Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors the surprise winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIn the end, all the prognosticators and so-called experts were wrong.

Heading into last night’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the heavy favourite to take the award was Miriam Toews for her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews had already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award the previous week, and the smart money had her taking the Giller for her heartfelt (and semi-autobiographical) book about a sister trying to come to terms with her sibling’s desire to end her life. Over the weekend, The Globe and Mail ran an infographic that included predictions from thirty industry insiders – editors, booksellers, former Giller jurors and nominees – predicting who would win. Of the thirty, nineteen selected Toews.

None of them – not one – picked the actual winner, Sean Michaels, who emerged victorious with his debut novel, Us Conductors.

In the experts’ defence, Michaels was a longshot going into last night’s event. He is a first-timer; only one other first-time writer has claimed the prize (Vincent Lam, in 2006, for the story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Johanna Skibsrud is the only other first novelist to win, in 2010. (Skibsrud had already published a volume of poetry prior to taking the Giller for  The Sentimentalists.)

David Bezmozgis, nominated for his sophomore novel, The Betrayers, had been shortlisted once before, for his first novel, The Free World. Frances Itani, nominated for her novel, Tell, is a previous winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Heather O’Neill, a shortlister for her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, won Canada Reads with her previous novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. And Padma Viswanathan, nominated for her second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was a finalist for the First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for her debut, The Toss of a Lemon.

But past track record and popular opinion proved no match for a quirky debut about a Russian inventor most famous for a musical instrument that harnesses air and electricity to create its ethereal sound.


Sean Michaels (photo by John Londono)

Us Conductors is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin (which the Beach Boys famously used in the intro to their song “Good Vibrations”); prior to its appearance, its author was best known as one of the creators of the music blog Said the Gramaphone.

In an essay for Quill & Quire, Michaels wrote that the inspiration for Us Conductors sprang in part from hearing Peter Pringle playing the theremin on CBC Radio. But the story of the instrument’s inventor, the inscrutable and eccentric Termen, served as the real “catalyst” for the novel: “Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity.”

The Giller jury, comprised of writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, must have agreed. In awarding Michaels the prize, which this year increased to a cool $100,000, they simultaneously defied expectations and validated the potential of emerging writers in Canada. Not bad for an award that has been criticized in the past as being hidebound and in thrall to an establishment mentality.

And not bad for an author the experts had all but written off until the moment the envelope was opened last night.

Unsurprising Giller shortlist plays it safe

October 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIt’s turning into a very good year for Miriam Toews.

Last week, the Toronto-based author was tapped as one of the five shortlisted names on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and this morning she became one of six authors to appear on the shortlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the only book to appear on both lists, meaning that she is the only author still in contention for the CanLit award trifecta, which will be determined when the Governor General’s Literary Award shortlists are announced tomorrow.

Joining Toews on a bulked-up Giller roster are David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; Frances Itani for Tell; Sean Michaels for Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

For those keeping track of such things, that’s four women and two men. Geographically, Montreal remains strong, with two contenders (Michaels and O’Neill) residing there, and a third (Viswanathan) having once called the city home (she currently lives in the U.S.).

On the publisher front, it was a very good showing for HarperCollins Canada, which scored with three out of four longlisted books (Bezmozgis, Itani, and O’Neill; the fourth was Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations). This was a sharp contrast from the publisher’s “Black Monday” of 2007, when they had five longlisted titles and nothing on the shortlist. The three other books are from imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.

By any estimation, this year’s jury – comprising writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose – has delivered a safely predictable list. Toews (whose novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller) has been a critical and reader favourite since All My Puny Sorrows appeared in April, and Bezmozgis, O’Neill, and Itani are not exactly literary outsiders. Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, lost the 2011 Giller to Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, but went on to win the First Novel Award. O’Neill’s debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, and was nominated for both a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Orange Prize. And though this is Itani’s first Giller-nominated title, her novel Deafening won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Even Viswanathan, arguably less well-known than the others, had her previous novel, The Toss of a Lemon, shortlisted for the First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (Canadian and Caribbean regions). The real outlier is Michaels, better known as a music critic, who is shortlisted for a first novel about the man who invented the Theremin and also acted as a Soviet spy.

