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In a year when so many of the pleasures of a literary life have been taken from us – the standing-room only jostle of a crowded reading, double-dipping in the hummus at book club, and, for a particularly dark period, even the joy of a leisurely library or store browse – it is a relief to know that one, at least, is still ours: Playing armchair critic as we predict who might win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.
This year, we’re raising the level of expertise (if not the statistical infallibility) of these prognostications by enlisting a survey panel of five other people who love Canadian books: A bookseller, a publisher, a publicist, an author and someone involved with organizing a literary festival, none of whom have any financial or otherwise connections to this year’s nominated books. These professional bookworms spoke to us on condition of anonymity, and shared their frank – but, to their credit, ultimately universally supportive – opinions on who has the best shot of nabbing the rose-embossed statue, given a new look this year by Finnish-Canadian glass artist Minna Koistinen. Oh, and the $100,000 purse of this richest of Canadian literary prizes.
The Oscars of Canadian literature – or, more accurately, one supposes, the Genies – are awarded every November, but the jockeying begins much earlier, with the release of the long list in September, narrowed down this year to 14 books from 118 submissions. Our survey found consensus on two things: That this list offered an interesting breadth of established names – Emma Donaghue, Thomas King and Lynn Coady – and exciting newer ones, such as Eva Crocker and Francesca Ekwuyasi; and that the inclusion of a graphic novel for the first time was a big deal. “It was interesting to see Seth’s Clyde Fans make the list,” remarked one independent publisher we spoke to. “It sets a precedent.” As always happens, there were also a few titles our respondents thought were snubbed, including Catherine Hernandez’s dystopian Crosshairs and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s lyrical, original Noopiming.
The field narrows, ultimately, to the shortlist, a winner to be chosen by a jury chaired by Mark Sakamoto, and including Eden Robinson and David Chariandy. This year’s five finalists, in the words of someone associated with a Canadian literary festival, “make it a challenge to pick a favourite because all the books are so different from each other. Each one is strong for its own reasons, so this feels like a year when it’s a very level playing field.”
Our survey respondents were, for instance, quite energized by the inclusion of two short-story collections, which often get short shrift when it comes to awards. If we were handicapping this based on past performance, previous Giller winner David Bergen (the only former award winner on the shortlist) would seem the stronger of the two – and we certainly found strong support for his collection, anchored by a novella about a cloistered Mennonite community, among our panel. “It’s not fair,” said one publisher when asked for his shoo-in favourite, “because I’m totally biased toward Bergen. Short stories always, well, come up short in the reading world and I love them.”
There is, of course, another contender for the short-story throne and that is Souvankham Thammavongsa. “How To Pronounce Knife is definitely the underdog,” one publicist told us, “but it has a memorable title, and, if nothing else, I think this spot on the shortlist will boost the author’s career.” In an intriguing – if unscientific – counterpoint, one bookseller told us that Thammavongsa’s short-story collection, alongside Gil Adamson’s Ridgerunner, were the nominated titles that had been capturing his customers' eye over the past two weeks. In fact, this fiction debut – funny, tender, insightful – would be his choice were he one of the judges. " I love reading perspectives on life in Canada that allow us to step into situations and relationships that reflect our differences and also our shared struggles," the bookseller said.
And while we did see some heart for Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex (“the most intriguing,” opined one respondent of this gripping tale of relational complication), the strong feeling among our page-turning peanut gallery is that this is, ultimately, a two-horse race, with Emily St. John Mandel and Gil Adamson neck-and-neck in this final furlong. While their subject matters are wildly different – a collapsing Ponzi scheme figures heavily in St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, while Adamson’s Ridgerunner is a mystery wrapped in a Western – both women are at similar points in their careers, and, despite being well-established and critically acclaimed, have yet to win the Giller. If nothing else, they’re the likeliest to win the popular vote. “They’ve both made lifelong fans around the world with their earlier works,” opines one publicist, “and I think there will be a lot of readers cheering them on, encouraging people to read these novels and their excellent backlists.”
And on the subject of people actually reading these novels: In conducting this survey, we actually ran into the same roadblock, over and over again, and that was, well, that many people simply hadn’t read any of the shortlisted titles, despite being Canadian writers or otherwise closely tied to our literary world themselves. You can make this as existential (is there no hope for Canadian literature?!) or as practical (people are busy, and it’s been a year when many have found the concentration needed for reading hard to summon) a concern as you’d like. It certainly does underscore a point a bookseller we chatted to about the importance of the Giller Awards. “They can act like prompts which expose us all to authors and books that might not be on our radar,” he reflected. “Regardless of who wins this year, we’ve all been awarded a chance to explore this country’s vast range of literature. Time to get reading!”
The Scotiabank Giller Prize for 2020 will be awarded on Monday, November 9, and you can watch it live on CBC at 9 pm.