Not all eyes are on the Prizes

The reality of book awards is a crapshoot, but the crapshoot matters less and less
Noah Richler

Not all eyes are on the PrizesGil Adamson’s The Outlander, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi—and, this year, Michael Crummey’s Galore. What a fabulous Giller list, a litany of some of the best (and bestselling) Canadian novels of the last several years—but not one of them shortlisted for the prize! Drat.

Instead we must debate these five—Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, Colin McAdam’s Fall, and Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault—and, if you’re into the game of it, whose choices they might be. Linden MacIntyre? An Alistair MacLeod pick, surely. Anne Michaels? Victoria Glendinning, chair of the Booker bunch that gave Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient half the prize, must have backed her floating prose, no? And Kim Echlin’s Cambodian romp—well, isn’t Russell Banks a fan of the Caribbean and other steamy, politically charged places? And who, tell me, is the one who cares for McAdam’s libidinous and truncated teen dialogue?

The point of a list is to get people talking, and this year, the Scotiabank Giller Prize has succeeded. Last year, the Giller was not much discussed at all, but now the prize is getting international attention too, something founder Jack Rabinovitch has been seeking for a while. Last month, I discussed the controversy of this year’s long list on the BBC World Service’s Newshour with Victoria Glendinning—the English judge on the prize’s first-ever international jury. Lyse Doucet, the BBC host, described the Giller as “the top prize in Canada,” praise that may well irk that bunch over at the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Much to its credit, it was the BBC and not, curiously, the CBC (this being a Canadian competition, after all), that understood the sport of such debate and had Glendinning and I face off directly. What with the dominance of all media by just a few generally celebrity-driven topics, it is good news when opportunities are found to discuss books, and to be able to mention ones that are not listed by the Giller Prize or the Writers’ Trust or, next week, the Governor General’s Literary Awards. (Doucet, an Acadian and one of the BBC’s stars, began the show by singling out Lisa Moore’s novel February as “terrific.”)

This book season, lively already, started with Alice Munro’s publisher’s announcement that the two-time victor—and winner of the International Man Booker Prize—had withdrawn from the Scotiabank Giller, a decision that was not without contention, and that does not completely favour the younger writers she wants to make way for. She still has been nominated for the Writers’ Trust award and is likely to be on the Governor General’s fiction list. Why did she not withdraw from all of the year’s fiction prizes?

Without Munro, and now the surprise omission of Margaret Atwood’s much-praised The Year of the Flood, the Giller field is wide open. A long list dominated by women has become evenly spread, and the independent houses Glendinning identified as flourishing because of a grant system she said was “the envy of the world” have been squeezed out, ending a good run and leaving the prize to be reaped by either Penguin Group (Canada)’s imprint Hamish Hamilton, Random House Canada or McClelland & Stewart.

The reality of prizes is still, as ever, a crapshoot. But here is the good news: the crapshoot matters less and less. Canada is now a mature literary nation where reviews are still read and play their part, but commercial success is no longer determined by winning prizes. Linwood Barclay has been made a star at home because of his bestselling status in the United Kingdom. Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, having sold upwards of 70,000 copies in the United States, has been optioned as a movie by Union Pictures, a Canadian company, in conjunction with Trudie Styler’s Xingu Films, a British company that produced the critically acclaimed Moon. (Styler, some of you will know, is married to the musician Sting.) Of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and its astounding triumph of word of mouth, we need not speak.

So enjoy the Canadian prize season; it’s good fun. But have a look at the books that did not make the lists. As this year has proved again, you are likely to find some of the year’s best writing there. Be your own judge.