When the COVID-19 lockdown swept across Canada in March, it split the eligibility period for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize (October, 2019 to September, 2020) into two distinct halves: books published before the pandemic – and those published after, in an altered world, with festivals cancelled, bookstores closed and readers trapped at home.
So one of several noteworthy things about this year’s short list, announced Oct. 5, is that the big fall releases one might expect to see are absent, bettered by five books that emerged during the industry turmoil of a pandemic spring.
The shortlisted titles include a historical novel set at a time of great global uncertainty, a book about financial chaos and the far-reaching consequences of one person’s selfish acts in an inexorably connected world, and a forced and unsettling examination of romantic relationships. All topics relevant to these unprecedented times, one could easily argue.
Asked whether the act of reading during a pandemic might have inadvertently influenced the books that made the list, juror Eden Robinson simply laughed. “I don’t think it would have been different,” she said. Though she did describe the arrival of boxes containing Giller submissions as “sanity saving.”
The books in the running for this year’s $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize are by five well-established writers. The list is dominated by independent presses, which hold three of the spots, and in what seems to be emerging as a five-year pattern, two of the titles are short-story collections.
Toronto independent Book*hug – the smallest press on the list by far, with just three employees – is celebrating its first-ever Giller short-list success with Shani Mootoo’s novel Polar Vortex, in which the protagonist leaves the city for the country, and finds the past in pursuit.
Co-publisher Hazel Millar is excited by the visibility the Giller brings to a book that suffered greatly from the pandemic wiping out months of literary events after its March 3 release. But she is approaching the math of new print runs a nomination triggers with some trepidation.
“The Giller has never occurred in a year like this,” Millar said. “We’re trying to be reasonable and be as on top of the print numbers as we possibly can.”
She notes the delicate balance of printing enough books to supply the sales bump known as the “Giller effect,” while managing the risk that unsold stock could be returned in bulk by bookstores in the new year.
“We’re feeling all the feels,” she joked.
For Biblioasis, an independent based in Windsor, Ont., the Giller roller coaster has become a familiar ride. Publisher Dan Wells describes his mood as “cautiously optimistic” about the “second life” Here the Dark by David Bergen – a collection of stories and a novella about faith and grace from the former Giller winner – will now enjoy. The author’s planned spring multi-city tour for the book, which was published March 10, likewise evaporated.
“We know that the Giller, outside of the CBC Canada Reads, is one of the things that sells more books than anything,” Wells said. But with sales from online events in general seeming lower, he’s going to be “more conservative” about his Giller reprints than in previous years.
For Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, released by HarperCollins Canada on March 24, the COVID-19 effect was different. An instant bestseller, the novel arrived to great anticipation after the international success of the author’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, the story of a deadly global flu pandemic. The Glass Hotel features a collapsing Ponzi scheme, financial turmoil and humankind’s interconnectedness at its centre. The two novels became companions on the spring bestseller lists as both tapped into a certain mood.
The first work of fiction from acclaimed poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife was released by McClelland & Stewart on April 7 to widespread international anticipation. It is a collection of strong yet delicate stories about stereotypes, immigrants, unexpected relationships and the fierce protectiveness we can feel toward those we love.
The short list is completed by Gil Adamson’s Ridgerunner, published by House of Anansi on May 12. A historical novel set in Alberta in 1917, the follow-up to 2007′s hugely popular The Outlander is part western, part mystery, part ghost story.
Adamson is the only author to appear on two major fiction short lists this fall, having also been nominated on Oct. 7 for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She is joined by Zsuzsi Gartner (The Beguiling), Michelle Good (Five Little Indians), Thomas King (Indians on Vacation), and Maria Reva (Good Citizens Need Not Fear). The Writers' Trust will announce its winner during an online ceremony Nov. 18.
This year’s Giller Prize jury consisted of Canadian authors Mark Sakamoto, Eden Robinson and David Chariandy, Canadian British novelist Tom Rachman, and literary critic for The Guardian Claire Armitstead. They read 118 submissions, including, for the first time this year, graphic novels.
The winner will be announced during a CBC broadcast on Nov. 9 hosted by actor Eric McCormack and featuring a performance by Diana Krall. While there will be no ballroom filled with guests, Giller organizers promise to nonetheless deliver glamour and “sizzle,” with some of the usual celebrity sightings and streamed-in nominees wearing formal attire.
The winner receives $100,000. Each finalist receives $10,000.
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