To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Globe and Mail is throughout October convening discussions of past winners and judges. Here, Giller winners David Adams Richards (Mercy Among the Children), David Bergen (The Time In Between), Vincent Lam (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures) and Johanna Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists) share their thoughts on reading, their relationship to it, and the challenges facing the modern reader.
What are your earliest memories as a reader?
David Bergen: I recall reading the back of the Corn Flakes box, perhaps the first words I read. I devoured everything written, and though we didn’t have a lot of literary books in our house, I did manage to find John Bunyan, the King James version of the Bible, and The Red Pony. At a young age, not being guided in any way, I read religious novels and then graduated to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Zane Grey. In Grade 7, I read The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence but I didn’t know who the author was or that she mattered in any way. I picked the novel up in the school library and read it because it pulled me along. This is how I read, for story.
Johanna Skibsrud:My earliest memories are of being read to by my mother. She read to my older sister, Kristin, and me every night. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, The Dark is Rising, The Hobbit, The Yearling, The Once and Future King. I think that experience was foundational for me as a writer, but also as a human being: to learn about the excitement, but also the struggle and tremendous sadness of life, through my mother’s voice – connected always, in that way, to a very real, very physical sense of well-being, to the sheer pleasure of the experience: being tucked into bed next to my mother and sister, the three of us sharing together in all those adventures. Also, because my mom is herself such a lover of and believer in literature, she never really drew the line for me between imagination and reality. When, for example, I cried half the night because Jody’s pet fawn, Flag, died in The Yearling, she would never say, “It’s only a story.” She knew what I knew – what all children know instinctively: that it wasn’t. That was the tremendous power of what had been written, after all, and why we were able to share in it.
Later, when I immersed myself in books on my own, I remember it would be like entering into a complete and separate universe. It was like science fiction, where, after a morning spent reading, say, a space of time that would feel like months, or even lifetimes, I would “wake” to find only a few hours had passed on Earth.
Vincent Lam:I remember a book that I adored, and read (or had read to me) until it fell apart into shreds. I believe the name was Big Truck. It featured a large, red truck. I’m told that my parents had to buy a replacement copy.
David Adams Richards:My earliest memory as a reader was as a listener. My mother would read old volumes of childhood stories, and we would sit and listen. She was a fine reader and it is a very fond memory.
How did your reading change when you started writing seriously?
Bergen: I lost my innocence, the pure and simple joy of reading for pleasure. My reading became more anxious and analytical. I was figuring things out. I was still reading for the story but found that I was parsing the writing, trying to understand how the author moved a character from the kitchen to the living room. Or I was looking at style, or the tone of the narrator. I became more critical, which can take a lot of the fun out of the reading It’s rather like someone who has always loved buildings, fallen in love with them simply for their beauty, and then goes on to study architecture and discovers that, though there is a greater understanding for how buildings are put together, the purity is lost.
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.
Skibsrud: Over the last few years, since I’ve had the opportunity to travel internationally with my writing, I’ve become increasingly aware of how lucky we are in Canada to have the sort of general support for the arts that we do through funding bodies like the Canada Council for the Arts. This is a tremendous gift, and I think we have a responsibility to both appreciate, and be willing to fight – very hard, if necessary – to maintain, as well as constantly improve upon, what we have in this regard. It’s also very important, I think, to keep in mind – and to continuously remind our legislators – that promoting a “literate” or “readerly” culture is a holistic project that reaches into all corners of our society. It’s a project that affects not just the “literary arts,” but all fields and aspects of education – as well as, and as a result, health, social justice, cultural understanding and the economy.
Lam: Certainly, I think that Canada likes to think of itself as a readerly country. My non-evidence-based-gestalt is that a small percentage of people read quite a lot of books. A somewhat larger, but thankfully still smallish percentage of people read, say, less than one book per year. A large slice of Canadians read books that ‘everyone is reading’, which might be one or two books per year, where it is quite possible that neither of these books is Canadian. We certainly have many amazing writers, but many accomplished and well-recognized Canadian writers don’t have enough readers to earn a modest living wage from writing books. So… does all of that make us a readerly country?
What are the biggest challenges facing reading and readers today?
Bergen: Reading requires time and attention, and there are more and more glittery objects out there clamouring for our attention. It’s much easier to sit and text, or check your Instagram, than it is to descend into Gogol, even though Gogol might restore your dead soul.
Skibsrud:Reading has never been easier. And there has never been more to read. Yes – sure – too much. But that’s a good thing. Concerns over the “glut” of information available to us are ultimately, I think, pretty near-sighted. There couldn’t possibly be a more ridiculous excuse for not reading. Don’t know what to read? Read anything! Read everything! We are lucky to have such a wealth of options, but it’s still entirely up to you. Read as much or as little or as widely or as narrowly as you want, anywhere you want, any way you want, and for whatever reason.
Lam:The biggest challenge to readers today is the intrusiveness of modern life. We live in a culture of 24-hour connectivity. There are screens everywhere, phones ringing, and devices beeping. And workplaces constantly demand more, and want it sooner. The great pleasure of the book is to be able to step into a different world within its pages, and the challenge for a reader is being unable to escape our world of the 24-hour “on” setting. Yet, to me, this challenge to reading also creates the imperative to read. More than ever, I think it’s deeply important, as soulful, reflective human beings, to declare: “I will now step away into the world of my mind and my book.”
Adams Richards:I think, percentage-wise, the same number of people read now as always – perhaps with more emphasis now on book clubs, etc. But I still believe any number of kids will pick up Alistair MacLeod or Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Alice Munro and begin their love affair with the written word. I think for a certain number of people it is hard-wired and will always be. Of course, with so many things bombarding kids today, books certainly can look old-fashioned and out of date in their parents’ study. But the greater secret is this: Nothing will stop the novelist, story writer or poet from writing, or the novel/story/poem from being written; or the reader, somewhere in some way, discovering them.
Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail’s Books Editor.