Is this the year that a book from a small or medium-sized publisher finally wins the Scotiabank Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian fiction?
Novels and short-story collections of that ilk have found their way onto the prize's short list on many occasions since former Montreal businessman Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize 17 years ago to honour his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.
Indeed, four of the five nominated titles in 2006 came from smaller publishers. But in virtually every instance the top prize - this fall, it's $50,000; runners-up split $20,000 - has gone to a book from an established, usually large publisher and, more often than not, to an established author.
If a change is gonna come, this might be the year it will arrive. At Tuesday's announcement for the 2010 short list, the jurors - U.S. novelist-critic Claire Messud, veteran CBC broadcaster Michael Enright, British novelist and short-story writer Ali Smith - took a leaf from the 2006 "playbook," mostly ignoring large publishing houses and writers with several books to their credit in favour of books from small-to-medium-sized independent houses by writers with heretofore minimal or non-existent publishing histories.
The jurors plowed through 98 titles in total, coming up with a long list of 13 last month, from which they are set to consider five for the award ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 9. Only one title by a major publisher, David Bergen's novel The Matter with Morris, a Phyllis Bruce/HarperCollins book, made the top five, with the remaining berths occupied by short-story collections and novels from publishers with (relatively) modest fiction lists.
The short-story writers, both rookies, are Alexander MacLeod for Light Lifting, published by Biblioasis of Emeryville, Ont., established only six years ago, and Sarah Selecky for This Cake is for the Party, from Toronto's Thomas Allen Publishers. Debuts also round out the roster of novels: Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists (from Gaspereau Press Kentville, N.S., founded in 1997) and Annabel by Kathleen Winter (published by House of Anansi). Winter's book has also been nominated for this year's Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, worth $25,000.
Both Messud and Enright (London-based Smith was not at the announcement) described the jury's deliberations as "very harmonious."
"Nobody has thrown any china; nobody has punched anybody or yelled at anybody. It's been very positive," Messud said. In fact, she noted that the jurors could easily have come up with a long list of 20 titles "without feeling we were somehow lowering the bar in doing so."
Discussions of new writers versus veterans, major publishers versus small "did not come up," she added. "Canadian literature has so many great writers working now and yet it's still exciting to discover new voices. ... We had the great privilege of reading great work by established writers and discovering new voices as well. There's a lot of great stuff out there."
Enright found his experience enlightening and educational. Not only is Canada's literary landscape "strong, it's also wildly diverse, a mile wide and 10 miles deep, so rich and fertile," he said. While he has read many Canadian novels and works of short fiction, he said, "I had no idea how good we really are until I embarked on this."
As for getting your hands on a copy of the short list titles: Intriguingly, as of Tuesday's announcement, only two of them, Annabel and The Matter with Morris, were available as e-books the former via Kobo, the latter through Kobo and Apple. All other publishers contacted indicated they were thinking or planning e-book releases in the near future. For now, though, you may have to wait for reprints to appear in stores.
To be considered for this year's Giller, books had to have been published in English in Canada between Oct. 1, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2010.