Skibsrud:I began to pay more attention to how the writers I admired managed the extraordinary things they did. And to understand (not just intellectually, because I was told as much so many times, but viscerally) that the only way to improve as a writer was to read widely and variously – to expand and keep on expanding my notion and comprehension of what makes good and exciting and worthwhile literature; resist settling into a pattern of what “suits” or “works for” me.
Lam:By that time, I was a teenager. I was writing seriously, though not well. I began to read people whose voice and work I admired. Memorable authors from that time in my life include Asimov, Atwood, Carey, Crace, Davies, Hemingway, Hollingshead, Lewis, Mistry, Munro, Ondaatje, Richler, Salinger, Steinbeck, Urquhart, Vanderhaeghe. (These notable figures are listed, though perhaps were not read, in alphabetic order.)
Adams Richards:I started writing almost at the same time I started reading. The first book I read, when I was 14, was Oliver Twist – and half-way through reading that novel I decided I, too, wanted to be a writer. I was reading a great deal of all kinds of books when I finished my first book, The Coming of Winter, when I was 21. So I can’t say that my reading changed when I started to write, because I started both at about the same instant.
How do you think prizes such as the Giller have changed reading culture?
Bergen: There is a benevolent tyranny in the DNA of prizes. But, better to have attention paid than to be ignored, and the Giller does a great job of making the reader notice books.
Skibsrud: Prizes like the Giller have, I think, raised the profile of writing and reading in Canada tremendously. This is a wonderful thing–no matter what else there might be to say on the subject. Big prizes have, and will continue to, elicit excitement about literature on a broad cultural level. There is always, of course, the inherent problem that drawing attention through prizes to a few books each year leaves many, many books without the public attention they ideally deserve. As much as we should respect prizes, and prize juries (that their decisions are “subjective” and “limited” is entirely the point) we shouldn’t rely on them to do our work as readers for us.
Lam: Prizes have made reading culture more publicity- and event-driven. They have also focused attention on a smaller number of books. Everyone reads the winner, and I wish people would read the longlist. The process of prizes – with the longlists, shortlists, the debates about the merits of the books, the second-guessing of the jurors, the gossip, the televised gala, etc… draws from screen awards and also feels very much like a reality TV show (except that it’s real). So, in this way popular culture also seems to be influencing the flavour and role of book prizes.
Adams Richards: I am hoping the Giller and other prizes make people aware of Canadian books (or books in general). In fact I am sure these prizes do just that. For instance I am sure Alice Munro’s stories will increase in sales as they should. It also allows literature a celebratory context – and for writers who spend about 75 per cent of their lives alone a celebration is a healthy thing. It also declares in an unambiguous way that literature is something worth celebrating. I guess that’s nice too. Of course there are many wise and wonderful and great books that never win prizes – that is a sad and beguiling fact of literary culture. I suppose in some ways that will not change. We might remember that Alistair MacLeod did not win a Governor General’s Award.
Do you think of Canada as an especially readerly country? If so, in what ways?
Bergen: When I ride the bus I love seeing other commuters reading and inevitably I try to peek at titles and covers. I’m always surprised when I see young people reading. I shouldn’t be. Young people today are smart about reading. I realized that when I was teaching 17 year olds. And then there are the folks who come to hear authors read. They have a delightful keenness, though inevitably the women completely outnumber the men, and the old outnumber the young. I like to think that the young people are on the bus, reading Hermann Hesse.