But all of these are big books from big houses, leaving the smaller, Canadian-owned houses on the longlist – ECW Press (for the novels Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu and Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove) and Biblioasis (for the story collection Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page) – out in the cold. It’s a bit of a retreat for a jury that confounded expectations by choosing a longlist that ignored some of this year’s marquee names – among them David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue, and David Bergen – in favour of younger or lesser-known writers. By contrast, the six shortlisted titles comprise the most traditional half of the 2014 longlist.

Neither of the short-fiction collections – easily the most technically adventurous books on the longlist – made it to the final round, nor did Basu’s debut, which is part existential quest, part road trip. And though they share themes of religious fanaticism and violence, Viswanathan’s sprawling epic about the fallout from the Air India disaster is much more recondite than LoveGrove’s scabrous novel.

When the longlist was announced, the jury commented that they were “celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse,” and that impulse certainly seems to have been borne out in the six shortlisted titles. Once again, big themes abound: terrorism (Viswanathan); assisted suicide (Toews); cultural tension (O’Neill); war (Itani); Israel and the Middle East (Bezmozgis). Only Us Conductors feels less self-consciously serious. Which is not to suggest humourlessness: both Toews and O’Neill employ humour as a narrative tactic. Nor is it meant to slight the prowess of any of these authors. (Bezmozgis, in particular, has written a strong book, one that is unafraid to deal with politics in a forthright and uncompromising manner.)

But elevating books that emphasize moral uprightness and rectitude over more ambiguous pleasures such as aesthetic innovation or linguistic flair does tend to indicate that this jury is interested in improving readers as much as entertaining them.

So who will take home the prize, which has doubled to a cool $100,000? This is a robust year for Canadian fiction, but an unfortunate one for any writer who is not Miriam Toews. Unless all indications are amiss, she’s the one to beat when the winner is announced on November 10.

Surprising Giller longlist avoids big names

September 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoMargaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donoghue. Thomas King.

These are among the heavy hitters of CanLit who failed to land a spot on a startling 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. In their place are two collections of short stories, a debut novel from 2013, and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Air India disaster.

The longlist in full:

  • Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu (ECW Press)
  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada)
  • American Innovations by Rivka Galchen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Tell by Frances Itani (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (ECW Press)
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Random House Canada)
  • Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo (Doubleday Canada)
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)
  • My October by Claire Holden Rothman (Penguin Canada)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
  • The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada)

Of the dozen books that made the cut, only the Toews was a foregone conclusion. All My Puny Sorrows is not only the novelist’s best-reviewed book since her 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, A Complicated Kindness, it is an early contender for book of the year on many commentators’ lists.

Other than that, the longlist is a bit of a shock, as much for what is excluded as for what appears. House of Anansi Press (which published last year’s winner, Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing) was shut out for the first time since 2007. Toronto’s ECW Press, on the other hand, scored two spots on this year’s list, one of them for a book (LoveGrove’s debut novel) that was published in late fall 2013.

HarperCollins Canada is the big winner, with four entries; Random House Canada and its various imprints count for another four. (Of course, if you count Penguin Random House as a single entity, it dominates the list with five out of twelve.)

Biblioasis is represented for the first time since 2011, when Clark Blaise’s story collection The Meagre Tarmac was longlisted for the prize. The Windsor, Ontario, publisher appears on the 2014 longlist with another story collection, for my money, one of the strongest books of the year. Rivka Galchen is the author of the other longlisted collection, her follow-up to the well received 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Geographically, Montreal is the big winner this year: Basu is based in the city, as is Michaels, and two of the other books have strong ties there. Rothman’s novel uses the FLQ crisis as a springboard for a family saga, and O’Neill’s sophomore novel has been called a Two Solitudes for the millennial generation. (Rothman and O’Neill both also reside in the city.) This year’s longlist announcement took place in Montreal, and also contained news that the prize money is doubling, with $100,000 going to the winner and $10,000 to each of the other shortlisted authors.

