I have recently enjoyed the not entirely dubious pleasure of serving as the screening/selection judge for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, just presented to Joan Thomas for her fine novel Reading by Lightning.
In place since 1976, this annual award is bestowed on the best Canadian debut novel written in English in the previous year. It has undergone various name and sponsorship changes (the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award before becoming the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and, with the demise of Books in Canada, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award).
For all its checkered history, some of Canada's best writers have won it, including Gil Adamson, Michael Ondaatje, Joan Barfoot, Nino Ricci, Rohinton Mistry, Anne Michaels, André Alexis, Michael Redhill, Colin McAdam and Joseph Boyden. Stellar alumni, with Michaels and McAdam both just short-listed for this year's Scotiabank-Giller Prize.
My task as chief taster was relatively simple. Read all the first novels by Canadian writers published in 2008, cull them down to a reasonable long list, and then select a short list of five or six. A jury of eminent writers would read that short list and designate a winner.
This process immediately alleviated a certain tension that attends having to choose the best , the one book that presumably stands out from the herd. I don't mind arriving at short lists, but I fret over having to settle on a "winner." Perhaps it is the configuration of "winner take all" that worries me, the anointing of top dog, but I'm the kind of judge who can see the virtues of different books.
I don't begin the task determined to find a book that I "like," or that suits my tastes. Besides, I have catholic tastes and I read widely, with the assiduousness of a print junkie. Reading is as important to me as breathing; my friends inform me that I wouldn't notice if my eyes were bleeding.
Nor do I embark on this task determined to reward friends and punish enemies. The reading public has to have faith that a juror will not promote friends and lovers, advocate political causes or redress old grievances. This has happened only too often recently, which has made the Governor-General's Awards administration skittish, and has probably contributed to Jack Rabinovitch's decision to use international judges for the Scotiabank-Giller Prize (this year, Victoria Glendinning is British and Russell Baker is American). Canada is still a small country in literary terms, and most writers have encountered one another socially, if not personally.
Long experience has taught me that when evaluating literary work, it is best to set aside personal enmity or attachment, to read the writing without connecting it to the annoying arrogance of writer X or the charm of writer Y. Separate the work from the writer is my motto, one that I am careful to follow.
That said, I practise a Calvinist determination to do the job right. There is continual speculation about whether juries fulfill their mandates. Do they read all the books that are submitted to the competition they judge? Do they actually wade through the good, the bad and the ugly? Or do they read a few pages and slam the covers shut, furious at having wasted their time?
Writers who serve on book-prize juries would doubtless rather be writing their own books. Agreeing to spend precious time poring over other people's words probably stems from a combination of guilt, interest, obligation and curiosity. The stipend for jurors is usually incommensurate with the time the reading takes; selling the copies to used bookstores can sometimes gain the juror more than the fee she might be paid.
And then there are the others. I've served on enough juries to know that jury members can vary wildly. There are indeed jurors who don't read everything, but who argue vociferously for a particular book. There are careful jurors and canny jurors and furious jurors. There are insulting jurors and dismissive jurors and parochial jurors.
Which is why I didn't mind being the one set to reading all of last year's first novels in search of the best. I like to see justice done. I had only myself to contend with. And I got the fun of reading a spectrum of first fictions.
I read (and reread!) more than 40 novels, an amazing number at a time when publishing is so much under siege. They showcased a surprisingly robust originality, along with the usual irritations and immaturities, and, yes, appalling writing.
How to summarize? Excess is trendy but not necessarily effective. The overused and flaccid verb "to be" is still overused and flaccid. A novel may make brilliant observations, but can have difficulty sustaining that pitch. Terminal illness is not a topic to be handled cavalierly. Banal writing is still banal writing.
Novels about writing require a finesse that novice novelists do not always possess. Too many first-time writers fail to trust their readers and summarize their stories away. Novels that try too hard to be cool and trendy aren't. Good ideas can be ruined in the execution. Brash cleverness is just that. Coincidence is still a plot device, and retrospection and explanations are dull, dull, dull. A portentous narrator is a bore. Truth is not a trope. James Bond imitations are passé. What is it, I wondered, with the fainting and the shrinks and the übercool hustlers pitching weary experience as fable?
But I also discovered that the family saga has gone sideways in a most interesting way, that motherhood has nothing to do with apple pie, math is sexy, gargoyles are erotic, revenge is still sweet, violence irrevocable and redemption elusive. For all that these were first forays, they were replete with wit and grace, a restless brilliance that speaks to the health of writing in Canada, and the fact that, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, the novel is in good hands.
Aritha van Herk is watching the progress of the Scotiabank Giller and Rogers Writers' Trust prizes, and the Governor-General's Awards, with interest. She will not, however, be placing any bets.
The Amazon.ca First Novel Award finalists: Chase & Haven, by Michael Blouin. Coach House Books Stunt, by Claudia Dey. Coach House Books Red Dog, Red Dog, by Patrick Lane. McClelland & Stewart The Boys in the Trees, by Mary Swan. Henry Holt Reading by Lightning, by Joan Thomas. Goose Lane The Toss of a Lemon, by Padma Viswanathan. Random House
The judges: Lisa Moore, Russell Smith, Geoffrey Taylor.