Where angels fear to tread

September 22, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

Jack Rabinovitch may be ruing his decision to bring in judges from outside Canada to adjudicate this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Writing in the Financial Times recently, one of those judges – Britain’s Victoria Glendinning – had some choice words to say about the Canadian fiction she had been exposed to in the course of executing her duties:

Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for “gutter” is “eavestrough”, which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a “tuque”, or “toque”, which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)

Having primed the pump, she then goes on to castigate novels that include “a list of people who are fulsomely thanked for their support, starting with the book’s editor – unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient – plus family, friends and first readers,” and to decry the “striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.”

And as if that weren’t enough to get homegrown knickers in a twist, she rushes in where the vast majority of Canadian angels fear to tread, criticizing … wait for it … our domestic grants system:

It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked. Complaints were once voiced that most shortlisted Giller novels emanated from just three big-name publishers, all owned by Bertelsmann, and that virtually every winner lived in the Toronto area. Now, many of the submitted authors, and their rugged subject matter, hail from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsidised, and they proliferate. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.

Here’s my prediction: Glendinning’s piece (reprinted almost verbatim on the Globe book blog under the brazen headline “A Brit Giller judge makes fun of Canadian fiction”) is going to cause an absolute shitstorm. First, because she is a sitting judge commenting on the material she is adjudicating. When she refers to “unbelievably dreadful” books, one can safely assume she’s not speaking about the 12 that made the longlist, announced yesterday. But any author not among those 12 could be forgiven for feeling a tad anxious. (“Was she referring to my book? No, surely she couldn’t be talking about mine.”)

But, more pressingly, the sound of hoofbeats in the distance indicates the approaching cavalry of small and regional Canadian presses whose very existence Glendinning mocks. Like Mel Gibson in blue warpaint, you can imagine them stoking themselves for battle: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take OUR SUBSIDIES!” Of course, being from the U.K., Glendinning is likely unaware of how tenaciously Canadians cling to their arts funding, and how passionately regional publishers fight for a piece of the pie. And although she clearly intended her remarks to be humorous, she appears blithely unaware of the fact that Canadians don’t have a sense of humour about this stuff. But she’s going to find out. Boy, is she.

Brace yourselves: this is going to get ugly.


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.

CNQ launches new website

June 22, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

CNQ76coverSMALLThe new issue of Canadian Notes and Queries is out, complete with a brand-spanking-new website. Yr. humble correspondent has a couple of pieces represented on the new site, both of which find me in a characteristically cranky mood.

The first, from issue #75, is a roundup of the 2008 Scotiabank Giller shortlist, including commentary on the winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce. Essentially, the piece argues that, notwithstanding the vaunted newness of the five nominated authors, by awarding Boyden’s novel the big prize, last year’s jury in fact behaved exactly the way the vast majority of Giller juries before them did:

Set largely in the north, Through Black Spruce focuses on a fractured family riven by alcohol and drug abuse. From its opening lines, the novel offers sentences burnished with simile and metaphor:

When there was no Pepsi left for my rye whisky, nieces, there was always ginger ale. No ginger ale? Then I had river water. River water’s light like something between those two. And brown Moose River water’s cold. Cold like living between two colours. Like living in this town.

The narrator here is Will Bird, a comatose Cree bush pilot confined to a hospital bed in Moose Factory. From his coma, he narrates his story to his two nieces, Annie and Suzanne. Will’s narration is cast in the mode of rugged naturalism, but the naturalism is constantly larded with images that, although presumably meant to be evocative, actually come off feeling artificial and unconvincing. Living “between two colours” is only one example. In the frozen north loneliness “grew like moss,” memories “can’t be burnt or drowned,” and winter “settl[es]” on the land, “laying herself out over the forest and the muskeg and the water.” In a similar fashion, Will recalls his youth: “I believed that the northern lights, the electricity I felt on my skin under my parka, the faint crackle of it in my ears, was Gitchi Manitou collecting the vibrations of lives spent, refuelling the world with these animals’ power.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with using metaphoric language to develop character or heighten narrative; what is troublesome is the notion that this approach is somehow new or groundbreaking in the context of Canadian fiction. In its citation, the Giller jury – made up of novelists Margaret Atwood and Colm Toibin and Liberal MP Bob Rae – stated that in Through Black Spruce “Joseph Boyden shows us unforgettable characters and a northern landscape in a way we have never seen them before.” That we have seen such characters before – and in just such a northern landscape – will be obvious to anyone possessed of even a passing familiarity with Canadian fiction. Notably, the frigid loneliness of the north provided the setting for last year’s Giller champ, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air. Beyond that, Through Black Spruce would fit comfortably on the shelf with such accepted CanLit mainstays as The Temptations of Big Bear, Tay John, and Wacousta.

The second piece, titled “Fuck Books,” appears in the current issue (#76), and takes up a related theme. Building on a formula that teasingly appeared in Nathan Whitlock’s debut novel, A Week of This, the essay argues that CanLit’s penchant for highly stylized, pseudopoetic writing is antithetical to creating a vibrant literature that is able to fully engage with the reading public. Two authors in particular find themselves in the crosshairs, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels:

Fugitive Pieces is emblematic of a persistent and virulent strain in CanLit: books that rely for their force and effect upon prose of heightened poeticisms and lyrical trills, language predicated upon an accretion of rococo metaphors and cascading adjectival phrases. The none-too-subtle condescension in such writing is easily identifiable by casual or occasional readers, whose impulse upon encountering it is likely to mirror the vituperative two-word epithet in this essay’s title.

Writing in The Globe and Mail recently, Michaels defended her prose style as a manifestation of her abiding respect for language, “a respect that has been forged out of the deepest despair of language, out of urgency and impotence.” Words, for Michaels, constitute “a moral question,” a “way of grasping at a truth,” and “an argument against loss.” This description of language’s function recapitulates the condescending tone that runs through her fiction, but it also illustrates what I take to be a fundamental misapprehension: there is no writer I’m aware of who would argue that language is unimportant, but instead of using language as a means to communicate emotional truth, Michaels brandishes it like a cudgel, the better to bludgeon her readers into submission.

There’s also material from last year’s notorious Salon des Refusés (which, incidentally, includes my review of this year’s Trillium Book Award-winner, Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method), book reviews by Michael Carbert, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Kerry Clare, among others, a feature on small presses by Andrew Steeves, and on the future of the book by Jack Illingworth. Check out the site, then go subscribe to the mag.

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