The 2014 jury consists of Canadian novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin, British novelist Justin Cartwright, and American novelist and essayist Francine Prose. In a statement, the jury says, “We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences. Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”

The idea of “writers brave enough to change public discourse” carries with it a whiff of sanctimony: like the recent iteration of CBC’s Canada Reads, it appears the driving impulse behind choosing this list is not what is good, so much as what is good for us. (Which is not to deny the real literary strength of a number of the longlisted titles.) Large themes dominate – war (Tell), terrorism (The Ever After of Ashwin Rao), assisted suicide (All My Puny Sorrows), gender politics (Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab), Zionism (The Betrayers), religion (Watch How We Walk) – but books more focused on aesthetic performance and story (K.D. Miller’s All Saints, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress) or that play with form in ambitious or unconventional ways (André Alexis’s Pastoral, Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters, Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country) have been left out.

The story collections, typically, represent the most stylistically audacious books on the list; Basu has written what might be described as an existential mystery novel, while Sean Michaels’ novel is an unconventional fictionalized biography of the man who invented the theremin (and was also a Soviet spy).

But on points, this longlist is surprising. The shortlist of five (or possibly six) titles culled from this dozen could go in numerous directions: it could feature mostly smaller, quirkier works, or it could be made up exclusively of novels from two multinational houses. Or (more likely) it could fall somewhere in between. If I were a betting man, I’d suggest the only sure thing is that Toews finds a place on the shortlist, probably alongside O’Neill and Bezmozgis. Then again, when betting on the Giller, previous experience (and the current longlist itself) has shown that safe bets are often illusory, and the house usually wins.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of nominations for Random House Canada and its imprints. The post has been amended to reflect the actual number.

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.

Edmonton’s Lynn Coady wins the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Hellgoing

November 6, 2013 by · 7 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoThirteen proved a lucky number for House of Anansi Press at yesterday’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala. Prior to this year, the publisher had seen eleven of its books shortlisted without a single win. The two Anansi titles shortlisted for the 2013 prize – Lisa Moore’s novel Caught and Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing – brought the number of Anansi nominees to thirteen.

The publisher scored its first victory with the announcement that Hellgoing had won this year’s award. It was also the first time Coady has won the prize; she was nominated in 2011 for her novel, The Antagonist.

Coming a month after Alice Munro was announced as this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Coady’s Giller win is also a victory for Canadian short fiction, which has long been considered the poor cousin to this country’s novels, despite the fact that Canada boasts some of the finest practitioners of the form anywhere in the world. Coady is only the third writer to win a Giller for a collection of stories; Munro won twice (in 1998 for The Love of a Good Woman and again in 2004 for Runaway), and Vincent Lam won in 2006 for his debut, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Hellgoing is one of the first titles in Anansi’s Astoria imprint, a line devoted exclusively to short fiction.

This year’s Giller judges – Margaret Atwood (who was serving on her fourth Giller jury), Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem – selected Coady’s collection from a shortlist that also included Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada), Craig Davidson’s Cataract City (Doubleday Canada), and Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Twin (HarperCollins Canada). Moore’s third novel rounded out the five-title shortlist. In its citation, the Giller jury praised “Coady’s vivid and iconoclastic language, which brims with keen and sympathetic wit.”

Quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press, Atwood says that “it was difficult to arrive at a five-book short list, but once we got there it wasn’t too difficult.” The same article quotes Edugyan as saying that the jury process was “wonderfully amiable,” and that no one “put anybody in a headlock or anything like that.” And Lethem quipped that the jury chose the winning book while “in a drunken stupor,” a reference to yesterday’s other big Toronto-area news story, mayor Rob Ford’s confession to having smoked crack cocaine.

