When it comes to the Scotiabank Giller Prize, everyone has an opinion and none of them are the same. Call it a tradition: Each year, when the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist is announced, it is debated by readers and writers, editors and booksellers, agents and critics, all of whom feel they could have done a better job than the jury.
This year's slate of finalists is no different. The books are too weird. There's too many short stories. None of them will sell. Who's Rachel Cusk? Where's Lawrence Hill? CanLit's ultimate prize will be awarded for a 22nd time next week.
In advance of Tuesday's ceremony, Globe Books editor Mark Medley and Globe Arts columnist (and novelist) Kate Taylor read all five nominees.
Medley: It feels as if I just finished Us Conductors the other day, but here we are, a year later, with another five books competing for Canada's pre-eminent literary prize. I've already gone on the record – and on Twitter – calling it one of the strongest shortlists ever, or at least my favourite since 2011, when Patrick deWitt, Michael Ondaatje, Lynn Coady, David Bezmozgis, and Zsuzsi Gartner were all nominated. Kate, what did you think?
Taylor: I thought they were all admirable books, interesting, well written, but taken as a whole I found the list narrow. It seemed to represent a particular literary sensibility without much variety. All three of the novels are primarily experiments in narrative voice, and then we have two short story collections from Quebec writers who favour the supernatural.
Medley: Let's start with one of those Quebec writers: Samuel Archibald, nominated for his story collection Arvida, which was published in his home province back in 2011 – the translation is courtesy of Donald Winkler, who has been nominated for the Giller before. Honestly? Despite the fact Arvida sold 25,000 copies in Quebec and was a contestant on the francophone version of Canada Reads, I'd never heard of Archibald. I wasn't sure what to expect and, after reading it last week, am still not really sure what I read.
It's a strange beast: part scrapbook, part diary, part linked short story collection. It's a book of fragments, of memories, of anecdotes, tall tales and family history, all revolving around the titular community, a small town in the Saguenay region of Quebec that was originally founded by the aluminum company Alcoa in the years following the First World War. It seems like a weird place, and this is a weird book. I dug it, though. I see echoes of Faulkner, of Munro, of Stephen King. "House Bound," an eerie twist on haunted house stories, might be my favourite 30 pages from any of the nominated titles. Other stories were instantly forgettable. Parts of Arvida are about how Archibald (or his fictional doppelganger) became a writer, and, reading the book, I felt we were following his development.
Taylor: Yes, some of the stories are show-stoppers, but I thought the collection was uneven, as though Archibald had included everything he had in the cupboard. The first-person stories about his hometown are unremarkable and then you have the piece about the two self-mutilating lesbian lovers in Japan, which I just couldn't place in a collection that also includes a lengthy, comic description of a hockey game. Or maybe it's the hockey game that is out of place in a book of ghost stories!
I also wasn't entirely convinced by Winkler's translation; I found it drew attention to itself; reminding you of the original French phrases. Maybe that's the point – there are different philosophies on that – but here I found it intrusive. For example, in Housebound, the couple are always referring to their daughter as "the little one," which is what you say in French – la petite – but not what English-speakers call a child.
Reading these stories and Heather O'Neill's Daydreams of Angels, got me thinking about how we read short stories. There are writers like Alice Munro who write unified collections that read like novels, but here I felt it was more a case of the sum being less than the parts; that I might have been more impressed if I had read each story by itself in a magazine. O'Neill has a really distinctive voice and there's a wonderful whimsy to her creations but also a very purposeful darkness. I haven't read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, which was nominated for the Giller last year, but this book made me want to seek it out. that said, after 20 of these fairy stories – encounters in the afterlife; a dead soldier resurrected as a toy; dolls and a robot who are described as humans – I found the effect cloying.
