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Much ado about prizes

August 3, 2011 5 comments

When the CBC bought the broadcast rights to the Giller Prize, I joked that we would soon see the Giller decided by an online vote. It was one of those jokes one hesitates to make: too snide, uncalled for, adding insult to earlier insult without just cause. Yes, one hesitates — unless, of course, one is me, in which case one snickers and goes right ahead. And then, months later, one finds himself vindicated by the frankly baffling announcement that the public will indeed vote in this year to place one title on the Giller longlist.

Yes, I do have a problem with this. But first things first: before I can argue that vote-ins are a problem, we have to ask why we have prizes in the first place. What are prizes for?

Prizes are for selling books.

The Giller winner will move about 100,000 copies, in a bookselling environment where the average novel sells about 1000 copies, and a debut story collection may move only a few hundred. Most of those copies sell to people who may only read a few serious books each year; if the award did not exist, that money would not be spread over dozens of other titles, but would instead be spent on movie tickets, restaurant meals, or whatever else. Most of the books sold each year are sold just before Christmas, during the awards season, and prizes set the agenda. It is the prizes that define the national shopping list.

So prizes are a huge boon to booksellers, an annual golden egg squeezed out of a generous goose. Which books sell does not matter. Books, in the bookseller’s general ledger, are toothpaste; all that really matters is how much you squeeze out of the tube.

But prizes don’t serve anyone else tremendously well. Not publishers (especially small presses), who can’t count on winning; not writers, likewise; and certainly not the readers who, having received a copy of The Sentimentalists for Christmas, find themselves leaving two-star Amazon reviews. The fact that a book wins an award is no guarantee that you will like it, or indeed, that it has any great merit. “Winner of the Giller Prize” means, in reality, nothing more than the collision of three people’s reading tastes, with a certain amount of mud wrestling to follow. It is a terribly arbitrary way to make careers. The prize system, in short, sucks.

But its effects are not entirely pernicious. Prizes bring money to people who need it. Prizes turn unknown writers into reader favorites. They mainline injections of pure cash into the scrawny arms of lucky publishers, and they keep booksellers in business. It’s also worth noting that the people who run and organize prizes have the best intentions.

So prizes are a lousy way to sell books, but they are also the best way we have. We can’t hope for them to be perfect — but we can hope for them to be as fair as possible, and as valuable as possible to everyone involved.

Which leads to the problems with a vote-in system. An online vote is not a fair system, and it diminishes the value of the prize.

People tend to think of a vote as the fairest way of settling matters, but online voting is not voting. An online vote carries with it three problems:

  • it favours the politician, the writer or publisher who can use social media to build the biggest base of support. And that support may come from people who would not ordinarily pay any attention to the prize. Consider the organized (and successful) campaign to vote a graphic novel onto Canada Reads — a campaign that appealed to people who had never listened to the show, many of whom did not even live in Canada.
  • it favours the established writer. The writer with the most fans stands to win; the debut author will get votes from her mother, boyfriend, and cat. The established writer can rely on fans who haven’t even read her latest book. One of the most valuable functions of prizes — to launch the careers of new and unknown writers — is lost.
  • it favours the book with a cult following. This is the most damaging effect of online votes, and bears further examination.

The best example of a cult following making a mockery of literary merit is the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the century, which featured an editors’ list and a readers’ list, established by a public vote.

The editors’ list, predictably, featured the usual suspects: Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Under the Volcano. One would expect the readers’ list to veer more towards the commercially successful, the accessible, the book club favourite, with a smattering of genre; more Steinbeck, less Joyce, and some sci-fi. And indeed, Tolkien is there (as arguably he should be, having created an entire genre), as is Heinlein, and Nevil Shute, and Stephen King. This is all good and well; all we have here is a collision of different standards of merit.

But something strange is going on in the top 10: four novels by the noxious Ayn Rand, and two by L. Ron Hubbard. Both writers take “cult following” to a new level. And clearly, their cult members stuffed the ballot boxes.