Speaking to the National Post, Coady expressed pleasure at the notion that her book was the one to break “the Anansi curse,” and went on to say, “I know what the Giller nominee effect is, but we’ll see what the next level is.”

The next level should be impressive. The $50,000 cheque for winning the prize is the precursor to what has become known as the Giller Effect, the sales bump a winning title experiences heading into the all-important Christmas selling season. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that a title can experience a jump in sales of anywhere from 200 to 400 percent following a Giller win. Indeed, Anansi president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan told the National Post that a reprint of 50,000 copies has already been ordered for the book. Good news for Coady, good news for her publisher, and – hopefully – good news for the future of the short story here in Canada.

Surprise inclusions, omissons characterize this year’s Giller shortlist

October 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoLeave it to Margaret Atwood to confound expectations.

If you’d asked me (or, likely, pretty much any literary observer) prior to this morning, I’d have said the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. A staggeringly ambitious book about Europeans’ first contact with Native Canadians and the collision of ideologies and cultures that led – for better or worse – to the creation of this country, Boyden’s story appeared as the quintessential Giller novel. Compared to Herodotus by Charles Foran in The Globe and Mail, called “a classic” by the National Post and “a magnificent literary beast” by Quill & Quire, The Orenda seemed like the book to beat this year for the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada.

At the announcement of the Giller shortlist this morning in Toronto, when it became apparent that Boyden’s novel did not make the cut, an audible gasp permeated the room.

Atwood and her fellow jurors – former Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American novelist Jonathan Lethem – culled from a longlist of thirteen titles a shortlist that is as surprising as it is intriguing. Only two of this year’s shortlisted authors – Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady – have been previous Giller finalists. Heavy hitters such as Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, and Claire Messud were left off the list of five contenders for the $50,000 prize. In their place are a genre thriller set in postwar Vienna, a story about the fallout from two brothers’ conflicted history, and a violent tale about a cop and a criminal in Niagara Falls.

The finalists for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)

Anansi is the only wholly owned Canadian press to feature on the shortlist. With two titles, this brings Anansi’s total nominations, over the twenty-year history of the prize, to thirteen. Thirteen in the year 2013 seems auspicious, but even if you’re not superstitious, at first blush this appears to be Lisa Moore’s year. She’s been nominated twice before – for her story collection Open and her first novel, Alligator – and this book, about an escaped drug runner who embarks on one last score, seems like the perfect confluence of accessible genre thriller and literary sensibility to nab the prize.

At the shortlist announcement, it was made explicit that the jury chose the five finalists at the same time they settled on the thirteen-book longlist – this was, arguably, a preventative strike against those who might have surmised that the jury changed its mind about David Gilmour’s longlisted novel, Extraordinary, after the controversy surrounding the author’s comments on a Random House–sponsored website last month.

What is clear is that this year’s Giller jury privileges books with strong narratives over more technically or stylistically innovative works. This year’s Giller shortlist comprises reader-friendly, plot-oriented fiction – stories told, as the jury statement that accompanied the longlist put it, in “remarkably familiar ways.” However, the books on this year’s shortlist – to say nothing of the shortlist itself – are not without surprise or interest, and observers will be paying close attention when the winner is announced at a gala dinner in Toronto on November 5.

UPDATE: A post on the Giller Prize’s Facebook page indicates that, contrary to the impression given at the shortlist announcement, the jury chose the shortlist “approximately one week after the longlist was announced.” The post goes on to stipulate, “This jury’s timing was unique to their particular judging process, which differs from every other Giller Prize jury and from other literary award juries and judging processes.”

