My career as a Giller critic ended on the morning of Oct. 5, when Samuel Archibald's Arvida was announced as a finalist for the 2015 Giller Prize. For more than 15 years, I had analyzed and ironized the Giller. Now a book that, in my volunteer job as general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, I had helped to select for translation into English was on the shortlist.
Most years, I would have scrutinized the shortlist, noting the number of books from independent publishers and the geographical distribution of the authors. But here among the finalists was Arvida, the magnificently Faulknerian collection of short stories mythologizing northern Quebec, which I had edited in consultation with translator Donald Winkler and Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells. I felt my ability to analyze the Giller slip away.
I first crossed swords with the Giller in 1997. Observing that certain aspects of the Giller's dominance over the Governor-General's Literary Awards resembled patterns in Canadian society in the wake of free trade and faster globalization, I published an article on this subject in a left-wing magazine. When the article was reprinted five years later in a collection of my essays, I heard grumbling from Giller supporters.
In early 2007, I published a column in the Vancouver magazine Geist. Referring to the 2006 Giller Prize, I argued that the jurors and the finalists knew each other far too well. The grumbling became a chorus of outrage. A newspaper ran an article under the headline "An Anti-Giller Gadfly in Guelph" (which is where I live). In the article, one of the Giller's organizers dismissed my analysis as "ravings" and accused me of harbouring a "bitterness towards the Giller Prize" that was "almost legendary."
The polemics went on for weeks. The winner of the 2006 Giller Prize, Vincent Lam, was of Asian heritage; some of the responses to my column crossed into the poisoned territory of race. Writers loyal to the prize structure made unsupportable assertions about me, writing words which today they almost certainly regret. I glimpsed this contrition in 2011, when I wandered into a Toronto café where a writer who had labelled me with a particularly nasty epithet happened to be sitting. As soon as he saw me, he headed for the door in a panicked rush. In his desperation to escape, he knocked over a chair and left it lying on the floor.
Yet my criticisms, along with those made by others, had an impact. The Giller replaced its cozy juries of long-time familiars with a system of one Canadian, one American and one British or Irish juror. At the same time, the prize took its revenge on me, defining my identity far more rigidly than I had defined that of the Giller. Most writers of fiction accept that their audience will be limited mainly to the literary community. Yet after 2007, I found that even these readers thought of me primarily as the Giller's antagonist, or as a "critic," overlooking the short stories and novels to which I was devoting my writing life.
I decided to put some distance between me and the Giller. I wrote an essay summing up my thoughts on the prize. It was published in Canadian Notes and Queries and reprinted by Tightrope Books in The Best Canadian Essays 2012. From this point on, I turned down invitations to do media interviews about the Giller. I concentrated on my fiction, and on choosing titles for the Biblioasis International Translation Series. Yet, though I had stopped writing about the Giller, I still watched it. I saw that the international juries hadn't worked as well as the organizers had hoped, sometimes selecting winners that were excessively commercial or head-scratchingly incomprehensible. I was pleased when the enlarged 2015 jury of three Canadians and two foreigners produced a list chock full of literary-press titles.
That's all I'm going to say about the Giller because this year I'm taking advantage of a privilege available to editors of short-listed titles, which is not offered to Giller critics: On Nov. 10, for the first time, I will be attending the Giller Prize banquet. Given all the work I've done for the prize, I think I've earned my dinner.
Stephen Henighan's next novel, The Path of the Jaguar, will be published in 2016.