.

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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 1

October 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Sentimentalists. Johanna Skibsrud; $27.95 paper 978-1-55447-078-5, 224 pp., Gaspereau Press.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, nominee)

From the publisher: “Drawing on her own experience as a war veteran’s daughter, Skibsrud’s novel captures the rich complexities encountered by a woman who desires to comprehend and frankly express the truth – in all its fragility – of her life and of the lives of her family.”

From reviews: “Like a lot of debut novels, The Sentimentalists can sometimes feel like a stumbling colt, with moments of astounding raw beauty and original wordplay. Conversely, there are moments the prose forgets to balance on its new legs.” – Zoe Whittall, The Globe and Mail

My reaction: “To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others.” So claimed the poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in Normandy in 1944. He was 24 years old when he died. Douglas’s poem, “Remember Me,” provides the fulcrum for Johanna Skibsrud’s novel, which deals with war in another context: the war in Vietnam, as remembered by the narrator’s father, who served overseas. Skibsrud’s recourse to Douglas highlights one of her novel’s abiding ironies: the distance between the veteran Napoleon Hill’s caustic, disillusioned worldview, and that of his more sheltered daughter. The daughter’s attempt to understand her father’s experience – his alcoholism, his haunted aspect, his gruffness, all of which have something to do with witnessing his best friend Owen’s death in combat – serves as the novel’s narrative arc, such as it is.

Douglas’s poem appears about two-thirds of the way in, during a conversation featuring Napoleon, his daughter, and Henry, Owen’s father:

“Remember me when I am dead,” my father said, “and simplify me when I am dead.”

He paused, then asked us, beaming: “Who said that? Where did it come from?” He’d opened his eyes again, and began looking back and forth between Henry and I, enthusiastically, as if we were contestants and he was the game-show host.

“Sounds like poetry,” Henry said.

I nodded agreement. “The words of a rank sentimentalist.”

The narrator’s assessment, one with which the poet himself would no doubt disagree, underscores the emotional gulf between her and Napoleon: sentimentalism is a movable feast depending upon one’s starting point.

But if it is possible to argue Douglas’s own sentimentalism, it is clear that Skisbrud herself gives in to a sentimentalizing tendency in her novel. This is apparent in passages that are frankly overwritten: purple prose standing in for a more direct examination of her characters. Witness, for example, the narrator’s small epiphany regarding the “unknown region” of experience that she claims to be chasing:

Is it only now, through aggravation at the continued frustration of my attempts, or is it an accidental wisdom that somehow I’ve acquired? Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there.

Or, elsewhere:

A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such an incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.

Such passages are often forced to carry the narration, resulting in a distancing effect between the novel and its reader. The farther the narrator retreats into the labyrinth of her own mind, the less interesting the story becomes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second half of the novel, which dramatizes Napoleon’s experience in Vietnam, is less prone to this tendency. Nevertheless, Skibsrud never allows her reader to forget the essential writerliness inherent in the novel: this appears everywhere from Napoleon’s frankly militaristic name to the pervading pattern of water metaphors in the book (which will no doubt serve as the subject of a master’s thesis one day). The sunken town beneath the flooded lake alongside which Napoleon and Henry now reside reflects the narrator’s sublimated identity and her shifting idea of home, but it is also an overwrought metaphor that is not fully integrated into the text.

The Sentimentalists is a heavily ruminative novel, one that is easier to admire than to like. Its subjects – war, family, home – are most compelling when viewed head on; when filtered through the refined sensibility of the first-person narrator, they become gauzy, abstract, and, yes, sentimental.

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.