For 22 years, the Giller Prize jury has operated as a literary Fight Club
The first rule for the Giller Prize jury is you don't talk about being on the Giller Prize jury, talking instead through e-mail threads and conference calls
On Monday, the five members of this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize jury will choose the winner of Canada's most prestigious, and lucrative, literary award. They will meet at 8 a.m. for breakfast, then retreat to a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, in downtown Toronto, where the gala ceremony has been held since 2012. The only people permitted in the room are Elana Rabinovitch, the prize's executive director, and the jurors: Canadian journalist Jeet Heer, British author Samantha Harvey, Scottish novelist Alan Warner, Canadian writer Kathleen Winter and jury chair (and Canadian author) Lawrence Hill.
This will mark only the third time they have been in the same room, yet they have been discussing, debating and dissecting the merits of the 161 books submitted by publishers from across the country for most of the year, through e-mail threads and conference calls, a rigorous process that has whittled down the list to six finalists: Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People, Catherine Leroux's The Party Wall, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, Gary Barwin's Yiddish for Pirates, Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl and Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction last month.
For 22 years, the Giller Prize jury has operated like a sort of literary Fight Club, the first rule being you don't talk about being on the Giller Prize jury. Although there have always been rumours – this book nearly won; juror X campaigned for novel Y – agreeing to serve on the jury comes with its own brand of omertà. There have only been 60 people who can call themselves Giller jurors – a number equivalent to a moderately attended book launch. So what's it like to be a part of such an exclusive club?
"The experience was like being in a war," says novelist Alison Pick, who served on last year's jury. "Other than the actual act of writing books, I would say it was the most intense experience of my literary career."
'Hell of a lot of work'
The books start arriving in the spring. One box after another – title after title; novel after short-story collection. "I didn't really appreciate just how onerous it was going to be," says novelist Elizabeth Hay, a juror in 2005 and a winner two years later. "The boxes of books just kept coming all summer long."
Recalls John Boyne, the Irish author who chaired the 2015 jury: "I began to feel sorry for my postman."
Each year, when the long list is revealed, much is made about the number of books the jury must read – 98! 147! 168! While the numbers underscore the breadth of work produced by Canadian authors, and perhaps hint at the thoroughness of the jury, they also represent "a hell of a lot of work," says CBC broadcaster Michael Enright, a juror in 2010. "Holidays. Weekends. Nights. … I was just reading all the time."
Consider this year: The first batch of entries was shipped to jurors on Feb. 2, the final shipment was mailed Aug. 15, and the long list was finalized on Aug. 29. That means jurors had to read, on average, three-quarters of a book a day, every day, for seven months. (The volume of submissions "has to be addressed," agrees Rabinovitch. "The number can't keep going up and up indefinitely.") The jury is well-compensated compared to other literary prizes (each member receives $10,000) but that still works out to less than minimum wage for a full-time job. So why do it?
The idea of saying no to Jack Rabinovitch, the prize's founder, is unthinkable for most Canadian writers. Yet the majority of the more than 20 former jurors interviewed for this article spoke of feeling a duty to help the prize that has put the brightest spotlight on Canadian literature since it was founded in 1994.
"One feels a certain obligation to be a juror," says novelist Nino Ricci, who served in 1998. "One doesn't rub one's hands in glee."
'People get hurt'
For the first 15 years, each Giller jury was comprised of three Canadians; mostly writers, but sometimes critics, academics, politicians, booksellers and even an eventual Supreme Court judge (Rosalie Abella, in 2003). International jurors were added to the mix in 2008, when the Irish writer Colm Toibin served with Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who ties the record for most appearances, four, along with University of Ottawa professor David Staines) and former Ontario premier Bob Rae. Explains Elana Rabinovitch: "This was a way of saying if [Canadian authors] are read around the world, why can't we be judged by people from around the world instead of just in Canada?"
