Giller picks of the gutless
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.