Canada Reads also saw this phenomenon at work: Terry Fallis’s The Best Laid Plans, a book so badly written that I would have rejected it in its published form, made it to the top 10 not on its own merits but because its Cinderella metastory — rejected by all the big houses, self-published book wins Major Literary Prize (the Leacock grows in significance in the retelling), is picked up by Idiot Editors who passed it over and achieves greatness! — appeals to that large constituency of people who complain that we need to embrace the new world order and be done with the gatekeepers.

Will this ruin the Giller Prize? Well, not really. Let’s remember that we are talking about only one title on the longlist, with no prospect of getting to the shortlist unless the jury chose it, too. But I am not pleased by the prospect of one spot on that longlist — one resume-padding “longlisted for the Giller Prize” — being taken from some deserving book from a debut author and given to whoever can organize an online vote.

It is notable that the public can’t vote for the winner, or the shortlist, or even for the entire longlist. The prize organizers themselves recognize that this is a lousy way to choose a longlist title. But they have gone ahead and done it — egged on, no doubt, by nasty little creatures at the CBC who measure merit in page hits — in the interest of publicity. It’s silly, and it’s unnecessary. Publicity is the one thing that the Giller Prize doesn’t lack.

In which I shoot at certain marine mammals

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I was looking forward to reading Jeet Heer’s Walrus piece, “The Life Raft,” regarding Canada Reads and the general mess that is CanLit’s lottery economy. In fact, I intended to read it on my flight down to Dartmouth, where now I languish, but did not. Instead of buying a copy of The Walrus, I re-read The Bushwhacked Piano, which I think would always be a sound decision. But now, the magazine has put the thing online and put me into my misery.

I am immoderately disappointed. Jeet Heer is a smart guy and a sharp writer, but not this time.

Let us not dwell too long on the word “middlebrow,” which he uses more times than I care to count; suffice to say that I feel this word is too often substituted for argument. It is easy to sneer at something once you have slapped that label on it, but the fact is that the number of things that cannot be called “middlebrow” is vanishingly small. The word is therefore meaningless, and henceforth I intend to discourage its use by carrying an electric cattle prod at all times and administering a corrective jolt to the sorry ass of any person who I catch using it. You have been warned.

More disappointing is Heer’s surprising claim that what is most deplorable about Canada Reads is its exclusion of short stories and poetry – and especially, he soon makes clear, of short stories.

But rather than rant about Standard CanLit Complaint #4 (Short Stories Get No Respect)* let me simply propose this thought experiment: if, next year, Canada Reads picks Wilderness Tips, Friend of My Youth, Play the Monster Blind, Blackouts and What Boys Like, will all be forgiven? Will Canada Reads suddenly cease to be “middlebrow?” Will the boom-or-bust “Canada Reads effect” and its pernicious effects cease to exist?

Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence by discussing that any further.

Heer neatly labels the big problem with Canada Reads as our “lottery economy”: the few books that get a Canada Reads nod sell like hotcakes. It is a career maker. And it makes careers by entirely arbitrary means. Without dwelling on this year’s vote-in process, we can simply say that the mere fact of a Canada Reads nod doesn’t guarantee that any given Canadian reader will like the book, or even that the book is good, but it does mean it will sell.

We see the same thing with the GGs, of course, and the Writers’ Trust awards, and most of all with the Giller Prize. The Sentimentalists is seeing a mixed reception from readers, he said diplomatically; this is partially because it is not everyone’s cup of overwrought tea, and partially because it is a structurally flawed, ill-conceived piece of shit. It is, however, the big book in Canadian literary fiction. This is because it won the prize that gives the most money. The prize where people are on TV. The prize that’s televised by the Globe & Mail’s sister network and, not coincidentally, pimped more extensively by the Globe than any other.

