Surprise! 20 years of the Giller Prize

Twenty years after launching a literary shakeup, the Giller keeps behaving in very un-Giller ways
Location courtesy of Type Books. Arie; Wakani; Christopher J. Morris / Corbis

Quantifying the Giller fiction prize has never been a straightforward process. When founder Jack Rabinovitch hands a hefty cheque to this year’s winner on Nov. 5, it will be for the 21st time, at the 20th gala celebration—don’t forget the infamous tie of 2000—19 years after he first did so. Much of the “Giller effect” can be calculated—winners see their sales spike by over 500 per cent, at times reaching the dizzying heights (for Canada) of 75,000 copies—but whether the prize helps or harms the art and business of writing in this country is a never-ending argument. There is little agreement even about the nature of how the Giller decides winners: deliberate engineering, happy (more or less) accident, or some combination thereof.

That doesn’t mean consensus hasn’t coalesced around a few key points. This is the 20th Giller, thank you very much. And the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as it’s been known since Rabinovitch joined forces with the Bank of Nova Scotia in 2005, which annually presents $50,000 to whomever its jury chooses as the author of the best English-language Canadian novel or short-story collection of the year, is the nation’s pre-eminent literary award. Carped at by many and celebrated by many, many more, the Giller is almost universally recognized as the central presence in a Canadian literary landscape it did more than any other entity to bring about, one more dominated than ever by large cash prizes.

The Giller was a hit from the beginning. Rabinovitch’s idea of a fitting tribute to his late wife, books journalist Doris Giller, hatched in close consultation with his friend Mordecai Richler, landed within a literary community “hungry for a celebratory event,” he recalls. “We, and there are a lot of fingerprints on the whole idea, wanted it to be a big event. Mordecai hoped for something like the prize explosion that followed.” The amount of his own money—$25,000—that Rabinovitch, a wealthy real estate developer, committed was eye-popping, and his black-tie gala was attended not just by book trade insiders but by literary-minded movers and shakers of all sorts. As much as anything, the simple fact of holding the event in Toronto, English Canada’s publishing and media centre—as opposed to Ottawa, say, where the Governor General’s awards were annually presented to minimal attention—injected even more oxygen into a fairly staid book world because the media could both attend and build up the Giller buzz.

The award, whether by accident or design—and in a jury-driven prize it is beyond difficult to establish design—then went on to cement its status by celebrating the already celebrated. The first two winners, M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry, were relatively youthful (44 and 43) although not unknown. But following them, in a decade-long run, came the likes of CanLit icons Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Richler, David Adams Richards, Michael Ondaatje and Richard Wright, none of them under 50, all of them veteran and prominent authors.

The result was the entrenchment of a virtuous circle on the business side. The reading public bought in, so booksellers noticed and pushed the winner (and the other nominees): “Whenever there’s a list of any kind,” says Colin Holt, manager of Bolen Books in Victoria, “we set up a table display with the books, and that alone attracts customers.” Publishers sharpened their marketing focus. The media shone a spotlight, eagerly seeking any controversy over seeming snubs and potential conflicts of interest, the sort of “scandal,” American academic critic James F. English writes in The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, that provides the very lifeblood of celebrity prizes. It was enough to put the Giller bash on television—“an hour of TV time for books,” marvels Toronto bookseller Ben McNally, in this era of dwindling review pages and shuttering bookshops, when “we’re dying for exposure.” And even more people paid attention.

The prize explosion that Richler hoped for soon followed. The venerable Governor General’s Awards enriched its purse, as did the Writers’ Trust Awards—after partnering with Rogers Communications (which owns Maclean’s), it offers $25,000 as its fiction prize. That’s the same amount provided by the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction, established in 2000. The Griffin Poetry Prize, founded the same year, gives $65,000 each to a Canadian and an international poet; Hilary Weston’s $60,000 award for non-fiction, first handed out in 2011, also partners with the Writers’ Trust. There were powerful international cultural currents involved in the new prominence given to literary awards, as English’s book points out, and the new prizes also have passionate (as well as deep-pocketed) founders, but the Giller can lay at least partial paternal claim to them all.

Inevitably, this being literary Canada, not everyone was overjoyed by the Giller’s success. Particularly not the champions of experimental writing, who couldn’t help but notice that Giller winners were not only published by major, usually foreign-owned, presses, but that 11 of the first 12 laureates lived in southern Ontario. From a regional perspective, the 12th, Montrealer Richler, might as well have.

Complaints, justified or not—about jurors’ choices, rumours about drunk jurors, jurors who haven’t read the books, or jurors out to settle personal scores—are as old as the playwriting contests of ancient Greece, says Owen Percy, an English professor in Alberta. “And the prize then was a goat. Plus, of course, prestige.” More troubling for Owen, and, to a degree, for the Giller’s friends as much as its critics, is the worry that readers and reviewers hardly know now what to make of literature outside of a prize context. “When I go to a literary event,” Percy says, “everyone is always introduced by the awards they have won or, failing that, the shortlists they’ve made. Basically, everyone else is a loser. When someone, seemingly speaking for you on behalf of your entire country—a national prize, after all—tells you what’s good, it affects the way you experience something readers have always evaluated personally.”

Those convinced that the Giller has made CanLit conform to a narrow band of expression, and that “writers write to it, editors edit to it, marketing departments market to it,” as Percy sums up the view, have to face the reality that it does come down to those juries and their mysterious processes. Or how else to explain the way the Giller has changed in its second decade?

After 12 years of comfortable choices, the jury opted for a westerner, Winnipeg’s David Bergen, in 2005; the next year physician Vincent Lam, a debut author of short stories, crashed through two other barriers, seemingly more solid—previously no first-time writer (let alone part-timer) had ever won and only Munro’s short stories had captured what is still primarily a novelist’s award. But even Lam’s feats paled beside the 2010 victory of Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, published by Gaspereau Press, the first—and, given the aftermath, possibly the last—small press to win. Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves, Gaspereau’s co-owners, refused at first to step up production of the novel even as demand soared. (“That gave them a lot of cultural credit outside the Giller,” says Percy, “but Johanna wasn’t as happy with not selling as many books as she could have.”) Another newcomer, Esi Edugyan, won in 2011, while Will Ferguson—who shares with Richler the distinction of being a dual winner of the Giller and the Leacock award for humour writing—got the nod last year. Both would have been (almost) as unlikely as Skibsrud a decade ago.

And why should the Giller behave in so un-Giller a way? In part, at least, because of the introduction of foreign jurors, starting with one out of three in 2008, and moving to a dominant two jurors in 2009. “It’s a bit of a closed society here,” explains Rabinovitch, 83, “hard to overlook friendships and the like.” In other words, non-Canadians don’t know the politics and are freer to move in unexpected directions. Despite a few flaps, like British novelist Victoria Glendinning’s remarks about the number of immigrant novels in CanLit, with their “flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever,” the foreigners have provided a desirable unpredictability factor.

For its 20th anniversary prize, however, the Giller thought it only appropriate to have a majority Canadian presence—Atwood and Edugyan join American writer Jonathan Lethem—on the jury. Perhaps that’s why this year’s 13-name long list has a more mainstream feel. Or maybe the jurors simply liked those books.