Narrowness, curiosity, and the Gilmour Effect

September 26, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

David_Gilmour“When that review came out,” David Gilmour told National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011, referring to a review of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, “I went out looking for him.” The “him” in question was novelist and critic André Alexis, who had given Gilmour’s novel a less-than-stellar write-up. “I thought, ‘I’m going to beat the living shit out of this guy, and I don’t give a fuck what happens – this guy is going down.’ Because I know that that is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”

Flash forward two years and one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Gilmour, not Alexis, who has “some problem with chicks.” On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was set alight by an installment of Emily M. Keeler’s “Shelf Esteem” series, which appears on the Random House blog Hazlitt. The series involves Keeler interviewing writers, editors, and other literary personalities about the contents of their personal bookshelves. In the course of interviewing Gilmour – whose latest novel, Extraordinary, has been longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Keeler noted the author did not have many books by women in his collection. Gilmour, who teaches literature to first- and third-year students at the University of Toronto, responded thusly:

I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour explains that he teaches Miller and Roth as a means of distinguishing between pornography and literature (fair enough), then concludes, “I teach only the best.” The clear implication is that “the best” does not, in Gilmour’s opinion, include “books by women” (other than Woolf), books by Canadians, or – bizarrely – books by Chinese authors. (Gilmour later claimed this was meant as a joke: I confess I don’t get it.)

We can argue about what constitutes “the best”: Gilmour identifies Proust, Tolstoy, and Chekhov as the high-water marks of literature, and you’d be hard pressed to find too many serious scholars who would disagree. However, by ignoring women, he is erasing from consideration such canonical writers as Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Lady Murasaki, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Edna O’Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen. By ignoring Canadians (he claims to admire Munro), he is eliding Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Sheila Watson, Norman Levine, Adele Wiseman, Hubert Aquin, Robert Kroetsch, Leon Rooke, Austin Clarke, and Marian Engel. And by ignoring Chinese writers, he is missing out on Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, and Wang Xiaobo.

What is notable about these lists is how diverse the authors are in terms of style, themes, and subject matter. The most distressing thing about Gilmour’s approach to literature – especially as a teacher – is how narrow it is. Like David Shields, Gilmour seems interested only in writing that reflects his own experience back to him: “I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience,” he told Medley in a follow-up interview addressing the controversy that had sprung up around the Hazlitt piece. “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body.”

Notwithstanding this protestation, Gilmour refuses to refer to Keeler by name, or even to allow her the designation of “reporter” or “interviewer,” instead repeatedly calling her “this young woman” and suggesting her motivation was “to make a little name for herself.” He also says that he was only paying her partial attention during the interview, distracted as he was by a conversation he was carrying on simultaneously, in French, with a (male) colleague: “I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” These remarks certainly testify to a streak of unexamined sexism, but I leave it to others to pursue this line of argument.

Here’s the thing: I like Gilmour’s novels. I liked A Perfect Night to Go to China, I liked Sparrow Nights and An Affair with the Moon and The Perfect Order of Things. I haven’t read Extraordinary yet, but I probably will. I do not agree with Scott Carter’s suggestion that you must be in sympathy with an author’s character or ideologies to appreciate his work. And I have in the past admired Gilmour’s damn-the-torpedoes willingness to say what he thinks and not care whether people like it or not. (When he told Medley in 2011, “Writers don’t wish each other well. They wish each other death and failure,” I couldn’t help but suppose that, on one level, he was absolutely right.) And if, as a personal choice, Gilmour decides he’d rather not read books by women, or Chinese or homosexual writers, that is his prerogative.

But Gilmour is – adamantly and proudly – a university lecturer, charged with forming young minds and forging young sensibilities. This is a large responsibility, and anyone who undertakes it should be intellectually curious enough to at least remain open to the possibility of being surprised by a work of literature that exists outside his usual tastes or reading habits. If nothing else, in order to remain cognizant of the landscape of his chosen subject matter, it would behoove Gilmour to expose himself to the broadest possible array of writers, and to the possibility that what constitutes “the best” in literature doesn’t always equate with “what best reflects my life as I have come to understand it.”

