Victoria Glendinning, the British critic and novelist, is one of the three members of the Scotiabank-Giller Prize jury this year, the same jury that announced the lucrative award's long list yesterday. (The other two judges are Russell Banks, an American, and Alistair MacLeod, who is Canadian; the international jury is founder Jack Rabinovitch's attempt to broaden the horizons of the prize he named after his late wife, Doris Giller).
Anyway, Glendinning, writing in the Financial Times on Sept. 12, told her well-heeled compatriots of the impressions she has formed of Canadian novels and novelists while serving on the Giller jury. She started slowly, saying that reading almost 100 Canadian novels had taught her a few things about "the culture":
The Canadian for "gutter" is "eavestrough", which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a "tuque", or "toque", which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario's northern lakes and forests - evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil - they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)
From there, she took a more critical pass at Canadian fiction, noting that the mid-list material coming from many publishers has a "striking homogeneity":
There is a convention in Canada of appending to your novel a list of people who are fulsomely thanked for their support, starting with the book's editor - unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient - plus family, friends and first readers. These last are generally fellow members of a writing group, who have contributed insightful modifications.
But has any major work of art ever been produced by committee? Readers may wonder whether a writer's vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input, and indeed there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny's youth in the Ukraine or wherever.
The US, too, is a nation of immigrants, but American novelists do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents.
Fully wound up now, she delivered the coup de grace, suggesting that mediocre writers of "unbelievably dreadful" novels benefit by being Canadian:
It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked. Complaints were once voiced that most shortlisted Giller novels emanated from just three big-name publishers, all owned by Bertelsmann, and that virtually every winner lived in the Toronto area. Now, many of the submitted authors, and their rugged subject matter, hail from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That's maybe because small publishers too are now subsidised, and they proliferate. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.
There are probably people here who agree with Glendinning in whole or in part, and there are undoubtedly people who will be royally pissed by her opinions and accuse her of snobbery and condescension. Some may also question the propriety of a jury member going public with her thoughts about the entries while the judging process is (presumably) still going on.
What strikes me, though, is that this is exactly what Rabinovitch asked for when he opened up his juries to non-Canadians -- a little bit of foreign perspective, critical or otherwise, on Canada's insular publishing industry.