canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


GILLER GREEN ROOM, 2006

copied with permission from GoodReports.net

see also TDR's Scotiabank Giller 2006 short list report

*

What follows is a two-part discussion of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, won by Vincent Lam for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

The participants were Michael Bryson, Alex Good, Nathan Whitlock, and David Worsley

In the first part, the panel discussed the short list and news surrounding award. In the second part, the panel provided their own picks and wonder why everyone else got theirs wrong. 

Part the First: Preliminaries (pre-Nov. 7, 2006)

Part the Second: Green Room (post-Nov. 7, 2006)

*

Preliminaries:

Alex: Now in its thirteenth year, the Scotiabank (I hate the way they make that all one word) Giller Prize has established itself as Canada's highest-profile literary award. And this year the media really had a lot to buzz about. To wit:

(1) For the first time there was a long list of 15 titles announced a few weeks before the cut to the Final Five.

(2) Of the five finalists, only one was from a large press. And none was a high profile release.

(3) The short list contained two English translations of French-language novels.

Before we move on to the Green Room, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on all of this. Is there anything here to get exercised about? I suppose the thing that's drawn the most attention is the "who dat?" short list. Quill & Quire reported an "audible gasp" when it was announced. The next day the CBC labeled the authors as "The Great Unknowns." "What a strange list," George Murray over at Bookninja remarked. "I just wonder what went down to get to this point. Truly bizarre." Philip Marchand called it a "really stunning development."

I don't think this reaction was entirely unwarranted. As a freelance reviewer, I usually have at least a hazy idea of what's new and what's out there. And I will be honest: I had never heard of any of these books. Not only that, but I was hard-pressed to find anyone who had.

Please note that I'm not saying I couldn't find anyone who had read any of the books on the short list. I'm saying I couldn't find anyone who had heard of them. Ouch.

Of course coming from a small press shouldn't be any disqualification. I know that last year all the best new Canadian fiction I read came from the small press. And the fact is literary prizes are mainly a way of boosting recognition and (hopefully) sales. "Advertising" is too strong a word, but I wouldn't shy away from labeling all such awards a form of "promotion." So, in general, I think it's a good thing when books that haven't received a lot of attention grab the spotlight for a few weeks. Which is why I think the long list was a good idea too (though I also agree with Marchand that "for an author with serious Giller aspirations who doesn't even make the long list, the disappointment is all the more crushing").

I guess I'm most uneasy with the English translation issue. I'm really not sure translations should be included. I don't know how you can evaluate what counts - that is, the writing - when you're experiencing that writing through a filter. And how can you compare translations to books you're reading in the original language? It seems impossible to me. Comparing novels to short story collections is challenging enough.

Anyway, that's my take on the situation. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Also: Any votes for what should have made the long list/short list?

Michael: It's wonderful, isn't it, how journalists can find drama in the most mundane of facts. "The Great Unknowns" is a true archetype: David and Goliath. It's also a blunt clichť.

Myself, I'm wary of reading any narrative into this list, or any literary prize list. The esteemed jury, one supposes, was asked to pick the five best books, according to their own tastes. I prefer to remain naÔve and believe that this is what they have done. I would prefer to focus on textual analysis of the shortlisted books: What makes them "good"?

That said, since this is the "preliminary round," I'll say that there is at least the suggestion in this list of a reckoning with the Ghost of Gillers Past.  Established in 1994, the Giller soon got a reputation of being a "lifetime achievement award." Writers of a certain (i.e., older) age tended to be nominated. The great grey figureheads of CanLit seemed to be always on the shortlist, if they didn't walk away with the prize. The award was diminished further when the eminent jury refused to pick between David Adams Richards and Michael Ondaatje in 2000, when neither of their books was picked above the other in a quaky photo finish.

As recent as this past August, Douglas Coupland was satirizing the award in The New York Times (August 22, 2006):

Last year I was flipping TV channels and, on channel 821, watched a live broadcast of CanLit's annual award ceremony, the Gillers, piped in from a Toronto ballroom. It was as if I'd tuned into the Monster Mash, not a soul under 60, and I could practically smell the mummy dust in the room. This accidental peephole into that world really pinpointed just how lost in time and space CanLit has become, how its scope has narrowed, and how stingy it has been with the grooming of successors.

I quoted the above in an editorial I wrote for the September 2006 fiction issue of The Danforth Review. Coupland's phrase "the grooming of successors" jumps out, doesn't it?

The domination of the tried and true was also the theme of a October 17, 2005, column by Rachel Giese on the CBC website titled "How To Win a CanLit Award". Giese suggested the best way to win a prize was "to be Alice Munro." Her other suggestions included "be a man" and "get published by a big company":

While books from smaller houses usually get a token nod on shortlists and even make for the occasional winner, the Gillers and GGs have been owned by three publishers: McClelland & Stewart with 11 awards, Random House/Knopf/Doubleday with 10 and HarperCollins with four.

Here what I see is potentially at stake at this year's Giller Monster Mash. This year's shortlist is not David against Goliath (that is a plausible but shallow reading of the facts). The deeper reading is this year's short list is a story of the prize against its own history. And the grandest narrative may yet turn out to be that this year's shortlist is one of the early warning sparks that CanLit is finally entering the 21st century. Has the true grooming of successors begun?

I have some thoughts about the translation issue and my own missed picks, but I'll leave it at that for now. Interested to hear the thoughts of others.