In any event, saying one doesn’t like books by women is somewhat akin to saying one doesn’t like music: the category is so large, so diverse, so heterogeneous, that to paint it all with the same brush is virtually impossible. Willa Cather has as much in common with Renata Adler as Elmore Leonard has with James Joyce. And although, as Jared Bland points out, the Western canon is dominated by dead white men, it is nevertheless possible to admit women authors to the ranks of “the best” without sacrificing any standards of quality or importance. Ask English lit scholars what the finest novel in the language is, and a good number of them might say Middlemarch (nor do you have to enjoy it to recognize its inherent quality – trust me on this one). And there are those (myself included) who would argue that the first novel – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which remains in print to this day – was written by a woman, some 600 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

Gilmour claims he doesn’t teach women writers because he doesn’t feel “passionately” about them, or about their books, and those who wish to be exposed to these works can go “down the hall.” But it seems odd that someone like Gilmour – a novelist and teacher – who can be assumed to maintain an abiding interest in the human experience in all its forms, should not be able to find among women writers more than one short story by Virginia Woolf that he is able to care passionately about. This seems to indicate a lack of openness on the part of the reader, not a lack of quality or variety among writers. And after all, isn’t one of literature’s functions to expose its recipients to ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are foreign to their own?

It is this narrowness, this blinkered idea of what qualifies as most worthy of our attention, that is troublesome. This is something that, as Canadian novelist Amanda Leduc (yes, she has two strikes against her) points out, is shared by our award culture, which tends to crowd out different voices and approaches in the process of anointing “unknown stories” told in “familiar ways.” In this sense, the Giller Effect and the Gilmour Effect are not all that far removed.

Given the tenor of Gilmour’s comments, it is appropriate to give a woman the last word. Here’s Leduc:

I love books. I believe in books. More importantly, I believe in the fact that books have long lives that transcend any kind of initial attention. And I agree with Gilmour when he says, in the Hazlitt article, that “the shadows on the pages move around” in great literature. Truly good books always do that – you notice different things your second and third and even fourth time around. Great art is never static.

But what happens when the view of great art itself becomes the thing that does not change? As a result of his refusal to read anything by women (or by writers who are Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever), does David Gilmour then, in essence, make himself into that Andy Warhol painting that looks the same on every view? Essentially he’s telling us the same story, here, that we heard in the article in 2011. It’s just a little more pointed, a little more specific. (And backed, apparently, by the University of Toronto.)

Giller longlist highlights “essential stories” told in “familiar ways”

September 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoThe Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest award for fiction, released its longlist yesterday, and it’s safe to say that it is not a good year for small presses. Invisible Publishing scored its first ever longlist title – Elisabeth De Mariaffi’s story collection How to Get Along with Women – but otherwise, indie and regional presses were shut out of contention. Also shut out was heavyweight McClelland & Stewart, once a perennial favourite to take the prize.

By contrast, it was a relatively good day for House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada, each of which placed three titles on this year’s longlist. Anansi scored one nominee from each of its three imprints: Anansi, Astoria (short stories), and Arachnide (books in translation); newly minted HarperCollins imprint Patrick Crean Editions saw its inaugural title – David Gilmour’s latest novel, Extraordinary – appear on the longlist.

The thirteen semi-finalists for this year’s prize, which is worth a cool $50,000 to the eventual winner, are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Elisabeth De Mariaffi, How to Get Along with Women (Invisible Publishing)
  • David Gilmour, Extraordinary (Patrick Crean Editions)
  • Wayne Grady, Emancipation Day (Doubleday Canada)
  • Louis Hamelin; Wayne Grady, trans., October 1970 (House of Anansi Press)
  • Wayne Johnston, Son of a Certain Woman (Knopf Canada)
  • Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Michael Winter, Minister Without Portfolio (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

This year’s jury consists of novelists Margaret Atwood (who took her own novel, MaddAddam, out of contention to sit on the jury), Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem.

Boyden’s appearance on the list is no surprise; by any measure his is one of the heavyweight titles of the year. Also unsurprising are the nods to Messud and Moore. Boyden, Moore, Johnston, and Coady have been shortlisted for the prize previously. Winter was longlisted for his 2007 novel The Architects Are Here, but failed to make the shortlist. Boyden won the prize in 2008 for his novel Through Black Spruce; were he to do so again this year, he would become the first author to win for back-to-back books. Wayne Grady is the first author to appear on the Giller longlist as both novelist and translator.

