The Scotiabank Giller Prize short list has just appeared and what a remarkable and unusual list it is. Like the long list that preceded it, it is daring. Both lists are formally diverse and identity-diverse. They are diverse in terms of theme, artistic practice and place of origin. They reflect the varied interests of Canadian literary artists, but they do not pay mandatory lip service to the best-known of authors (as they used to). In this they reflect the intellectualism and general sensitivity of the institutions that nurture the production of literature in this country (notably the publishing houses).
These are the very institutions that are so frequently denounced, by Canadian university English departments, as being conservative, racist, exclusive and active in waging actual violence against women. How do we reconcile these views with reality?
The Giller Prize is privately funded and administered. But being the largest prize for fiction in the country it has come to represent – accurately or not – the best of what our literary institutions produce. The media and the publishing houses collaborate in creating this position of pre-eminence. It used to be quite conservative – in its early days in the 1990s it was accepted that M.G. Vassanji had to win every year (who is that you ask? Well, exactly). But notice this: Michael Ondaatje published a new novel this year.
Had this happened in the nineties, we would have assumed that such an icon would necessarily be chosen for all the major short lists, just the way Group of Seven pictures used to have to be on our phone book covers.
This time, he is not on one. (Original Canlit hero David Adams Richards also had a book out this year, as did former Giller winner Johanna Skibsrud; neither has made any prize lists.)
Instead, this Giller short list includes a work that is experimental in form (Sheila Heti’s essay-memoir Motherhood), a work of speculative fiction (An Ocean Of Minutes by Thea Lim), a work of historical fiction (Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, also nominated for the Man Booker Prize), a popular Quebec novel in translation (Eric Dupont’s Songs For The Cold Of Heart) and a light and wry piece of social comedy (Patrick deWitt’s French Exit). Every single one of these books looks entertaining and compelling; not one seems chosen because it is good for you. And yet it reflects different kinds of diversity because Canadian literature itself does.
I am disappointed that a couple of fantastic pieces of writing that made the long list did not proceed to the next round – notably Paige Cooper’s exhilaratingly dense writing in her book of short stories Zolitude, and Lisa Moore’s equally comic and moving stories Something For Everyone – but am grateful that such writers' writers at least got a nod. (Literary short-story compilations are kind of the deep end of difficulty for typical readers.)
The long list also included two Indigenous writers (Joshua Whitehead and Tanya Tagaq), a reflection of the extraordinary explosion of aboriginal writing that is proving such a popular success. It is important to note that some of the biggest commercial successes in Canadian fiction of the past couple of years have been Indigenous writers: Every publisher is now longing for a bestselling author like Katherena Vermette or Eden Robinson. The publishers' pursuit of Indigenous writers right now is hardly driven by tokenism or even altruism: These are genuinely popular books, both with critics and the general public.
Of the long list, eight of 12 writers were women; of the short list, three of five.
The jury who made these selections was also diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, geography and aesthetic preference. It included a journalist and a film expert. But what makes Giller juries so much better these days than earlier is the inclusion of non-Canadians. This year the jury included a Brit (Philip Hensher) and an American (John Freeman). This helps these juries to avoid political choices driven by internecine Canadian disputes – the non-Canadians come in blissfully unaware of whose side any writer is on.
If you go to any conferences or read any academic books about “Canlit” these days, you will find they are still largely about the sexual harassment scandals of past years at UBC and Concordia. Perhaps a discussion of actual works of literature instead of its peripheral injustices might bring a disaffected audience back to the idea of literature as books. This year’s Giller hopefuls actually come from a culture interested in the technical aspects of writing. An artistic culture.
One last thing: If I knew a bookie I would put my money on Edugyan for the win.