Alex: I think journalists go for this kind of background narrative because they're trying to come up with an angle for a story they can write without actually having to read any of the books. Which is something they have no intention of doing.

David: Every year it seems, commentators throw up their hands at the outcome of these awards and wonder where their favourites are. While this list reads more like a Governor General's, no one can say the choices aren't boldly bucking the Giller's history. On that score, perhaps the grooming of the successors has begun. It's an intriguing prospect. 

Having said that, I'm full of questions around these choices, certainly as a reader but especially as a bookseller. I try especially to keep up with the small presses. That's where the braver writing is, but I'm damn sure not going to ignore Phillip Roth either. Conversely, I'm fairly sure my mortgage is paid by the "mummy dust" that Douglas Coupland refers to. If they are content to read the new books by their ten favourite authors, and a few newbies that catch their interest, I need to be at least partially aware of thing like that. If there is a revolution afoot, I'm not as confident that "son of mummy dust" is going to be ready to embrace the new bosses as fervently.

I'm still optimistic enough to view all this from afar and find it all fascinating. But a few proven winners on Canadian prize lists should mean that someone's third novel/story collection is almost inevitably more polished than their first. At bottom this is a brave list, and frankly the more paperback originals that get onto shortlists, the better. It's damnably hard to champion a $34.00 hardcover and constantly be asked when it comes out in paperback!

Alex: Dave, just what is the response to the announcement of the shortlist like on the retail level? Did you see much of a bounce this year?

Dave: Not right away. There's no impetus for anyone who's heard of the book(s) previously to act on their familiarity with them. Every year that I can remember there was at least one title that was crawling a bit before the Giller effect prompted a run. That isn't the case here. It's too bad really, because a short-story Giller-winner may help a bit to let some air into a pretty conservative state of affairs.

Nathan: As far as the "narrative" goes, it sometimes helps to be reminded how much this all looks, to people outside of the book industry, like the nominations for the yearís best model airplane, or best Renaissance fair, or best yoga instructor - or best Canadian film, for that matter. I did a short interview for CBC TV the day the shortlist was announced, for which I was told in advance (and repeatedly during the interview itself) that the focus would be on Vincent Lam - specifically, the idea that a doctor could be a successful fiction writer. (Chekhov, Walker Percy, W.S. Maugham, Robin Cook, Michael Chrichton, and about four dozen others notwithstanding.) When I tried to introduce the idea that the shortlist was also interesting because of all the small press (a label, by the way, Anansi rejects) and translated titles on it, it was as though I were launching into an impassioned monologue on the various options available in regard to balsa wood and modeling glue.

Obviously, a CBC editor looked at the shortlist when it came out and said, "How the hell do we make a story about this?" To be honest, itís a reaction I am sympathetic to: short of having Roy MacSkimming or Robert Lecker or someone come on to explain to puzzled viewers the peculiar history of small presses in Canadian Literature over the last forty-odd years, itís hard to make anyone care. To most people outside of the industry, theyíre all small presses (except for, maybe, Penguin, which has actual name-recognition, though interestingly, has never had a book nominated for a Giller).

As for the "who dat" factor, I will admit I had a moment of panic when I saw the list over whether Quill & Quire had actually reviewed them all. (We had, though the Carol Windley review wonít appear until our December issue.) I like the romantic idea of a jury taking its duty so seriously as to dig past all the encrusted hype and engorged reputations - not to mention the oversized thematic pretensions of some of the books themselves - also known as "Giller bait" - to find what they believe to be the "best" books of the year. I donít think it ever happens, but I like the idea.

In the past, the shortlists seemed to be split between books that everyone knew were going to be there, and unexpected left-fielders like Lisa Moore, John Gould (who dat?), or Fred Stenson. This year, the entire list is from out of left field, which canít help but feel a bit willful on the part of the jury. I freely admit that I had not read any of the books on the list before the announcement, but I found it difficult to believe that this jury honestly thought a twelve-year-old French novel translated into English was really among the best of the year.

But then, that calls into question the very definition of "best," doesnít  it? There is no litmus test for literary juries to employ, so I wouldnít consider it particularly scandalous to discover that this jury made the decision that, whatever the literary merits of their respective books, David Adams Richards and Wayne Johnston really donít need the extra attention (or sales), and that maybe it was a better use of their power to pick lesser-known - okay, virtually unknown - authors for the list, even if that meant passing on books they thought were "better."

Iíll come back later to the idea of whether this is evidence of an imminent takeover by the Young Turks of CanLit - for now, let me just say that such a notion is a little hard to believe when you actually look at this shortlist. All of the books, at least from the investigations Iíve made of their actual style, tone, content, etc., could have easily been written by one of the old guard, a point I made in my own response to Couplandís New York Times piece. Iím not saying that the books are bad or boring, only that no one would mistake them for a New Wave of Canadian writing.

Michael: Did everyone see the comment piece in The Globe and Mail (October 14, 2006) by Andrť Alexis: "Since when can the 'best' English novel be written in French?" The headline says it all, really. By nominating two novels-in-translation for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize, he argues, the jury "has tacitly suggested that the original language of a novel is less then essential to the novel itself."

I'm not sure I follow his line of thought. Because I'm never going to read Madame Bovary in the original French, have I missed something essential to it? Seems very hair-splitting to me. Yes, I've missed something. But is my experience of the novel merely a mutant of the original?