Not represented on this year’s longlist are two titles that have been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Also absent are former Giller honourees Colin McAdam, Mary Swan, Douglas Coupland, Lauren B. Davis, Cary Fagan, and David Macfarlane.

For this first time this year, the longlist announcement took place outside Toronto, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This must have felt like something of a pyrrhic victory, since there are no West Coast authors on the list. By contrast, authors from Newfoundland did quite well: Moore, Johnston, Winter, and De Mariaffi all have ties to the province (though only Moore and De Mariaffi reside there year-round).

The jury praised the longlisted titles as “essential stories” that “offer a glimpse of who we are, who we might be.” The books are diverse in setting, but all of them privilege strong storytelling over formal technique (one reason, perhaps, that one of this year’s most formally impressive books, Douglas Glover’s story collection Savage Love, failed to make the cut).

The insistence on storytelling over style is implicit in the jury’s comment that the thirteen longlisted books “tell unknown stories in remarkably familiar ways.” This is one of the strangest comments I’ve heard from a jury for a major literary prize – a group who might reasonably be expected to value newness and fresh ways of telling stories over familiarity. It is especially surprising from a jury that includes Lethem and Atwood, both of whom have been on the vanguard of new kinds of writing in the past few years.

It’s also not clear that it’s entirely true. Boyden’s novel is set in the 1600s among the Huron and Iroquois natives and Jesuit newcomers from France: this is hardly an unknown story (think Wacousta and Black Robe, for example). What is bracing about Boyden’s book is how modern it feels: he tells a familiar story in a new way. Similarly, Johnston’s book feels like a departure for him, both in terms of subject and style, as does Moore’s.

Regardless, the emphasis on familiarity recalls the infamous Booker jury of 2011, whose contentious shortlist (which, it must be noted, included Edugyan’s Giller-winning novel Half-Blood Blues) drew criticism for promoting a false divide between quality and readability and accusations of “self-congratulatory philistinism.” The arguments in favour of privileging books people will actually read over obscure critical darlings are well-known and, in some circles, highly persuasive. But as a factor in determining a longlist for a literary award, familiarity seems passing strange.

Expanding the field: the Man Booker Prize to accept submissions from U.S. writers

September 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoIn news that is sure to shake up the literary establishment, The Telegraph is reporting that in 2014, for the first time in its history, the Man Booker Prize will accept submissions from American authors. Previously, the award has been restricted to English-language books published in the U.K. and written by authors from the U.K., Ireland, and the Commonwealth. The Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years, considers writers from around the globe, and is given for a body of work rather than an individual book.

Quoting a report in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph indicates that Booker administrators found the exclusion of American writers “anachronistic,” and that considering them will help “ensure the award’s global reputation.”

Writing on the Literary Saloon, M.A. Orthofer suggests that the Booker administration might have been cowed by the appearance this year of the competing Folio Prize, which considers work by English-language writers worldwide. On its website, The Folio Prize bills itself as “the first major English language book prize open to writers from around the world. Its aim is simple: to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.” It will release its inaugural shortlist in February 2014.

The Booker rule change alters the landscape of the prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world, and is worth £50,000 to the winner. Even if publishers are restricted to two submissions, the relatively large number of books published in the U.S. will tend to crowd out those from other countries.

The change is sure to spark debate about the globalization of literary culture, and the utility of nationalist restrictions on prizes. In Canada, the three major prizes for fiction – the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award – confine themselves to books written by Canadian citizens (even those, like Patrick DeWitt or Eleanor Catton, who have lived the majority of their lives outside Canada). The Griffin Poetry Prize is the only major Canadian literary award I’m aware of with an international component; arguments have been floated for folding the Canadian and International prizes together to bolster the award’s perceived legitimacy.