Yes, gentle reader, we really are that shallow. The problem here is not Canada Reads; it is Canada itself. For a supposedly literate nation, we’re simply not very good at talking about books. We prefer hype to engagement. And that’s a fault that including short stories and poetry will hardly correct.

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* which complaint, gentle reader, I reserve for future dissection

Categories: canada reads, canlit

Giller dismay

November 13, 2010 1 comment

I am dismayed by this Giller jury fuss, as I am dismayed by the ongoing media attempts to elevate Gaspereau’s production delays to the level of “a scandal.” It’s a pity to have this much controversy surrounding the Giller Prize in this year, of all years, because this year’s shortlist was so exciting and, well, so good — and also because the Giller Prize organizers have arguably done more to prevent and correct jury problems than the organizers of any of our other major prizes.

Fortunately, the general reader is much more interested in how difficult it is to find copies of The Sentimentalists than in some skullduggery involving foreign rights sales. There’s no suggestion, as yet, that Ali Smith engineered Skibrud’s win. Fellow juror Michael Enright has also praised the book warmly, and it would seem it won on its own merits. So it’s a story about an agent profiting from inside information, a charge Ali Smith vehemently denies. Boring.

The international jury is the smartest move the Giller ever made. An international jury puts paid to the complaints that the Giller is a lifetime achievement award for established writers (which, in its early years, it seemed to be), that it is skewed towards big houses, and that it is driven by who knows whom. Consider this year’s Writers’ Trust fiction prize, where both Michael and Kathleen Winter made a shortlist while their close friend Lisa Moore sat on the jury; regardless of how it really happened, the appearance of impropriety is unavoidable. This year’s GG fiction shortlist is boring and clearly reflects regional biases. Yet the Giller shortlist, selected by a jury that did not include a Canadian writer, included two debut novels, two first books, and only one established writer.

And some people hated it. The assumption seems to be that, well, if the Giller lacks big names, it must be a bad year for fiction. The Globe & Mail‘s panel of performing dunces declared that none of the shortlist books really deserved to win, being as they were the “promising early drafts” of “beginners” whose work amounted to little more than “crude chainsaw sculpture.” And there was a great deal of whining about availability of books even at the shortlist stage, and frowns of concern over the ability of small presses to meet demand.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the titles were absent from Chapters/Indigo’s shelves because the chain wasn’t ordering them. Pride of place in the big box store still went to the big-name books whose big-name publishers paid for said space, and the few copies of the shortlist books they had were buried back in the stacks. Our local independent — in London, Ontario, we have only one, Oxford Bookshop — had all five titles, including The Sentimentalists; Chapters had only three of the five, and only carried The Matter With Morris in any quantity until shortly before the prize announcement.

The reality of Canadian bookselling is in conflict with the reality of Canadian publishing. If this year’s list was dominated by independents, it may be because the multinationals are unwilling, nowadays, to take a risk on interesting work by unknown writers. If the big houses are more comfortable sitting back and letting the small presses turn up the talent, it should hardly surprise us when that talent starts to scoop up the awards nominations. And the possibility that small presses could begin routinely snapping up major awards has to frighten both the big houses and Chapters/Indigo.

But in a sense, Skibsrud’s win combined with Gaspereau’s firm commitment to their philosophy has been a gift to the big players. Frustrated readers are saying that this year’s Giller is turning into a debacle, reflecting the expectation that books should be on the shelves on the morning of 10 November. The message, unjustified as it is, is that small presses can’t do it. Whether that message will stick remains to be seen.

Categories: canlit, giller prize

Giller picks of the gutless

November 6, 2010 2 comments

Every once in a while, you read a piece that is so insightful, so original, so ground-breaking, that after you have finished and pulled your head away from the page, the world looks somehow different, brighter, more filled with wonder.

And, every once in a while, you read a piece that is so blinkered, so ill-informed, so narrow in its view, that after you have dragged your eyes away from the verbal wreckage, to find that the world looks as bleak and bereft of possibility as ever, you arrive at a new understanding of just why we’re doomed to suffer its continual banality.

