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.