Also, I resist holding the jury accountable for the question: Is it fair to consider novels-in-translation for this sort of prize? I would think that the jury is asked to judge the books that are provided to it. Publishers need to submit their books by a deadline and then the prize organizers draw up a final list, put the books in a box and ship them to the jury members. I would expect the jury to treat every book in the box equally. Whether the novels-in-translation should be in the box or not is up to the prize organizers, not the jury.

Do I think novels-in-translation should be in the box? Well, I should come clean on something before I begin to answer that question. Earlier this year, I was on the novel jury for the ReLit Awards and we the jury picked a short list of four novels that
included Gaťtan Soucy's The Immaculate Conception. At the time, I was more bothered by the fact that the book had been first published in 1994 than by the fact that it was a novel-in-translation. But I also followed the theory I've laid out above that it wasn't my job to question whether it ought to be considered or not. I thought my job was to consider every book in the box equally.

Does anyone know what they do in Quebec about the reverse situation? Has Atwood ever won a French-language prize?

Alex: Well, I wouldn't hold the jury accountable for the French-language question either. But as a jury member I think I'd just be throwing up my hands at the thought of comparing a translation to a work I'm reading in the original. In my opinion the prize organizers should make it clear that English-language means written in English. I would keep translations out of the box. Madame Bovary in English is just a different book than Madame Bovary in French. I mean, I'm guessing there isn't a big difference if you're reading someone like Zola in translation, but Quiviger, to take an example from this shortlist, is obviously an interesting stylist. And I'm just not sure what I'm missing in terms of her use of language, what's been added and what's been lost in translation. So how can I fairly compare her book to the ones written in English? Which is, after all, what I'm being asked to do.

As far as this being a New Wave or grooming of the successors, at least there are some younger names on the list. And in fact three of the books - including Soucy's - are first novels, and Lam's book is his first work of fiction. But let's wait for the Green Room to get into a more detailed analysis.

Nathan: For now, I think we should get to some early predictions. Iím curious to know what people are betting on using outside factors - book description, relative buzz, past Giller behaviour, etc. - as a guide. Itís got nothing at all to do with the "words on the page," but I wonder how accurate it can be.

Alex: OK, using a totally "outside factors" checklist I'll play. Last year the prize went to the only male author on the list, so this year it will go to a woman. And, in any event, Lam and Hage are both too new and Soucy's book is too old. Quiviger won't win because she won the G-G already for that book. And if Geise's theory is right that your best bet to win is to "be Alice Munro," then Windley has to be the favourite. She'll win.

I'll also throw out a title that I thought should have made the list: Kenneth Harvey's Inside. But at least it made the long list. I'd like to hear your picks for that too.

David: I suppose I should care about eligibility around translated material, but I don't. I've no idea if Atwood ever won a French prize, and it hardly matters. 

I'll second much of Nathan's points insofar as my initial panic/disbelief at the announcement largely vanished as I looked a bit closer at the books, and the "Giller bait" factor is entirely absent here. If Lisa Moore was ever a left field choice, she certainly is on her way now, and if that's the fate of a couple or three of this year's list, what's the harm? Most of the Random House authors who are perennially published in cloth are going to be fine, all things being equal.

It's funny Alex, I had the same thoughts on Windley being the early favourite as well, particularly as this is her third effort. As for who should have gotten through, I would have liked to have seen Caroline Adderson.

Michael: I went back to the prize website to look at the long list of 15 titles and pondered what I might have expected the short list to look like. As a result, I am prepared now to say I am shocked by the jury's selected final five. At the same time, I take Nathan's point about the broader public's point of view. I dare say the majority of the population wouldn't even be able to name a single title by any of the author's on the long list.

Case in point: When The Globe and Mail reviewed Kenneth J. Harvey's Inside earlier this year, the review began with the reviewer explaining in shocked tones how she'd never heard of him. How could this be? I, for one, was surprised the Globe assigned the book to someone with so little perspective. Harvey's only been publishing since 1990 and might well be one of the most publicity-friendly authors Canada has ever known. If the Globe doesn't expect its reviewers to have at least a passing knowledge of authors like Harvey, it's certain that the public's imagination hasn't been engaged by them.

Which is part of the reason why prizes like the Scotiabank Giller exist. To help create an atmosphere that enables the publicity machines of publishers to sell their books. I'm all for that. Pull a couple of titles out of near obscurity every year and perpetuate the idea that literature is a contemporary enterprise.

Who's my "outside factors" winner? I'll take a shot at it. Rawi Hage's book, De Niro's Game, followed by Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures seem on the face of it to be the most daring of the lot. However, I've seen Lam's book more prominently displayed in book stores than the others. And it has a great cover. So, Lam is my quick pick winner.

Finally, I agree that Harvey's Inside should have made the list. I would have even made it the front runner to win.

Alex: I like the Lam cover too, but I don't think the cover can be that influential. At least I hope not. However, as Nathan's experience with the CBC interview demonstrates, Lam is an early media darling. He also has a huge X-factor going for him. Michael Winter, one of the three Giller jurors, is one of a small group of names mentioned in his Acknowledgements. Personally I've always thought that indicated a conflict of interest. Several years ago I objected to Alistair MacLeod being on the jury that gave the prize to David Adams Richards (the year of the shared award). Richards's previous novel had been dedicated to MacLeod, and I really thought MacLeod should have recused himself from the jury for appearance's sake. You can say what you want about the Canadian literary community being a small pond, but it's not that small.