Coincidentally, most of the prize's memorable controversies have been sparked by foreign jurors. Think back to 2012, when the American satirist Gary Shteyngart blasted the lack of humorous work moments after awarding the prize to Will Ferguson. ("One hundred and forty-two books, and this country can't come up with a funny book," he told me.) Or when the British writer Victoria Glendinning, while serving as a juror in 2009, wrote her observations about Canadian fiction in the Financial Times, including the delightful line, "If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian." ("I remember being completely astounded that I was remotely controversial," Glendinning says.) Or the brouhaha that engulged Scotland's Ali Smith in 2010 when it was alleged she'd discussed the eventual winner, Johanna Skibsrud, with her agent, who in turn signed up Skibsrud as a client before the long list was even announced.
Still, writes Scottish novelist, journalist and 2011 juror Andrew O'Hagan in an e-mail, the addition of international jurors "prevents [the prize] from becoming provincial. … The Giller's deployment of international judges keeps the bar way up high."
The second major change to the jury occurred last year, when it was expanded to five people, and the concept of a chair, who is tasked with guiding the deliberations, was introduced. "Let it never be said that too many voices is a bad thing when it comes to critically assessing a work of fiction," Rabinovitch says.
There's also a sense that, however inaccurate, all Canadian writers know one another; they share the same agents, they work with the same editors, they compete for the same prizes.
"It's inevitable that people – some of them are people you know – get hurt," says novelist Jane Urquhart, a juror in 1995 and 2000. "You have to be prepared for that."
Anna Porter, a writer and publisher who has been involved in Canadian literature since the late sixties, thought she was prepared when she agreed to serve in 2012. But "people I've known for years took it hard that their books were not on the short list," she says, adding she was "berated" by one writer.
The process of choosing jurors is ongoing; there's a "dream" list of potentials, Rabinovitch says, but mostly it's a question of timing – many authors agree if they are between projects. Although the prize has an advisory board, the final decision rests with Jack and Elana Rabinovitch. Next year's jury has already been finalized, and will be announced later this year.
The fact that the identities of jurors are not kept secret poses a different sort of problem. Alison Pick says that last year, after the jury was announced, she noticed that an acquaintance whom she rarely spoke to, but who had a book eligible for the prize, "Proceeded to like every single thing I posted on Facebook for the whole [year]. And then never again."
'I just thought we'd all agree on the same book'
The process of reading the dozens and dozens of books submitted for consideration, followed by months of deliberations, was "like being in a graduate literary seminar," says historian Charlotte Gray, a juror in 2004. And like a university class, the matter of completing all the assigned readings is a complicated one. Gray, for her part, is blunt when asked about it: "Anybody who says they read all those books cover-to-cover is lying."
"I read all the books," says the novelist Camilla Gibb, a juror in 2007. "Would I do that again? No."
"In some cases you know after 50 pages – this is so boring!" Staines says. "But you have to go through it, somehow, just to be sure."
Author Thomas King, a juror in 2002, disagrees: "We don't have to spend the entire book figuring out whether or not this book has the kind of merit that would make it a prizewinner. And if it doesn't then there's no point to go much further."
Novelist Barbara Gowdy, who served with King, "made a deal with myself that I would read 50 pages of everything. … Some books I just couldn't read that far in. So I would contact the other jurors and say, 'Have you read this? Do you like this?'" As for the debate itself, Gowdy was caught off guard. "I just thought we'd all agree on the same book," she says.
"When you go through that much material, with that many different readers, 100-per-cent agreement is pretty rare," says writer Alexander MacLeod, a juror in 2015. "You just have to lean to make your case."
In the end, unless your name is Alice Munro, the winner is "almost always a compromise," Gibb says. "It's the choice that you can all live with. It's not necessarily the book you feel most passionate about. I find it frustrating, as a writer, in the sense that can I ever look at who wins a prize as a kind of honest indication of anything more than a comfortable consensus?"
Author Rudy Wiebe, a juror in 2003, is a bit more philosophical about the process. "To say this one is better than that one – it's not like a hockey game where one goal will prove you're the best team. For me, it's more like a garden, and you're going out into the garden and saying this is a more beautiful flower than that.
"Art is, to some extent, a matter of opinion, and perception, interest and imagination. It's not a score."
The winner of the Giller Prize will be announced Monday.