Medley: I tend to agree with you. The collection starts with so much energy, but by the time I was halfway through it was like I'd seen this movie one too many times before. That said, I think this might be O'Neill's strongest book to date. Her ideas really lend themselves to short fiction – conceits that might have fizzled out over the course of a novel still felt fresh by the time the story ended, though I wish she'd stretched out "The Holy Dove Parade," about a group of Montreal cultists, into a novel. There are some lovely moments here – I keep thinking about the young woman in the title story, for instance, the ending of which was genuinely touching.
One of this year's subplots is the dominance of indie presses, and O'Neill is one of just two finalists published by a multinational. The other, also published by HarperCollins, is Rachel Cusk for her novel Outline. I can't tell you how many times I heard "She's Canadian?" after the longlist came out. She was born here, meaning she's eligible, and I have no problem with it. What do you think, and what did you make of the novel?
Taylor: I did have a problem with this nomination. The writer qualifies on a technicality of citizenship law but doesn't identify as Canadian. It makes the publisher or the writer look greedy: "Oh look, I could sneak in there." You can argue national book prizes are out of date in a post-national world, but as long as we still have them, what is the point of naming a nominee who nobody expects to win because it would be so controversial?
So, now that I've got that off my chest: the book. I really enjoyed it; at first I was thinking I'm going to be torn in two here because this may be my favourite, but it didn't turn out that way. The narrator is a British writer travelling to Athens for a creative writing workshop; she recounts her long confessional conversations with the people she meets, without ever revealing her own story. Many of the characters are divorced and the book has a lot of acute remarks to make about marriage. As long as you accept the central conceit – nobody actually speaks in such flowing prose in conversation – it's a lovely read.
That said, I was significantly disappointed in the ending; I wanted something more about the narrator to finally come through. I felt it was like a murder mystery with no solution. What was your reaction?
Medley: Outline was my least favourite finalist, which surprised me considering I love Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and, especially, Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom also write autobiographical fiction. There are moments of great insight, and no shortage of artfully constructed sentences, but, over all, I was sort of underwhelmed by the whole thing. I'm completely open to the possibility the fault lies with me and not Cusk's novel, as many, many people whose opinions I respect adore this book. But I was frankly bored. Especially when compared to something like Martin John.
Can we talk about this book? I need to talk about this book. I've been preaching the gospel of Anakana Schofield since she published her first novel, Malarky, back in 2012. Martin John is exponentially better. It's brave, it's wickedly funny, it's challenging – it's about a troubled man who compulsively masturbates in public for God's sake. You think this is the sort of novel they had in mind when the prize was established?
Taylor: God no. In its early years, the Giller was always anointing Canadian icons. I think this is the boldest book on the list in terms of its literary experimentation, especially the way it plays with voice. Martin John is referred to in the third person but the story is told mainly from his point of view – except did you notice that occasionally there is this "we" that sneaks in? That's us, society, those who judge him. It's a startling way of implicating the reader.
Schofield is an Irish-Canadian who lives in Vancouver but another thing that struck me about Martin John is that it's a very British book. It's about class – Martin John has been shipped to London from Ireland and Irish immigrants form a type of British underclass – and the individual and the welfare state.
It reminded me powerfully of James Kelman's How late it was, how late, which won the Booker in 1994, and of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It's also a really tough book. Remarkably, Schofield has made us empathize with an exhibitionist and subway groper. The trouble is that once you've empathized you are left questioning the value of that, a bit in the manner of American Psycho. It's not exactly a book to press into a friend's hands with a cheery recommendation, but then that's my general complaint about this year's list. Except for Fifteen Dogs, right?
Medley: Yeah, I probably won't be giving my mother-in-law a copy of Martin John for Christmas. Fifteen Dogs, on the other hand, is easily the most accessible book on the list, and that's saying something considering it's a fairly unconventional novel. In brief: Two Greek gods, Hermes and Apollo, are having drinks in a Toronto bar debating whether an animal would have a happier or more miserable life if granted human intelligence and language – consciousness, basically. Their guinea pigs are a pack of dogs sprung from a veterinary clinic, and the novel follows the canines in the months and years following their escape. I read this novel on a Sunday afternoon earlier this year, in a single sitting, and immediately thought it would be my favourite novel of 2015. Nothing has changed since then. This book affected me in a way few novels do. Even if it doesn't win the Giller, I hope it finds an audience.
