Last Week's Giller Prize...

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Last Week's Giller Prize...



Last week our good friend Justin Trudeau hosted the Giller Prize, or more accurately the "Scotiabank" Giller Prize as it is now known as, awarding Vincent Lam as the winner of the $40,000 prize.

I haven't read any of the selections on the shortlist, and only a few selections from the [url=]longlist.[/url] Any suggestions?


I haven't read the book myself, but here's a review from the book lounge of one of the other books you might find helpful.

The Immaculate Conception



Ondaatje, Vassanji on 2007 Giller Prize longlist

The 2007 long list includes:

David Chariandy, Soucouyant.
Sharon English, Zero Gravity.
Barbara Gowdy, Helpless.
Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air.
Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes.
Paulette Jiles, Stormy Weather.
D.R. MacDonald, Lauchlin of the Bad Heart.
Claire Mulligan,The Reckoning of Boston Jim.
Mary Novik, Conceit.
Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero.
Daniel Poliquin, A Secret Between Us.
M.G. Vassanji, The Assassin's Song.
Michael Winter, The Architects Are Here.
Richard Wright, October.
Alissa York, Effigy.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I haven't read any of those books, and I probably won't for a while.

[url=]Here[/url] is Stephen Henighan's incendiary article in last winter's issue of [url=]Geist Magazine[/url] about the problems and bias of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It aroused quite a bit of talk at the time (including the bizarre comment about Lam's "interracial marriage").


The Giller Prize is the most conspicuous example of corporate suffocation of the public institutions that built our literary culture. True, the Giller hasn’t done as much damage as the throttling of the book market by the Chapters-Indigo chain. Until the early 1990s, a Canada-wide network of independent bookstores made it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 700 to 1000 copies, and sometimes more. Today the omnipresent outlets of Chapters-Indigo make it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 250 copies. But if Chapters-Indigo is the disease, the Giller Prize is the symptom. Nothing signalled the collapse of the literary organism as vividly as the appearance of this glitzy chancre on the hide of our culture. Year after year the vast majority of the books shortlisted for the Giller came from the triumvirate of publishers owned by the Bertelsmann Group: Knopf Canada, Doubleday Canada and Random House Canada. Like the three musketeers, this trio is in fact a quartet: Bertelsmann also owns 25 percent of McClelland & Stewart, and now manages M&S’s marketing. From 1994 to 2004, all the Giller winners, with the exception of Mordecai Richler, lived within a two-hour drive of the corner of Yonge and Bloor.


The peculiarly Canadian feature of Atwood’s intervention was her astonishing decision to tell in public the story of how Lam had approached her to read his manuscript while working as the ship’s doctor on an Arctic cruise on which Atwood was a passenger. The Family Compact takes for granted that advertising pre-existing links between old and new members of the establishment legitimizes the next generation in the eyes of the public. Our bourgeoisie, being weaker than that of other Western countries, must assert its cohesiveness in public. In the United States, the story of Atwood’s role in finding Lam a publisher would have remained the property of a small group of acquaintances educated at private colleges. In Great Britain, the story would have surfaced weeks later in a tabloid newspaper. Only in Canada could it have been broadcast on national television, prior to the awarding of the prize, to enable the old Wasp establishment to claim parentage over the new multicultural establishment.


But the real future of Canadian writing lay on the banquet tables of the 2006 Giller dinner, where each guest was invited to take home an individually wrapped party favour provided by Chapters-Indigo. When the guests opened their favours, they found that all the packages contained the same remaindered Stephen King novel. The tragedy of Canadian culture is that power brokers such as Atwood, Clarkson and Munro do not use their influence to rebuild a less monopolistic, more effective system for selling Canadian books. Without such an effort, the current generation’s legacy will be future Canadian readers who know nothing of either Margaret Atwood or Vincent Lam but are intimately acquainted with Stephen King.


Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero is discussed in this week's Times Literary Review. So these novels are not all in-grown toenails painted with the maple leaf gltterati.

The benefit of the Giller Prize is that it encourages people to read books, novels in particular. But the problem with fiction is that quite a bit of it is more boring than reality and a lot less informative.

I am trying to get the gist of the TLR piece but I think it was basically a critique of metrosexuality masquerading as literature - but I could be wrong.

