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.
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.
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.
I was pleased to see Johanna Skibsrud take the Giller last night. I’m one of those lucky people with a first printing of The Sentimentalists, which I’m reading now. And I’m liking it. Better than Annabel, though not better than Light Lifting. But if Alexander MacLeod couldn’t win, I’m happy to see Skibsrud take it.
I’m happy to see it because it’s a good book, and also because it’s a chance for a small press, Gaspereau, to get some attention for the quality of their publishing program. Small presses do the literary grunt work in this country. They pound the ground and flush the new talent out of cover. And then, too often, bigger presses and agents leap into the game, and the small press is back to pounding the ground. They take the risks that agents and big houses do not; they’re the ones willing to take a dive on a new writer. They deserve the recognition.
Furthermore, Gaspereau makes beautiful books.
So my concern over the mess Johanna Skibsrud now finds herself in is not “shit talk about Gaspereau.” The fact is that Gaspereau is fully capable of meeting the normal demand for their books. And Andrew Steeves’ refusal to change his ways when the book was shortlisted was no big deal; the demand for a shortlist book is only a few thousand copies.
But winning … that places you in exceptional circumstances. Winning the Giller is not business as usual. Not for anyone, multinationals included. And this is where Gaspereau is making a serious mistake.
A lot of fuss is being made over booksellers and readers, and whether they’ll be able to get the book. Let me say this: I don’t give a shit about booksellers or readers here. They’re not on my team. Today, I only care about writers.
A writer gets one shot at something like this. At 27.95 and 10% royalty, with the Giller likely to move 75,000 copies, Johanna Skibsrud is looking at a $209,625 payday. But that demand has a time limit; much of it will be gone by Christmas, as frustrated readers buy something else. And next year will see another Must Read. This is a limited-time offer, whatever the feel-good promises that readers will wait, and you have to call now.
Meanwhile, Gaspereau can print only 1,000 copies a week. That’s 6,000 before Christmas; Skibsrud’s take, $16,770, I’m guessing about 20% of what she’d otherwise expect.
Filthy lucre! Writers, artists, we’re not supposed to care about money — we’re supposed to care about art. We’re supposed to love beautiful, hand-crafted books of the sort Gaspereau publishes. We’re not supposed to let the promise of $209,625 sway us from our path of purity. Skibsrud gently says that the business end is not up to her; she just wants readers!
(And she wants her fucking book fucking printed, although not in precisely those words.)
Filthy lucre? Bullshit. Money matters. Money is what lets you keep working at writing, which business is, for the most part, a money-loser. Money pays off the debts you rack up. It pays the mortgage and buys the groceries. This is why writers have day jobs, even when they pretend that they don’t, or understanding spouses with good jobs. And you get one shot at a payday like this one. One shot.
You would hope your partners would understand. Writers should view publishers as partners, a view that the big houses seem to discourage. You sign on with a publisher because you look for the services they provide: editing, printing, publicity and so on. They take the financial risks, and they make the decisions that create those risks, such as just how big the print run should be. You work together, in good faith, to make the book a success. You owe each other this. You are on the same team. And in the small press world, the relationship is personal.
Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau has said that he knows he can meet demand by outsourcing production, but he won’t. He has stuck by his principles, which is admirable. He has said a great deal about the art of making fine books, but I note there’s one subject on which he’s been silent: doing right by your authors. In sticking to “business as usual” in the face of the Giller hype, Steeves is sticking it to market forces and commercial interests for which he has no respect. And Skibsrud’s interests have become collateral damage.
Forget filthy lucre, awards, contracts, and all the rest. Business is personal, and there is one cardinal rule: don’t forget your friends.
UPDATE: I originally attributed “shit talk about Gaspereau” to Stacey May Fowles (and misspelt her name). She did say this, but not with reference to me. I removed the attribution and apologize for “Stacy.”
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.
Something has been bugging me for a few days: before the type was even set on reports of Linden MacIntyre’s Giller win, the rumblings had begun, that men always win these things, that women have only a 31 percent chance of winning a Giller, and so on.
Yes, I’m aware we don’t actually set type these days. Bear with me.
To support this contention, people cite the numbers. The problem is, those people are writers, and writers aren’t generally good with numbers. That’s why they’re writers, instead of engineers or biochemists or statisticians.
First, the probability of women winning is not 50%. You can’t win unless you’re shortlisted, so the probability of a woman winning is a function of the rate at which women are shortlisted. That number is 47.6%.
Well, that’s close enough to fifty-fifty that we can assume the chance should be fifty-fifty. But books by women have won only 31.5% of the time — that is, in five of sixteen years.
Damning, huh? Just how likely is it that women could take only five of 16 prizes?
The probability of that outcome is 7%. There’s a formula for figuring that out.
Tut, tut. Seven percent? I wouldn’t bet on that — would you? If the chances really were fifty-fifty, I’d put my money on the safe bet, eight of 16.
And I’d still probably lose: the probability of eight of 16 wins, given a 50% chance of winning in any given year, is only 19.6%. That is to say, you’d lose your money eight out of ten times.
When you consider how unlikely parity is, the unlikely event of women winning only five of 16 prizes no longer seems so unlikely. Unlikely things happen all the time.
To prove that point to myself, I took a quarter out of my pocket. On one side of the quarter is a woman, the Queen. On the other, a male caribou.
Yes, I’m aware that both male and female caribou have antlers. Bear with me.
I tossed that coin, and threw six tails in a row. The probability of that event is 1.5 percent. Then there were a bunch of heads — seven of the next ten tosses.
Just for fun, I tried this exercise again and threw five tails in a row. Probability, 3.1 percent.
Yes, I have a strange notion of “fun.” But let me ask you, is my quarter sexist?
The point being, you can’t use the rate at which women win the Giller as evidence that the Giller favours men, because parity is an unlikely result even in a system without any bias at all.
This doesn’t demonstrate that the Giller doesn’t favour men, of course. That question remains open for debate. It simply shows that you can’t use these numbers as conclusive proof of anything — unless you’re talking to writers, who aren’t good with numbers.
Out here in the boonies, we spend our days sitting around barefoot, playing the banjo and dreaming of overcoming our geographical handicap to write for them big city magazines like Taddle Creek and Joyland. And we have to watch the whole Giller foofaraw on TV.
The following morning, we get up, say howdy to all our cousins, stick a straw between our crooked teeth and then go online to read the Globe & Mail, where we learn what Linden MacIntyre et al ate for dinner.
(I ain’t too familiar with this fancy restaurant food, but I figure it was some kinda tuna salad sandwich.)
The Globe doesn’t tell us what books he’s read recently.
Bob Dylan, commenting on his imitators, said that there was no point in listening to Bob Dylan; if you want to understand Bob Dylan, you have to listen to the music he listened to. You have to go back to his sources. And this is the pleasure of Dylan’s XM radio show: you get to hear all this obscure stuff that happens to interest him, instead of hearing him drone on and on about his fascination with the Bible and his writing methods and the themes he investigates and explores. Or what he had for breakfast.
It sure would be nice to know what the writers on that Giller shortlist have been reading, rather than what they had for dinner, or worse, what they wore to the gala.
Too much to ask? Apparently so.