Home > cbc books, giller prize > Further rabid snarling concerning a certain literary award

Further rabid snarling concerning a certain literary award

September 7, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

It occurs to me only recently that I may be guilty of holding back my views on the Giller Prize’s unaccountably short-sighted and tone deaf decision to allow the public to vote one title onto their longlist via the moronic “Reader’s Choice” poll organized by their “broadcast partner,” CBC Books, an organization that appears to be dedicated to enlarging its audience through the destruction of Canadian culture.

So let me now be clear: I was not entirely certain this was a good idea.

Yesterday’s longlist, complete with Readers’ Choice pick Extensions, by Myrna Dey, vindicates that view. I find two serious problems with this book’s place on the longlist: the pungent odor of fish attending its selection, and the poor quality of the writing. In short, as certain outspoken critics warned us might happen, a bad book now appears on the Giller longlist by dint of an effort to stuff the ballot box.

I was prepared to argue that Myrna Dey’s sudden, eleventh hour surge to the top of the poll suggested a concerted campaign, rather than genuine reader interest. I was prepared to use LibraryThing (two copies) and GoodReads (4 copies) as indices of the book’s actual sales (apparently, very small), and then argue the improbability of an essentially unknown book inspiring such an outpouring of affection from the few people who read it as to propel it to the top of the pile. Yes, I was prepared to gather all my evidence and lay out the argument … but then Myrna Dey told the Toronto Star that she credits “a vast network of friends and a Facebook campaign by her daughter in Edmonton with pushing her over the top.”

Elana Rabinovitch started backing away from the Readers’ Choice almost as soon as it was announced, by hinting that it may not happen next year. It hardly credits the Giller Prize when an author, quoted in one of the country’s largest newspapers, openly admits that a spot on the longlist belongs to whoever can organize the most effective Facebook campaign. It is no longer necessary to argue that the Readers’ Choice cheapens the longlist; it has happened. And it is telling that not one of the top ten Readers’ Choice titles made the jury’s longlist.

The Globe & Mail and the National Post, to their credit, have mostly ignored the Readers’ Choice selection. There’s no point in jumping to cover what is ultimately the product of a Facebook campaign. But others have given it more space. Quill & Quire fawningly pretends that Facebook really had little to do with it. The CBC, predictably, wants us to know about the contest they administered. And the Star made the Readers’ Choice their headline and wrapped all their coverage around it.

This leads us to the second problem. Is it any good? Quill & Quire, unaccountably, reviewed this one with kid gloves — and I have to say that I normally see no point picking on a small-press debut that is unlikely to go anywhere. But when a book gets on the Giller longlist, and particularly when it gets there via the controversial Readers’ Choice, we have to be critical. And, based on the first thirty pages published online by NeWest Press, Extensions got a free ride from Q&Q.

Nothing in the first thirty pages suggests that the book is worthy of any award. The dialogue is weak, devoid of any subtext. We frequently get two beats of dialogue, followed by a paragraph of exposition. The characters are almost completely lacking in personality. There is no fire in this writing, no energy, no particular beauty. The writing never commands notice — unless it’s for an unfortunate sentence like “Macy had fallen asleep on Gail’s knee, and she rose carefully to slip into the house with her.”

The first thirty pages teem with the kind of bad writing habits around which creative writing classes are built. Dialogue is repeatedly used for exposition (“I winced that Gail had to work in the ‘Constable,’” the narrator tells us; rest assured, your reader winced, too). Lines are tagged with such words as “Monty grinned.” The dialogue lacks tension or any sense of dramatic purpose. Scenes lack conflict or drive. Arabella’s friends are all perfect. And the exposition … the exposition….

If it hardly credits the Giller that a book can be pushed onto the longlist via a Facebook campaign, it credits the prize less that the book thus nominated is so demonstrably weak. And it should disturb us all that this book, by dint of being the Readers’ Choice, receives so much attention. One hopes that the people who organized this farce will be similarly disturbed.

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  1. David
    September 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    I wanted to support the underdog, but then I read some of the excerpt. By page 10 I stopped rooting for the underdog and by page 15 I gave up on the excerpt. Nothing was happening, all the characters sounded the same, the protagonist, although somewhat faceless is still unsympathetic. I thought criticizing individual sentences was a bit excessive, but it’s filled with a lot of absurd ones such as:

    “Since my mother’s death, he made me think of a collapsed drawstring bag, requiring someone to tighten the straps to give him a purpose again.”

    I don’t know why I’m thinking about this story so much but it’s time to get back to work.

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