Taylor: Yes. Definitely. I've always admired André Alexis; I like his literary style, his unapologetic intellectualism and his emphatic Canadian locations. I mean, the guy had the gall to set a previous novel in Ottawa. I greatly enjoyed Fifteen Dogs although I did occasionally questioned the dogs' perspective. They know their masters' occupations – one of them works for TVO! – yet they don't know the hours of the day. Of course, the book isn't really about dogs, it's about humans, about whether consciousness consigns us to unhappiness. It's a wonderfully philosophical novel. So what do you think? A smart but accessible book from a venerable small press – the right choice? Booksellers may take to the streets in protest if Martin John wins; I'll take to the streets in protest if Outline wins.
Medley: I think no matter who wins, booksellers lose. I've heard a fair bit of grumbling since the shortlist was announced that none of these books is a bestseller. You have two short story collections – one of which is in translation – two small-press novels and a third novel from an author with very little profile in Canada. But, really, this is the way the prize has been going in recent years. Us Conductors wasn't a bestseller before it won, and while it got a post-Giller boost, the numbers weren't eye-popping. Same with Lynn Coady's Hellgoing. You don't hear about the famed "Giller Effect" as much as you used to.
That said, the prize was founded to celebrate the best in Canadian fiction, and the jury has done a fantastic job this year. But none of these books is your typical Heather's Pick. Do you think this should be something the jury considers?
Taylor: No, I don't think you can ask individual jurors to consider anything other than the quality of the submissions – although weird compromises or political choices do sometimes come out of that process. It's the composition of the jury that might have some impact on the general health of prize, how you balance literary experts with enthusiastic readers. I also wonder if the dominance of the small presses – the Penguin Random House behemoth doesn't have a single title on the short list this year! – just reflects who is publishing the best. The multinationals have published a lot of great Canadian fiction over the years but in a difficult market, maybe it's once again the small presses that take the risks. I don't know, was there ever a day when a Knopf or a Random House would have published a book such as Martin John?
Medley: Well, maybe not Martin John, but I don't think this list necessarily reflects who's publishing the best Canadian writers. Penguin Random House, for instance, has an incredible publishing program. A different jury might have picked five different books. And I think the jury is key.
Unlike the Booker Prize, which regularly includes academics and broadcasters and journalists and politicians and others who aren't strictly writers, the Giller, at least in recent years, has shied away from jurists who aren't exclusively writers. It wasn't always this way: Peter Gzowski and Judith Mappin, Robert Fulford and Adrienne Clarkson, Bob Rae and Michael Enright, who, coincidentally, was the last non-writer to appear on the jury, in 2010.
Writers, especially good writers like those on this year's jury, will of course gravitate toward more literary books. And as the larger publishers take on less of this sort of stuff – I'm talking short stories and experimental fiction in the vein of Martin John – then you'll have more small presses on the shortlist. Just look at André Alexis – the last time he was a finalist for this prize he was being published by McClelland & Stewart. His past few books have been released by Anansi, BookThug, and now Coach House. Anyway, we've rambled on to too long. Let's pretend we'd been asked to sit on the jury. Who deserves to win? And who do you think will win?
Taylor: I think Martin John is the most flawlessly sustained piece of writing here but it's also a difficult book because of the subject matter – one of those reads you admire rather than enjoy. It may be the jury's choice but my money is on the more accessible Fifteen Dogs; highly intelligent and a bigger novel in scope and ambition. It would be my pick and I am guessing it's the likely winner.
Medley: Not only does Fifteen Dogs deserve to win – although I wouldn't mind seeing Anakana Schofield take home the Giller – but it will win, too. (Er, we jinxed it, didn't we?)