Michael: Another book that deserved the recognition of a Giller nomination is Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron. The Governor General's short list prompted this thought. Glennon's book seems to me to be a significant achievement and I was surprised not to see more notice of it since it came out. It's nice to see it getting some belated attention from the GG's. In honesty, though, it isn't a book that could remotely be classified as Giller-bait. The GG list, perhaps we should note, only has one title overlapping with the Giller short list: Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game. Has any book ever won both the GG and the Giller? I don't think so. Maybe this year it's time for a first. The GG list is also all male writers. Very non-PC. Some surprises there, too.

Alex: I agree about the Glennon. I picked it as one of my Books of the Year for 2005. The only reason I didn't mention it earlier is I didn't think of it as a 2006 book. I'm not sure when the cut-off date is for these awards, but I guess it snuck in under the wire for the GG's.

Nathan: It came out in September 2005, according to my records. Maybe October. Either way, an awfully long time ago in
publishing terms.

I think, based on buzz alone, we can fairly confidently eliminate the two translated titles right out of the gate. (In fact, I think we already have.) I'm not sure even this Giller jury is capable of that kind of a shocker. I agree with Andrť Alexis - possibly the only time I ever will - that you simply can't make the comparison between a translated work and a work in its author's native language. I would split the hair a little further and say that the Giller needs to have a separate category for short fiction. After all, you could have a collection with a few stories that outshine all the novels under consideration combined, but that also contains a bunch of duds and also-rans. How do you judge - for mere consistency?

To go even further, the original publication date of the book should be a factor. Or else, why shouldn't a bold new translation of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin net their long-dead authors a "best book of the year" prize? If 12 years is ok, why not 112?

As for the other three: The Lam, Hage, and Windley seem to be running about neck-and-neck-and-neck in terms of vaguely positive feelings amongst readers and critics.

The Hage book has the "advantage" of being set outside of Canada, in one of those really interesting places where really interesting things happen. Lam has the doctor-as-writer hook (and some influential friends), and the Windley book appears the most, mmm, gentle of the three, the book that could best be sold to readers of, say, Alice Munro. This is also her third book, so the Giller would really only be stretching its previous "career achievement award" reputation to become a "mid-career award." (Three books is often considered "mid-career" in this country, as opposed to "just getting warm.")

I'd say it's between Hage and Windley, with Windley having the slight edge.

Alex: OK then, it looks like that does it for the preliminary "book chat" part of our roundtable. When we meet again, which will be after the winner is announced, we will discuss our own rankings of the five finalists. This discussion will be quite unlike most of the other Giller features out there because we will have actually read all the books on the short list. Unfortunately none of us will be attending the gala this year, but we will make up for it by taking over the Green Room. See you there!

THE GREEN ROOM

Alex: Now that the party's over and Vincent Lam has gone home with the prize, it's time for the really interesting part of our discussion to get started. Let's begin by going around the room and getting everyone's picks for how they ranked the finalists.

Michael: Iím afraid I have to begin by saying I didnít catch the Giller bash on TV. I was at the Air Canada Centre at my umpteenth Bob Dylan concert. All I can report is that Bob didnít indicate his preference for a winner in the Scotiabank Giller contest.

My own ranking is as follows:

(1) De Niro's Game
(2) The Perfect Circle
(3) Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures
(4) Home Schooling
(5)
The Immaculate Conception

Without getting into the Giller juryís decision, hereís my quick assessment of the books and a quick overview of the reasons behind my rankings.

Hageís book was the clear #1 pick for me. Why? It was the only one that gave me a knot in my stomach. None of the other books gave me the same kind of emotional engagement. A large part of the power of the book comes from the extraordinary circumstances of the story: the Lebanese Civil War. In structure, itís essentially a buddy story and quite simple, as is its prose. I found the references to Camusís The Stranger unnecessarily literary. Hageís novel is existentialist, yes, but readers should have been left to reach that conclusion on their own.

I ranked the Quiviger book second because I felt the author managed to pull off a delicate balance. This is the story of the end of a love affair in Italy, reflected through the memories of the female narrator, whoís from Canada. In a novel in which nothing happens, she maintains a narrative of strength and confidence. The narrator makes clear that this relationship touched her profoundly, and she is able to expound at length about her thoughts and feelings.

Lamís book is the one I picked in the preliminaries to win. After reading it, though, I felt fearful that it actually might take the prize. It has strengths, yes, but also not insignificant weaknesses. However, Iím ranking it third because, next to De Niroís Game, I found it the most compelling (in parts). Lam has all the basics of storytelling down, and he has unique subject matter: the lives of doctors. I would summarize this book as journalistic in tone and uneven in literary ambition.

Windleyís Home Schooling is a museum piece. If someone was going to attempt to create from scratch a piece of canonical CanLit, this would be it. Where the rock band Sloan rips off The Beatles, Windley here is channeling 1970s Alice Munro. Is there a problem with that? Some would say no: Windley has provided us with new, serious fiction. Some would say yes: weíve heard it all before. My take is, like Bob Dylan re-interpreting old folk and blues songs, Windley has taken a strong stab at re-inventing the wheel. Do we need a new wheel? I dunno.

