Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Letter from a Giller Judge

Victoria Glendinning, current judge of the just mentioned Giller longlist, has offered some thoughts on her experience of Canadian Literature in the Financial Times, worth quoting here in full:

James Naughtie, announcing the Man Booker shortlist on Tuesday in London, spoke euphorically about the “pure, energising stream of talent” he and his team of judges found in their chosen six. October 6, when the winner is announced, is also the date for the announcement in Toronto of the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s equivalent of the Man Booker.

Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for “gutter” is “eavestrough”, which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a “tuque”, or “toque”, which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)

. . .

There is a convention in Canada of appending to your novel a list of people who are fulsomely thanked for their support, starting with the book’s editor – unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient – plus family, friends and first readers. These last are generally fellow members of a writing group, who have contributed insightful modifications.

But has any major work of art ever been produced by committee? Readers may wonder whether a writer’s vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input, and indeed there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.

The US, too, is a nation of immigrants, but American novelists do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents. Brits do, but differently, less personally. As it happens, all the Man Booker shortlisted novels are set back in time.

Apart from brilliant Giller contestants, there are – as Naughtie boldly said about the Man Booker entries – “unbelievably dreadful” ones. It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked. Complaints were once voiced that most shortlisted Giller novels emanated from just three big-name publishers, all owned by Bertelsmann, and that virtually every winner lived in the Toronto area. Now, many of the submitted authors, and their rugged subject matter, hail from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsidised, and they proliferate. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.

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