Literary quality is notoriously subjective. But even opinions have patterns, as the industry newsletter Publisher’s Lunch discovered this year when it surveyed several different “Best Books of 2011” lists and consolidated them into a “Best of the Best of 2011 list.” Going into the Christmas season with 19 U.S. sources included, three of the list’s top 10 novels of the year were Canadian: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje and Esi Edugyan’s Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues.
It’s not as if Canadians weren’t already aware of the bounty. All three novels were nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, while two of them (Edugyan’s and deWitt’s) were nominated for Britain’s Man Booker Prize. The Sisters Brothers also won the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Writer’s Trust prize. Combined with well-received and strong-selling novels from such veterans as Guy Vanderhaeghe ( A Good Man), Lynn Coady ( The Antagonist), Ami McKay ( The Virgin Cure), Elizabeth Hay ( Alone in the Classroom), Wayne Johnston ( A Life Elsewhere) and Marina Endicott ( The Little Shadows), the result was an almost unprecedented pile-up of quality fiction for Canadian readers.
Just as impressive was the future presaged by such debut novels as Alexi Zentner’s neo-gothic Touch, nominated for a Governor General’s Award, and David Bezmozgis’s Giller-nominated The Free World. This year even the mulch of unfairly overlooked novels is first rate, exemplified by Steven Hayward’s Don’t Be Afraid and Frances Greenslade’s Shelter.
With the collapse of publisher H.B. Fenn and its Key Porter imprint, 2011 began ominously for independent Canadian publishers and then quickly turned to roses. Rescued from the Key Porter wreckage, Half-Blood Blues became the most popular title ever published by Thomas Allen & Son, with 100,000 copies on the market and a stable perch overlooking James Patterson and Stephen King on Canadian bestseller lists – right up there with deWitt’s bestselling Sisters, published by fellow independent House of Anansi. The Cat’s Table, published by quasi-independent McClelland & Stewart, was the lone bright spot on the domestic lists of the Random House group (including Knopf, Doubleday and Vintage).
Head-office retrenchment at the multinationals made itself felt as Canadian branches cut established authors loose and pared their once-ambitious Canadian lists. Typical was the Penguin Group’s Hamish Hamilton Canada imprint, launched amid high hopes less than three years ago, which contented itself this year with two collections of previously published short fiction, from Zsuzsi Gartner and 2010 Giller winner Johanna Skibsrud.
Penguin’s most promising launch of the year was the English translation of Gold Mountain Blues, a Chinese language bestseller by Toronto writer Zhang Ling. But Canadian authors Wayson Choy, Paul Yee and Sky Lee spoiled the party by suing the author and publisher, claiming the book plagiarized their work. Penguin has denied the allegations.
The multinationals had a happier year with non-fiction, dominating the growing number of awards honouring the art, most notably the new $60,000 Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize. In an unprecedented trifecta, Charles Foran’s Mordecai won the 2011 Governor General’s Award, the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the new Weston prize. The biography was nominated for two other national prizes and won the 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award.
Meanwhile, last year’s non-fiction award phenom, The Boy in the Moon by Globe and Mail reporter Ian Brown, received similar acclaim this year following its U.S. publication: a glowing cover story in the New York Times Book Review followed by its selection as one of that influential newspaper’s five best non-fiction titles of 2011. Another 2010 release, fellow Globe reporter Doug Saunders’ Arrival City won the 2011 $35,000 Donner Prize.
The year was also notable for what failed to happen in Canada, especially the massive number of bookstore closures that rocked the U.S. market. Indies here largely hung on, while national chain Indigo Books sold its interest in ebookstore Kobo to concentrate on its brick-and-mortar stores. Publishers grumbled about reduced space for books and increasingly onerous terms of trade, but no one dared complain.
So Bookageddon held off as Canadian readers continued to enjoy their rich and lively literature.
JOHN BARBER’S HIT AND MISS
Novel of the Year
It would be easy to name a book more relevant, more topical or just plain louder than Michael Ondaatje’s deceptively modest The Cat’s Table, a novel lacking the flashy style that first made the author’s name – and moreover one that seems to dwell suspiciously in the senescent pleasure of nostalgia. But it would be impossible to name one that is better crafted, more mature in its vision or ample in its sympathies with the fascinating menagerie of characters that inhabit it. Like the ship on which it is set, The Cat’s Table glides through its own magic space between worlds, leaving a wake both smooth and deep.
Disappointment of the Year
Leaving aside such easily predictable flops as Ithaca by former Penguin Canada publisher David Davidar, Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows disappoints because a) the novel that preceded it, Good to a Fault, was so very good; and b) the new one manages to be dramatically flat despite being beautifully written on every page. Inside is a first-rate novel its editors failed to excavate.