The book I ranked fifth is The Immaculate Conception. I first read this book last spring, and at the time I thought it had a seriousness of purpose that overcame its weaknesses. Upon revisiting it, however, I found it difficult to get past what seems to me to be leaden prose and a deadening earnestness. ĎNuff said.

Alex: I did watch a bit of the show on TV. I don't think you missed much. I do love those little interviews they do on the red carpet before the show. Notable this year was Beverley Thompson (CTV news anchor) saying how much she appreciated the little synopses they give of each of the books because most people don't have time to read them. I turned the sound off after that, but the rest of it didn't look too bad.

Anyway, this is how I ranked them:

(1) Home Schooling
(2) De Niro's Game
(3) Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures
(4) The Perfect Circle
(5)
The Immaculate Conception

I know I said in the Preliminaries that Carol Windley was the most likely to win because she was the nominee who came closest to "being" Alice Munro. But that was meant as a compliment. And I just thought that in a short list dominated by first-timers (as noted before, even Soucy's book is a first novel), Home Schooling stood out as the most polished, professional work. The only story I didn't really care for was the first, "What Saffi Knows." It seemed out of place, and the tone of it - an awkward blend of whimsy and the macabre - just seemed wrong. The rest of the collection was very strong though. Like Munro, Windley takes the material of everyday life - jobs, family relationships, dinner-table conversations - and through her ear for conversation, her eye for the detail of a gesture or a glance, she creates stories of incredible texture and density. "The Reading Elvis" has all the punch of most novels in only 30 pages.

I know some people object to this sort of writing as being somehow stereotypically Canadian or CanLit. Maybe it is, even down to Windley's foggy, West Coast Gothic sensibility. But the bottom line for me is that it's very well done.

Hage's book was certainly the flashiest, the most exciting. Nothing stereotypically Canadian about it. No question he's an exciting new voice to take heed of. I loved those long, visionary sentences that just sort of ramble on like he's riffing on the Beats, or when Bassam's imagination starts riding loose through history, to the point of seeing Napoleon's officers parading through the streets of Paris. On the other hand, while I applauded the stylistic pyrotechnics I sometimes wondered why Bassam, who apparently isn't taking a lot of drugs, always seems to be tripping out. I also thought that the book, like all "tough guy" fiction, came very close to self-parody on occasion.

The violent yet uber-cool anti-hero is always in danger of turning into a clichť. Bassam the Beirut Bad-Ass is no exception. I found myself groaning at some of the poses. Like when Bassam claims God is dead and then walks through the streets with old women shrieking and crossing themselves when they see him. Or when he finds out that George has taken up with his girlfriend and he drives up to the top of a cliff and empties his gun into the hills. By the time he gets to Paris and finds a copy of L'Etranger in his hotel room . . . I agree Mike, I think we'd already got the point.

Still, a very good book. And a terrific first novel.

I liked Lam's book but didn't find anything special about it. Medicine is, as all the television networks know, inherently dramatic. Each patient, just like each client in a legal drama, is a story. And so I found Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures less like a collection of short stories than a bunch of episodes from a prime-time medical series, an impression strengthened by the way Lam sticks with the same cast of characters but has no overarching narrative.

It's a quick, enjoyable read. The episode structure provides a lot of variety and prevents it from ever getting dull. Could have used better editing in places, but I'm not sure a lot of people care about that. And the stories are quite artfully constructed, even by "literary award" standards. I guess I just didn't find anything here that took this from being a good book to a great book. But, as with De Niro's Game, it is a pretty impressive debut.

There was so much I liked about The Perfect Circle I wanted to rank it higher. It's a charming little story. And there's nothing sentimental about it. It takes the whole romantic clichť of the May-December, foreigner-local love story and turns it inside-out. And at times it's hilarious. The dinner scene in particular was terrific, a wonderful comic set-piece I'll never forget.

Unfortunately Quiviger mortars this material with lengthy meditative, poetic passages that didn't work for me at all. In part because the writing seemed overdone, but I think more because she was straining a point that was so obvious. Of course Marianne has to break free to truly be herself, and of course the perfect circle of life in the village with Marco and his mom is a trap. "Show, don't tell" is still pretty good advice for most writers. If Quiviger had followed it I think this could have been a gem of a novella.

Finally, I didn't like The Immaculate Conception.

It wasn't all bad. I thought the setting, Soucy's lower-class Montreal populated by diseased, repressed grotesques, was fascinating. But it suffers from serious "first novel" problems - the needlessly complex narrative and overwrought dramatics being clear examples. The worst thing, however, was the aggravating "I've got a secret" narrative technique. I remember seeing Ian McEwan interviewed a year or so ago and his being asked what the most common mistake was that he saw new writers making. Without hesitating he said it was starting off a novel by holding on to a secret.

So true. Why? Because it's such an obvious, artificial device and it just irritates the reader. I nearly exploded when I read the first chapter here. Remouald sees "something terrible" . . . and that's all we're told. Such a clever way of building suspense. Really keeps the reader guessing.

Of course by the time all of the (many) mysteries are revealed - what's in the cabinet, what happened to Remouald when he was a kid, what was going on behind the wall, etc. - the reader either doesn't care or has lost track of what the point was in the first place. (As an aside, I had the same problem with another novel by a Quebec writer I just reviewed recently: Jean Barbe's How to Become a Monster.)