Such insights arrive when one reads the Globe & Mail‘s Giller round-table.

All you really need to read is Andrew Gorham’s gormless opening remark:

When the Scotiabank Giller Prize short list was announced last month, I pounced on it and said to myself: “Who? … Who? … Who?” I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized David Bergen’s name….

A sigh of relief? Because you found a name you recognize? Gorham unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag here: his problem with the Giller shortlist has nothing to do with the quality of the books. It’s all about his assumption that if he hasn’t heard of the author, the book can’t be any good. And the round-table discussion proceeds under this assumption. The books are undeserving, because the authors are unknown, and the only reason the books are on the shortlist is because, as Sandra Martin explains, the jury wanted to pick future stars, instead of doing its job, which is to reward established writers:

Judges always want to be star makers, but this prize is about the best work of fiction published this year. If the judges want to pick future winners, they should have an appendix to the short list: writers to watch. And then get back to the business of picking the best novel or collection of short stories.

What Martin never does — because this would involve some intellectual heavy lifting, of which I suspect she’s not capable — is to make any kind of cogent argument that some overlooked book is better than the jury’s choices. Instead, she drops a few established names, which takes us back to the panel’s premise: that books by established writers are automatically more deserving than books by new writers.

And then begin the put-downs. Now, I don’t mind robust criticism, but this is not robust criticism. It is a series of thoughtless dismissive remarks from a group of people who have not done their research. Favouring Winter, for example, John Barber praises her writing about children, noting that for “thirty-somethings” like Skibsrud, Selecky and MacLeod, parenthood is “terra incognita.”

Alexander MacLeod’s three children may be surprised to discover that they do not exist.

If John Barber, books reporter, is habitually this sloppy in his journalism, he might be well advised to find a line of work to which his skills are more suited. Such as, for example, piloting a Dickie Dee cart.

And it continues. Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists is described as a “tiny book,” the suggestion being that a small-press book with a small print run has no place on the Giller shortlist — it is not just the press that’s tiny, but the book itself, the work, the art. Sandra Martin snidely remarks that this novel is “a highly promising … early draft.” Sarah Selecky is “a beginner.” Alexander MacLeod’s writing is “robust but crude chainsaw sculpture,” which, according to Barber, “relies on machine-gun blasts of adjectives.” (I chose a sample page and counted. There were four adjectives. One was in a line of dialogue. A machine gun, this is not.) And finally, neither Selecky’s work, nor MacLeod’s, is “genuinely adult.”

And this leads us to the panel’s notion that, if the Giller can’t go to an established name, it should at least go to the oldest writer in the room: Kathleen Winter.

Annabel is a book that makes you think no one should be allowed to write novels before the age of 40,” says Barber. Again, the panel is fixated not on the work itself, but on the question of who created it. And leaving aside Barber’s redundant observation that Annabel is a book, a matter of which we are already well aware, many notable novels have been written by writers under 40. Such as, for example, The Sun Also Rises. Not all writers improve with age; some, like Hemingway, deteriorate. To Have and Have Not, anyone?

The two writers who escape the panel’s put-downs are Bergen, who as a former Giller winner belongs on the shortlist, and Winter, who has already published a collection of short stories, boYs, which won the Winterset Award and the Metcalf-Rooke Award. As a past award-winner, apparently, she can be considered established. The two writers who take the most shit here are the small press writers, Skibsrud and MacLeod.

It is not difficult to see what is going on here. We reject the short story collections. We reject the small press writers. We reject the young writers, the first books.

It’s rare that we see such a clear demonstration of how chickenshit arts journalism really is. These people do not like to go out on a limb. They don’t like to consider new work and to make their own judgments. They like those judgments made for them, by awards juries and by best-sellers list.

