Why Leah McLaren is smarter than me

October 28, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It’s award season in book world. Short lists for the Triple Crown of Canadian literature – the Governor-General, the Giller and the Roger’s Writer’s Trust – have all been announced and the jury selections pored over like tea leaves in a mug. Ah, the comforting brew of Canadian literary culture. High in antioxidants, low in caffeine.

Like everyone else, I have followed the coverage and pondered the obvious: When exactly did Douglas Coupland find time to write another novel? Who does Annabel Lyon’s hair? Is Margaret Atwood pissed?

One thing I have not wondered, however, is which of the anointed books to add to my shelf, worthy efforts though I’m sure they are. You read that right: This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books that are nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.

from The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 24, 2009

Echlin, Lyon, and McAdam are in, Atwood is out

October 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s not the year of the flood after all. With Alice Munro’s book, Too Much Happiness, out of the running for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, all eyes were on Margaret Atwood and her dystopian “simultaneoual” to her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. But in the event, Atwood’s novel, The Year of the Flood, didn’t make the Giller shortlist. This year’s five, devoted exclusively to books from large publishing houses, are:

  • The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
  • The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  • Fall by Colin McAdam
  • The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

The dedicated Giller-watcher will note that of the two men who made the longlist, both are included in the shortlist. The shortlist also represents only 2.5 publishing houses: Hamish Hamilton Canada, in its first year as an imprint of Penguin Canada, has two books, Random House Canada has two, and McClelland & Stewart (which is 25% owned by Random House) has one.

On points, this year’s list looks more interesting than those of the last couple of years, and, as usual, yr. humble correspondent will read (or, in the case of Echlin, reread) the five books and report back in advance of the Giller Prize announcement on November 10. Stay tuned: weeping and gnashing of teeth are sure to follow.

Literary prizes and the weather: the current conditions

October 1, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

Shortlists for Canadian literary awards have a great deal in common with the meteorological quip frequently attributed to Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” Or so John Barber suggests in today’s Globe and Mail:

If you don’t like one list, have another: The best in Canadian fiction became very much a matter of opinion Wednesday with the announcement of the finalists for the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, given in honour of “the year’s best novel or short-story collection.”

Those five finalists, in case you missed them, are:

  • Nicole Brossard, Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, trans., Fences in Breathing
  • Douglas Coupland, Generation A
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean
  • Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness
  • Andrew Steinmetz, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre

(There were also nominations in non-fiction and short-story categories, but for our immediate purposes, let’s focus on the fiction list. The complete Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees can be found here.)

Barber points out that only Annabel Lyon is on both this list and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, announced last week. For two prizes that claim to recognize “the year’s best” book of fiction, the discrepancy seems notable. (Yr. humble correspondent will here acknowledge that had Alice Munro not withdrawn her book from consideration for the Giller, it would likely have appeared on that list as well.) What explains these differences?

First off, it’s important to dispense with the notion that these prizes have anything to do with what’s “best,” as if such a metric could be agreed upon in the first place. It’s all well and good for a prize administrator to instruct a jury to consider matters of “literary merit,” but this guideline is so slippery as to be practically useless. Everybody seems to agree that Munro’s work has literary merit, but beyond that there is little consensus about what precisely the term means. (Even Margaret Atwood is not immune to this opacity, having found herself shut out of the Rogers Writers’ Trust list for her new novel, The Year of the Flood.) Does it involve fidelity to a particular fictional voice? Carefully drawn characters? A reckoning with landscape and geography? The use of innovative technique or structure? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is: yes. And no. Where one person may insist on the prevalence of an individual voice in a book, another will gravitate toward detailed descriptions of setting. One person’s literary masterpiece might be another person’s cure for insomnia. In the final analysis, literary merit is always in the eye of the beholder.

The easiest, most obvious explanation for the divergence in the two awards’ nominees is to be found in the make-up of their respective juries. It’s axiomatic that when you pick a jury for a literary award, you pick a winner, but it’s often not acknowledged just how true that is. The jury for the Giller is made up of Alistair MacLeod, Russell Banks, and Victoria Glendinning. The Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction jury is comprised of R.M. Vaughan, Marina Endicott, and Miriam Toews. The first thing one will note about the latter jury is that it is on average about 20 years younger than the former. Where literary sensibilities are concerned, 20 years is roughly equivalent to the difference between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The genders of the juries are also exactly reversed: two men and one woman in the first instance, two women and one man in the second. (Anyone who believes this is unimportant should canvass their literary female acquaintances about the merits of, say, Philip Roth. Then do the same for Bonnie Burnard among the men.)* Finally, the Giller jury is composed of people who have either written, or are known to favour, works of historical fiction. The Rogers Writers’ Trust jury, by contrast, is composed of writers whose work sticks fairly rigorously to contemporary settings.