Hate to go off on a rant like that, but I have to say that I found this book so flawed, even for a first novel, that I'm shocked it made the list. And the jury really went out on a limb to pick it too. Nathan, you said in the Preliminaries that you "found it difficult to believe that this jury honestly thought a twelve-year-old French novel translated into English was among the best of the year." Having read it, I can only say I share your sense of disbelief. Not because it's a twelve-year-old French novel translated into English, but because it's just not very good.

And yes, I found the jury's decision pretty surprising too. But more of that in a bit. On to you Dave.

David: Flipping back between CNN and CTV, it's a crazy life I lead. My list ran as follows

(1) Home Schooling
(2) Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures
(3) De Niro's Game
(4) The Perfect Circle
(5) The Immaculate Conception

I think the best thing that came out of this year's short list is the remarkable collection by Carol Windley. If it's a book for another time, fine. Sentence for sentence it's also the class of the field. There just wasn't a weak link in the book. "What Saffi Knows" and "Family in Black" are standouts, but again no weak points.

This is everything short fiction should be and I'm trying not to reference the Globe article that discussed the short list, but what the hell is wrong with hearing bebop in 2006 if it's singularly fine bebop? I'm just not concerned that the stories may have a stylistic throwback quality to them. Quebec Gothic a la Soucy has been done before as well.

Windley was, for my money, the clear winner.

I had mixed feelings on Lam's book initially, but I went back and reread most of the stories last week and the guy has all the tools. There's a cumulative power there. I'm not much for medical settings, and the sameness in terms of the setting is a sort of elephant in the room. I'll reserve a fuller judgment until he sets something outside of his comfort zone. I suppose I can live with the jury's choice, though. Lam is a smart, economical writer who gets dialogue right, and he shares with Hage a cinematic quality that is immediate and punchy without being self-conscious. He wins out over Hage by just a bit because he exercised more control over his characters.

Rawi Hage has put together a solid narrative pull throughout De Niro's Game, but it feels like a film script in spots. That's not a criticism as such, but the main character Bassam felt a bit sketchy. Indeed George seemed a fuller creation.

I would welcome genre stuff on what has been a shortlist that routinely shuts out genre, and Hage's book worked pretty well as a thriller. I'm not sure Hage is there yet, but the book stayed with me after I finished it and the last third of the novel after Bassam got to France was solid.

I don't have any major criticisms, but nonetheless De Niro's Game is in the middle of the pack. It's entirely possible, however, that Hage's next book could bury the next effort by anyone else on this list.

Pascal Quiviger's book is wonderfully written, but doesn't have the craft of Windley's book and both characters were deficient. Our guy Marco is not someone I could buy as being an object of obsession. Even the first villager Marianne meets merely describes her lover as "good old Marco."

He lives with his mother, gives more of himself to dogs than people and has it bad for a hunt that rarely produces a trophy. I just don't see getting worked up about him.

As for Marianne, she is entirely declarative in her feelings for Marco. The story trips on a very simple "show, don't tell" rule. I also kept wondering if this novel grew out of a short story. There were stretches that felt unnecessary.

I'll read Quiviger's next book because the writing is quite good, but this first effort is just that. Fourth place.

I was going to invoke the Golden Rule here. I really can't find anything nice to say about Gaťtan Soucy's book. I must have missed something, but unless absolutely everything isn't as it seems, then there's really nothing to drive a nail into. A great whack of plot points that take forever to resolve and then . . . what exactly? For a novel so over the top, there didn't seem to be much of a payoff. At least when I was (much) younger Anne Rice laced all that purple prose with a vampire or two.

That was the only book I had real trouble finishing.

Nathan: I watched about five minutes of the show. I have an allergic reaction, I think, to Justin Trudeau, and had to turn it off. I did turn it back on at the end to see who won, and could only say, "huh?"

I will admit right off the bat that I have not read the two books in translation. I didn't get the Soucy, and I just never had the chance to read all of the Quiviger, though I did read parts of it, enough to get a sense of the tone, style, etc.

As for the other three:

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage - This is the one I enjoyed the most, and the one I picked to win. The story felt a little familiar, it goes flat in the last few chapters, and, unlike Alex, I found the page-long run-on sentences that crop up every five pages or so became an annoying tic. On the other hand, the book is a compelling read, and never shrinks from, or attempts to sentimentalize, the violence of the story and of the setting, war-ravaged Beirut. Hage has a excellent sense of pacing, and does not hesitate to portray his protagonist as an occasionally nasty, vengeful shit. (Not that he isn't usually justified in being such a shit.) I groaned, too, when he started reading the Camus in Paris.