I’d like to think that the bold choices made by this year’s Giller jury could herald some kind of cultural shift. Prizes as influential as the Giller have a way of defining the culture; the definition of a good book in Canada becomes, over time, the kind of book that wins the Giller. And if Giller juries began routinely putting up shortlists like this year’s, shortlists that pick out five good books without reference to who wrote them, to their author’s past achievements, then I’d like to think we’d start to think of a good book as being something that can sneak up and surprise you, rather than expecting it to be the usually middling mid-to-late-career output of someone whose name we know.

But it seems clear that this will not happen. A good book remains a book by an author we know. And when the Giller jury puts up a shortlist full of surprises, as the Globe‘s panel makes clear, then what we have is a rogue jury that can’t recognize a good book. Nothing will change, not as long as our would-be newspaper of record employs arts reporters who lack the courage to engage with the books themselves.

Categories: canlit, giller prize

A metametacritical digression

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

To me, the most memorable scene in the film Pollock is of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, in a stairwell, falling down drunk and shouting, “Fuck Picasso.”

That scene neatly summarizes the creative struggle. The anxiety of influence, the difficulty of making it fresh, the struggle to break through and create something new. How do you break through the influence of a Picasso? How do you find the next thing?

The answer to a bad book, it’s often said, is to write a better book. The response to worn out tropes is to move beyond them. Problem is, this is hard. You can struggle for a lifetime and never get there. In fact, you probably will never get there; probably, your efforts will amount to nothing more than another shovel-load on the heap of mediocrity, that muddy middle of art. You will also, in all likelihood, spend some time drunk in a stairwell.

This is why we have criticism. Doing the next thing is hard, but it’s relatively easy to point out that the people doing the next thing aren’t actually doing it at all.

(You may deduce that I’m skeptical of the claim that a healthy literature cannot exist without vigorous criticism. Congratulations, Holmes. Vigorous criticism is a good thing, but it doesn’t get the writing done.)

Of course, most criticism is not vigorous, and this leads to our quarterly lament on the state of criticism. This iteration was kicked off by Andre Alexis, writing in The Walrus, who bemoaned the supposed nastiness of Canadian book reviews, blamed it all on John Metcalf, and suggested a more communal criticism is needed. He didn’t bother to explain what that would look like.

All kinds of discussion followed.

So, now we’ve had the criticism of the criticism. It’s time for the criticism of the criticism of the criticism.

What’s wrong with Canadian criticism? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong with Canadian criticism: more ink is spilled in bemoaning the state of Canadian criticism than in bemoaning the state of the literature itself.

We debate what’s wrong with book reviewing, instead of debating books. We debate general ideas about criticism instead of the specifics of a critique and the text it examines. Instead of (for example) taking John Metcalf to task over his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan, his opponents complain in general terms about the tone of his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan.

Where are the specifics? Why all this generalized moaning about the state of criticism?

This is not criticism, and it is not serious discussion of criticism. It is idle book chatter.

The only recent book I can think of that spawned any kind of critical debate is Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which touched off some interesting exchanges concerning how we can write about the Holocaust, whether we can appropriate the experience, and whether the book just plain sucked.

Why is this? I dunno. I just observe the observations, man. I don’t explain ‘em.

On being Canadian enough

June 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Canada’s national winter sport, as we all well know, is hockey; and Canada’s other national sport is arguing over the definition of “Canadian literature,” a pursuit that is often just as bloody but doesn’t require that one keep track of a small piece of hard rubber.*

Now, I like hockey, but other team sports bore me, so I pay little attention to that other national sport. I’m satisified that “Canadian literature” is simply literature published in, you know, Canada, for a readership of, you know, Canadians, and I feel it’s best to just leave it at that.

I have, however, often felt compelled to observe, from the sidelines, that arguments of this sort are not uniquely Canadian, and are not (as so many people like to think) evidence of the Canadian identity crisis. Americans argue about this kind of thing all the time, except that instead of arguing about whether a book is “American literature,” they argue about whether it’s regional fiction.

