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.