Although these factors may influence the selection process, a three-person literary jury is predicated upon compromise. Because a truly important book – one that stands so far above the crowd that it immediately announces itself as a towering, enduring work – appears once every ten years or so (if we’re lucky), it is rare to find a jury composed of three members who will be in instant agreement as to what the best book in a given field is. (This does happen, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule.) More common is a situation in which each juror has a different favourite, which will usually be anathema to at least one other juror. In such a case, the compromise second (or even third) choice, which not all jurors are equally devoted to, but with which they can all live comfortably, will emerge as the eventual winner. This is simple group dynamics, but because people in the media and elsewhere are so devoted to the fiction of the “best” books getting recognized (a fiction, I have no doubt, that prevails even among certain prize juries themselves), it’s often glossed over in discussions about literary awards.

Here in Canada, it’s possible to argue that too much attention is paid to the whole business of doling out prizes for books. Literature is not, or should not be, a competition, after all, and the sheer number of prizes that proliferate in this country – from the big names like the Giller and the Governor General’s, to more specialized prizes such as the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature or the Canadian Nautical Research Society’s Keith Matthews Award for Best Book (and no, I’m not making those up) – can often make it seem as though not winning an award is more common than winning one. The annual Giller gala at the Four Seasons Hotel, meanwhile, is a big, media-friendly event that is only tangentially about literature: look around the room at the assembled guests in any given year, and you’re likely to see more television personalities and business people in attendance than actual writers (or – God forbid! – critics). And in almost every case, the winning book will come down to a matter of taste rather than an objective critical assessment.

The good news is, if you don’t share a particular jury’s taste, just wait few minutes: there’s another one right around the corner.

*And, yes, I am aware that it was the male-dominated jury that came up with a longlist of 12 books, 10 of which were written by women. I’m talking more about literary sensibilities here than a one-to-one correlation between the gender of juries and the gender of the resulting long/shortlists. Moreover, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that any attempt to outguess a literary jury is futile: although one can observe general trends, in the specific instance, there are often unaccountable surprises.

Giller longlist defies expectations

September 21, 2009 by · 5 Comments 

It didn’t take long for the grousing to begin. The Scotiabank Giller longlist had barely been announced before critics started crying foul. Where are the men? asks The Globe and Mail. (Same place the women were last year.) Where are the non-European writers, tweets The Walrus. (Was there a major novel by a Canadian writer of non-European descent published this year?) Indeed, last year, out of 15 longlisted authors, only three (Emma Donoghue, Marina Endicott, and Mary Swan) were women (Endicott and Swan went on to place in the shortlist). And seeing as Giller has in the past honoured Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji (twice), Vincent Lam, Austin Clarke, and Michael Ondaatje, the argument that there’s a white, European bias to the award seems like a non-starter (Giller is guilty of many sins, but that isn’t one of them).

There were surprises on this year’s longlist, beginning with the exclusion of Lisa Moore, whose second novel, February, was widely considered to be a strong contender to take the prize. Also absent from the longlist were Douglas Coupland (dodged a bullet there, hm, Panic?), Michael Crummey, Lori Lansens, Bonnie Burnard, John Bemrose, and Shinan Govani. (Just making sure you were paying attention.) In their place, first-time novelists Claire Holden Rothman and Jeanette Lynes nabbed spots, as did Martha Baillie, for a book published with the small Ontario press Pedlar. These could not have been considered safe bets by anyone trying to outguess this year’s jury, which is composed of author Alistair MacLeod, U.S. novelist Russell Banks, and U.K. author and journalist Victoria Glendinning.

Atwood and Michaels are, of course, represented. It’s likely Munro would have been too had she not taken her collection, Too Much Happiness, out of the running. But a number of the names on this year’s longlist are by no means intuitive. The dirty dozen, in full:

  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Martha Baillie, The Incident Report (Pedlar Press)
  • Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada)
  • Claire Holden Rothman, The Heart Specialist (Cormorant Books)
  • Paulette Jiles, The Colour of Lightning (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Jeanette Lynes, The Factory Voice (Coteau Books)
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
  • Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada)
  • Colin McAdam, Fall (Penguin Canada)
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Shani Mootoo, Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi Press)
  • Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company)

What is distressing, notwithstanding the jury’s assertion that the books “vary stylistically and structurally and connect with and extend a range of novelistic traditions,” is the preponderance of stories told in the same, blandly naturalistic style of most Giller-bait fiction. Really, the only stylistically adventurous title in the bunch is The Incident Report. Even Atwood’s futuristic dystopia employs the same flashback style that she’s been using at least since Cat’s Eye, if not well before. And if we had to have a novel about a freed slave on the list, I’d much rather it was Ray Robertson’s lively David than Jiles’s The Colour of Lightning.

Still, an interesting list. I’ll be watching for the shortlist, when it’s unveiled on October 6.

Like a big book club

July 1, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:

I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.

It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]”: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.

But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.

CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)

Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)

McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.

Are there any world-class CanLit writers?

June 12, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:

Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.

[ … ]

The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.

Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.

Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?

It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?

In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.

Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.

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