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Author Gary Shteyngart feels heat for jab at CanLit, blames ‘drunken stupor’

Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart is shown in New York on Sept. 6, 2010.

BRENDAN McDERMID/REUTERS

The Canadian launch of Brooklyn-based author Gary Shteyngart's memoir Little Failure just got a little complicated.

Shteyngart, the award-winning author of Absurdistan, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and Super Sad True Love Story, set the cat among the Twitterers on Thursday after New York magazine's culture blog Vulture quoted him dismissing Canadian literature.

Asked by an interviewer if he believes fiction should be subsidized, Shteyngart reportedly replied: "Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it's subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don't take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is."

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Shteyngart was a juror for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize when the $50,000 award went to Will Ferguson's novel 419.

After The Globe asked him over Twitter on Thursday afternoon about his comments, Shteyngart scrambled to apologize in exceedingly Canadian terms. "I was in a drunken stupor when I said that. Some of my favorite authors are Canadian. Richler anyone?" he tweeted. (He has in fact often spoken of his admiration for Mordecai Richler.) He added: "Look, as someone who's working on a coming-of-age novel set in Mississauga, I'm just jealous I can't get a juicy arts grant :-("

Later, he noted, "By the way, I got married in Grise Fiord, Nunavut. How many of you Ossington Avenue Hipster Lit Nerds can say that, eh?"

Little Failure hit bookstores this week, and Shteyngart will be in Toronto at the end of the month for readings and interviews, when he will likely have to defend himself anew.

His comments echo those of Victoria Glendinning, a 2009 Giller juror who blamed the apparent proliferation of subsidies to small Canadian publishers for the flood of mediocre novels submitted for Giller consideration.

But they run counter to Jonathan Lethem, a 2013 Giller juror who praised Canadian literature during an interview with The Globe last fall, and observed: "Most Americans think of the Canadian writers that they've heard of as a kind of odd annex to American letters: Alice Munro is one of the great 'New Yorker writers'; Margaret Atwood is a great 'international writer,' and probably half the people who read her think she's British!"

Most seemed willing to forgive Shteyngart's comments. Someone tweeting from the Giller's official Twitter account joked: "If he'd just made proper use of the #drunkenstupor hashtag, none of this would have happened … eh, @Shtyengart?"

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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