There are ongoing dustups in the corners between those who insist on defining work in regional terms, rendering all work published by natives of Mississippi as “southern fiction” to be compared to Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and those who insist they are not interested in regional labels but are part of a larger, international tradition of writing in English.

(See Metcalf, John: What is a Canadian Literature? If these questions are unique to Canada’s supposed identity crisis, why did Richard Ford, in early interviews, invest so much energy in rejecting the “southern writer” label?)

I stumbled on examples of this reading backwards through Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes,** where I found examples of wonderful confusion over just what makes Midwestern fiction so Midwestern. Apparently, regional fiction is in decline, and the question is, why?

I stumbled over to A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Myers argues that MFA programs have created “a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who … are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.”

Myers doesn’t explain what makes writing “regional.” It appears that, as he defines it, regional fiction exists when a given writer sets a series of novels (or stories) in a given locale. That is, it appears to be purely a matter of setting. Regionalism is in decline because writers keep changing from one setting to the next (damn their greedy little souls).

This complaint seems academic, not in the sense of having no practical application, but in the sense of “Holy shit, if people won’t settle down and set a bunch of novels in a single location, how the hell are we going to find thesis topics?”

This, I suppose, is how we identify regional concerns. I am reminded of some recent nonsense in The Globe & Mail (also academic in origin) proposing that Canadian literature can be identified by its “Canadian” concerns—a suggestion that inevitably implies we could reject books written by Canadians, for Canadians, as “not Canadian enough.”

Which is clearly silly.

Of course, the problem in Canada has been that “Canlit,” as we know it, arose in the 1960s as part of a broad nationalist movement, a movement that also gave us a new flag, national sports, and Hinterland Who’s Who. (It’s telling that lacrosse was chosen as our national sport, in place of hockey, because the Dutch lay some claim to inventing hockey; never mind that so few Canadians actually play or give a shit about lacrosse. Consider that in terms of parallels to Canlit.) But nowadays, those nationalist concerns have disappeared; Andre Alexis’s protests aside, Margaret Atwood’s Survival seems both irrelevant and goofy. Canada has grown beyond defining itself purely in terms of opposition to what is American. That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.

And from that perspective, I’m left to wonder if the (reported) decline in regionalism in American literature isn’t also more the product of changing times than it is yet another evil side effect of the MFA racket. And furthermore, I’m left to wonder if it’s really a bad thing.

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* That sentence contains a semicolon for no other reason than to defy the incorrect prescriptivist nonsense published at The Oatmeal. Persons wishing to argue the point are invited to make fools of themselves in the comments, but are advised first to familiarize themselves with actual English usage by reading (for example) Charles Dickens.

** Readers of copyeditorial bent who insist that, since Athitakis is not plural, the correct form should be Mark Athitakis’s American Fiction Notes should probably take it up with Mr. Athitakis.

Categories: canlit

Truths we hold to be self-evident

May 20, 2010 1 comment

Mark Sampson has an excellent post on arts funding, which in a single sentence might be summarized as “Stop making silly economic arguments for arts funding, and start arguing that arts funding is simply a feature of the Canada you want to live in.”

In all the time I wrote for outdoor magazines, I felt the same about economic arguments made in favour of protecting natural resources. One should not have to argue that clean water is a benefit because of tourism dollars related to clean water; it should be sufficient to observe that clean water is clean fucking water.

And that argument carries an inherent risk: if the tourism becomes less lucrative than, say, the intensive pig farming whose runoff turns your formerly clean water into E. coli soup, then one is up E. coli creek sans paddle, rhetorically speaking.

A similar fate awaits those who hope to argue in favour of funding poetry in place of, say, applied research on the affinity of teenaged girls for sparkly vampires. If’n we’re gonna fund lit-ra-chur, says the administrator, should we not pursue the best bang for our buck?

Some values are best not measured in dollars.

Categories: canlit
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