At least one dissenting voice has already been heard in Britain. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg claims to be “disappointed” by the move, which he says will eradicate the Booker’s “distinctiveness.” He compared the new rules to “a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.”

This argument risks charges of xenophobia, but it would be ironic if, in an effort to be more inclusive, the new rule ended up turning the Booker into yet another instrument of American cultural hegemony.

Of unfamiliarity and genius: a couple of thoughts about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist

October 3, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

A couple of things interest me about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, which was announced on Monday. For those who missed it, the five anointed titles are:

  • 419 by Will Ferguson
  • Inside by Alix Ohlin
  • The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
  • Ru by Kim Thúy
  • Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky

The first thing that struck me was the number of people – even highly bookish people – who claimed to be unfamiliar with these titles. I realize that I operate from a position as an industry insider, but even so, these are hardly obscure books from small publishers. Certainly Will Ferguson is a known quantity in CanLit, and Alix Ohlin has been written about and discussed widely, including fallout from a notoriously vicious review she was given by The New York Times (itself not exactly an obscure organ). Ohlin also found herself on the shortlist for another major award – the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – earlier this fall. (She is the only author to appear on both lists.) Thúy’s debut novel is already a prize winner, having picked up the Governor General’s Literary Award for its original French version, and both Richler and Wangersky are authors with multiple publications to their names.

But then, perhaps my surprise is unfounded. Precious few people in English Canada pay attention to what gets published in Quebec, so it’s hardly unexpected that Anglo readers would be ignorant of a Francophone first novel, even one that has won a major literary prize. Thúy’s novel is also the most frankly literary of the five books, and not the kind of thing general readers seem to be gravitating toward in large numbers these days. Both Richler and Wangersky have tended to fly under the radar for the bulk of their writing careers.

Anecdotal evidence from booksellers suggests that none of the five nominated titles sold up to expectations prior to the Giller shortlist announcement. This, too, seems unsurprising in a year in which anything unrelated to Fifty Shades of Grey or not written by J.K. Rowling has tended to fall through the cracks.

And there are no powerhouse titles that everyone can agree on this year. Last year saw two books – Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues – dominate prize lists both here and abroad (in addition to the three major domestic prizes, both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the U.K.). This year, of fifteen spots on the power trio of shortlists for fiction – the Giller, the GG, and the Writers’ Trust – only three names overlap – Ohlin, Tamas Dobozy, and Linda Spalding – and no one appears on all three lists.

So perhaps the lack of awareness around the authors on this year’s Giller shortlist is to be expected. Still, in a year in which some really overlooked names continue not just to fly under the radar, but to vanish from the field altogether, it’s a bit startling. If a scant few readers can claim familiarity with Will Ferguson or Alix Ohlin, how many can be expected to have heard of – much less read – worthy books by John Vigna, Anne Fleming, Yasuko Thanh, Alice Petersen, Tamara Faith Berger, Andrew Hood, or Esmé Claire Keith? On second thought, don’t answer that.

The second thing that interests me about this year’s shortlist involves something that John Barber alluded to in his column for The Globe and Mail. About Monday’s shortlist announcement, Barber writes:

Although sufficiently complimentary about all five of the nominated titles, this year’s Giller jury was fulsome on the subject of 419, tipping it as the clear front-runner in this year’s competition for the $50,000 prize.

Indeed, the jury citation for Ferguson’s novel, read by juror Anna Porter at Monday’s press conference, is somewhat remarkable. It calls 419 “something entirely new: the Global Novel.” This, of course, is nonsense: globetrotting thriller writers have been writing “global novels” for years. Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy built very lucrative careers doing exactly that. Nevertheless, the language is tellingly effusive.

So, too, is the jury’s assessment that “It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius.” Note the significance of what has happened here: right out of the gate, this year’s Giller jury – also composed of American author Gary Shteyngart and Irish author Roddy Doyle – has declared one of their nominees a work of genius.

All things being equal, it appears 419 is the book to beat when the prize announcement is made on October 30.

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