I like a good read.Big now is the waterfall of conspiracy literature out there deriving from all the Da Vicinci Code stuff. Isn't much of the literary puffery little more than code for scholars?

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I can't speak for the Review (is there a Review?) but the Times Literary Suppliment review of Divisario eventually boiled down to the fact that Ondaatje writes wonderful scenes, conflicts and minutia, but that his characters remain utterly two-dimentional. I can't disagree; I always chalked this up to his being a poet first and a novelist second. He's an excellent wordsmith, but a less effective storyteller.

Back to the original complaint:

While it's true that a few big publishers tend to monopolize the Canadian literature scene, I'm not sure that this is because they manipulate the awards structure at all - they simply have the most money to buy a lot of the best scripts. Remember that last year (2006), most of the short listed books were from small, independant presses (Cormorant got two of the five, Anansi two, and the last was Doubleday).

I absolutely can not say that any of the books on the Long, Short or Winners lists do not deserve to be there, so I can not complain. The Giller isn't there to discover new, promising writers (there are other awards for that), it's there to recognise the very best of our literary crop. It stands to reason that the best will be with the publishers who pay the most.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Charlotte, you are making the dangerous assumption that large publishers have any vested interest whatsoever in purchasing the "best" scripts. The reason large publishers are large is that they sell the most copy. Thus, large publishers' primary and indeed constitutional interest is selling lots, not selling good. So, when you see the same names and crucially, the same publishers for some reason continually win prizes like the branded Scotiabank Giller, their integrity, or likelihood of securing the "best scripts" is questionable.

Smaller publishers, on the other hand, at the risk of sounding naive (and perhaps elitist?), are more likely to be a labour of love, and to hence pick newer, bolder and more interesting artists that don't capitulate to broad appeal, and target a more intimate audience. Why is Atwood continually nominated for the Giller? Why Ondaatje? Does anyone really think they're any good?

At any rate, [i]Bloodletting[/i] was tripe, and that should undermine any idea that the Giller still picks the "cream of the literary crop."


Similarily, I think it would be simple-minded of us to assume that the big publishers with all the money don't do everything they can to hire the most accomplished and accredited editors in the business. I mean, Knopf is practically run by Louise Dennys, who has been one of the best editors in the field for twenty+ years.

The Random House conglomorate knows the value of an award-winning literary author. Very few of their "stable" started out there, after all - they buy these writers out of the smaller presses you are talking about, the ones who labour for "love".

As to our Atwoods and Ondaatje's - yes, many people do like them. Ondaatje's poetry is phenomenal, in my opinion, and I love what Atwood's recent Penelopead and The Tent appeals to my love of myth and romance. As for Bloodletting; I also think it was a very good work - albeit fairly clearly a first novel.

If you are reading small-press Canadian literary writers who are the equal or better than what the Giller has on offer, I would truly and honestly love some suggestions. I am sitting in a small, independant bookstore as I write this, and have access to (hopefully) anything you might have to suggest! I'm nearly finished _Cosmopolitanism_ and ready for a new book - hit me!


[ 28 September 2007: Message edited by: CharlotteAshley ]

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

A Brit Giller judge makes fun of Canadian fiction

Victoria Glendinning, the British critic and novelist, is one of the three members of the Scotiabank-Giller Prize jury this year, the same jury that announced the lucrative award's long list yesterday. (The other two judges are Russell Banks, an American, and Alistair MacLeod, who is Canadian; the international jury is founder Jack Rabinovitch's attempt to broaden the horizons of the prize he named after his late wife, Doris Giller).

Anyway, Glendinning, writing in the Financial Times on Sept. 12, told her well-heeled compatriots of the impressions she has formed of Canadian novels and novelists while serving on the Giller jury. She started slowly, saying that reading almost 100 Canadian novels had taught her a few things about "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.)

From there, she took a more critical pass at Canadian fiction, noting that the mid-list material coming from many publishers has a "striking homogeneity":

There is a convention in Canada of appending to your novel 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. These last are generally fellow members of a writing group, who have contributed insightful modifications.

But has any major work of art ever been produced by committee? Readers may wonder whether a writer’s vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input, and indeed there is a 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.

The US, too, is a nation of immigrants, but American novelists do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents.

Fully wound up now, she delivered the coup de grace, suggesting that mediocre writers of "unbelievably dreadful" novels benefit by being Canadian:

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.