Home Schooling by Carol Windley - I picked this as next most likely to win, after the Hage. I think the writing in the book, on the level of craft, is probably the best of all the books on the shortlist (at least, ahem, the ones I read), but there was also the sense that Yes, she's the most talented writer, line by line, but I think that ends up not meaning much if the book feels dated right out of the gate. The Munro comparison is obvious, but I think Windley lacks Munro's psychological acuity. Even when Munro is treading some very well-worn ground - OK, even when her stories are dull - she is yet able to expose characters' motivations in a way that is almost clinical, and occasionally a little scary. I found myself rarely able to believe in Windley's characters. They seemed like creatures that could only exist in a work of literary fiction. Everything was abstract obsession and vague desire and passivity. I remember reading a piece by Anthony Lane where he - following Gore Vidal, who did it a few decades earlier - reviewed the top-10 books on the NY Times' bestsellers list. The best thing in it was when he went on about how, in trashy genre fiction (Danielle Steele, etc.), characters are allowed to indulge in the full range of human psychology - lust, greed, ambition, vanity, etc. - but in middlebrow literary fiction, everybody is emotionally constipated. Lust is reduced to longing for someone while staring out a rain-streaked window, or making a symbolically significant meal. It's not entirely fair to say this about Windley, but I kept thinking about that essay while reading the stories.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam - This is an uneven collection that starts strong and ends strong, but stumbles in the middle. I really like the stories about Fitzgerald, especially the earlier ones about his failed relationship with Ming. I was happy to see him reappear, because, as with the Hage, I am always up for deeply flawed, occasionally repugnant main characters. I was worried, going into the book, that Lam would feel the urge to make his stories more "literary" - i.e., more passive or reflective - but for the most part, he writes with immediacy, and is able to immerse himself and the reader in his fictional worlds. I have to agree with Sandra Martin that some of the book felt like experiences that hadn't been fully digested yet, but on the other hand, that probably accounted for some of the immediacy of the stories.

Lam must be sick of having his stuff compared to ER. On the other hand, it's very hard not to think of it in some of the more "you are there" stories and scenes. Fortunately, there are only a couple of those. The best thing Lam accomplishes is to show a whole realm - that of doctors, nurses, and hospitals - that is strangely underrepresented in literary fiction. Thriller and mystery writers see the imaginative potential, but surprisingly few literary writers.

I think picking Lam shows how pointless it is to wonder whether these books are picked because they are the "best." The winner is the one the jury can all agree on, which means it could easily be their second-choice, or even third choice.

In the end, though, I'm not at all bothered by the fact that they picked the Lam, though it would have been nice to see the award go to Cormorant or Anansi. I enjoyed the book, and probably would have ended up reading it anyway, which is more than I can say for most of the Giller winners.

Alex: Some interesting thoughts, especially with regard to Home Schooling and the "even if it's well done, we're tired of it" argument. I can buy into a bit of that, and if there were some stronger nominees to challenge Windley it might have come in to play. But I didn't think there were.

I thought we might wrap up with slapping a grade on the jury. I see there being two things to consider: (1) the selection of the shortlist, and (2) the selection of a winner.

I can't give them great marks for the short list. I thought they had two strong picks in the Windley and the Hage. I thought the Lam was a bit of a stretch, the Quiviger a slightly longer stretch, and the Soucy a mistake. Especially when you consider the rest of the field this year. They passed over some good stuff to get this list. As usual, at least in my opinion, the GG list was more interesting. I'm not sure why that is. Usually it's because the Giller is more of an "establishment" and "lifetime achievement" award. But that wasn't the case this year. This was a left-field list.

And given that liberating impulse I thought they could have done better.

As for the winner, I think Nathan has a point about juries sometimes taking everyone's second or third choice. I also got the feeling Lam's book was the "safe" pick on the list. It was probably the most popular or, to put it another way, least "literary" work. Which is fine. But on the other hand, if that's the criteria . . .

I give this year's jury a C-minus.

Nathan: I'm with you on the C-minus overall, Alex. The shortlist, even allowing for its eccentricity, never felt like it was representative of the best books of the year - even the best small-to-medium-size press books of the year. It almost felt like a random sampling. As in, "these five are among the best books of the year."

I'd be more forgiving about the shortlist selections if they hadn't gone with Bloodletting as the winner. Again, I'm not saying it's bad at all - for the most part I truly enjoyed reading it. But I came out of almost every story thinking, "is that it?" The Windley stories, as old-fashioned and emotionally stodgy as they were, at least drew me a little further into the language and the fictional universe of the stories. And the Hage simply felt more alive, more immediate, whatever its faults. Lam has a lot of talent, and there were moments in most of the stories that showed he could go from strength to strength, if he doesn't get absorbed into the CanLit borg that seems to eventually transform all interesting and promising young writers into faded copies of their elders. This book was a first book, and as such, it was a great one, and he should be congratulated. But the best of the year?

Michael: Grading the jury? From the gut, I'm going to give them a B-minus. Can't really justify that beyond saying I feel for anyone who takes on the task of reading through a stack of books and trying to negotiate with three other people a "best of." Perhaps literary juries would be better off consisting of individuals (i.e., one person). Then we wouldn't get the weaker consensus choices.

I know we're gotten through this discussion so far without mentioning gender, but I have to say that when I was talking to friends about this list it inevitably came up that this jury (the four of us in this discussion) are all male. I said to folks that there were two books on the short list that were "very female novels." My female friends were concerned that the female authors wouldn't get fair treatment, but I am now pleased to be able to say that two of the guys here picked Windley to win. My own liberated status, of course, has fallen to ruin.

I would also like to say that I think the critics have deferred too much to Lam's status as a doctor, a professional and an authority. Medicine has deeper insights than Lam has given us. Both of my parents worked in hospitals and a lot more raunchy things happen in hospitals than Lam's book suggests. And I don't mean soap opera things, though recently a friend told me about a friend of hers who took her kid to the hospital and the emergency room doctor picked her up. And I don't mean the story my father told me about the guy who was screwing around with his girlfriend when he fell off the bed and broke his erect penis, only to end up in the hospital and phoning his wife, who came screaming into the hospital tearing a strip off of everybody. I was thinking more about medicine being a mix of the ancient art and the highly leading-edge scientific, and also a mystery. Life, the fragility and the enormous strength of it. The awe medicine has about its own knowledge and its own lack of knowledge. These are big metaphysical questions. I'm not saying Lam needed to write a novel of ideas, but to give this guy the best of the year award for a first collection, as promising as it is? Sorry. No. To win the prize it should have provided more.

Maybe I should downgrade the jury now. Okay, yes. Now that I think again of Kenneth J. Harvey's Inside, which the jury could have chosen. That's a far better book than Lam's. Stark simple prose. Not a big novel of ideas. But one profound about the limits of life. That's the book that should have won. In a pass/fail system, this jury gets an F. But we're not a society that gives failing grades anymore. So, I guess I'll concur with the C-minus grade. (Sorry, Alice! I still love you with all my heart!)

BTW, the NY Times ran a story "Doctor wins literary prize". ... The story didn't say much more than the headline. So, from the Times: "All the news that's fit to print."

Alex: Oh, I would have given an F if I thought it was deserved. But this wasn't a disaster.

I'm still a bit concerned about the Michael Winter angle. In his Acknowledgments Lam credits seven authors, including Winter, with helping him "begin to learn the art of writing." Unless he's just name-dropping, which is a possibility, I assume that means they were of some assistance in the writing of this book. And yet there was Winter standing on stage giving him the prize. I don't think that should have happened.

Like all of you, I'm mostly just a little surprised that Lam won, not really upset. As I said earlier, it was a "bit of a stretch."

Finally: I did think about the gender issue you mention Michael when I set this panel up. But what can I do? Female? Opinionated about books? Send me an e-mail! (And no, I'm not looking to hook up.)

David: I do feel a bit more charitable, so I'll call it a C.

Granted, most of that comes from my complete bafflement at the Soucy book being on the list. There was something to like in each of the others, and who knows, Lam and Hage may grow into something quite wonderful.

I'm with Nathan, however. There's something to his supposition about the "CanLit borg" and I have to think it comes from a subconscious realization that muse or no muse, the Canadian novel rests on a pretty shaky perch in terms of what can hope to be sold.

Of course, there are exceptions and that becomes a wider debate, but I also read the new Cormac McCarthy in the midst of the Giller five, and was struck by how different it was from his other work. I'm hard pressed to name a major Canadian author who could pull off such a radical work as deeply into their careers as McCarthy is into his. I'm not sure the industry would reward it or even allow for it much. Some of you have sung the praises of Kenneth Harvey, a guy I've never read, but probably should do so now.

It's simply easier for prospective publishers to replicate a "Heather's Pick" than feed and water a young writer over the course of three books. For that reason, I give some credit to the short list being something that runs counter, but best books of the year? No.

Nathan: Dave, you're right: the rarity of established Canadian novelists changing direction in any radical way is something that really marks contemporary CanLit. The market forces, obviously, do anything to prevent it, but I'm sure those forces are in place everywhere else in the world to roughly the same extent. It seems that, once you're on the elegant, 400-page novel train, it's very, very hard to get off. You have to give credit to someone like Margaret Atwood, who still pushes herself to engage with new forms and techniques. I don't know if it's always successful, but it's more interesting than simply putting out another doorstop novel every three or four years, with diminishing critical returns.

Back to the Giller: It's not really their fault, but I would be a lot more generous to this jury if there was some effort made to break this code of silence that surrounds the selection process. Booker judges routinely spill the beans on what went on in the meetings, and why certain books got picked and others didn't. I think there needs to be more transparency about the whole thing, not because I think there are conspiracies at work, but because it would be interesting, period, and would genuinely add to the understanding of how writing and publishing and the rest of it works. There is a vested interested in maintaining this illusion that books appear before us and are rewarded through means far too sacred and rarified for us to ever comprehend. For us mere mortals to be told that, say, Vincent Lam's was the book the entire jury could agree on, but was no one's first pick (not saying that was the case, but it's just as likely as any other scenario) would not disillusion us all and send us spiraling into doubt about the worth of awards. And yet, we are supposed to take everything the jury says at face value and believe they picked the absolute "best books."

Imagine if, say, Munro admitted afterward that there was no way she was going to vote for the Windley because it was too Munro-esque? (Again, just a wild theory.)

Instead, we are left to indulge in the silliest CanLit Kremlinology every single year.

Why Canadian publishing people have not yet learned the lesson of publicist-planted gossip and leaked songs as promotion is baffling to me, and just further cements CanLit's reputation as an institution always a few decades behind the times. People love dirt; they get excited about it, and if they get excited about something, they are more likely to see the thing behind it all - books - as something with a bit of life to it.

Is finding out why and how the jury picked the books they did really too much to ask?

Alex: I think the short answer to that is Yes. And the deference/politeness of the media just makes it worse.

Which is one reason for discussions like this. But I guess we're done now so it's time to declare this Green Room closed. Thanks to all the participants, publishers, and, yes, even authors. Perhaps we'll meet here again next year?

 

 

 

[home]
[submissions]
[fiction]
[interviews]
[reviews]
[articles]
[links
[sitemap]
[stats]
[search]

 

[students]
[teachers]
[publicists]

TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.