Books

GORILLA GILLER

On its 10th anniversary, Jack Rabinovitch’s award dominates the world of CanLit

BRIAN BETHUNE November 3 2003
Books

GORILLA GILLER

On its 10th anniversary, Jack Rabinovitch’s award dominates the world of CanLit

BRIAN BETHUNE November 3 2003

GORILLA GILLER

Books

On its 10th anniversary, Jack Rabinovitch’s award dominates the world of CanLit

BRIAN BETHUNE

“PRIZES ARE APPLES OF DISCORD,” Margaret Atwood primly remarked after winning the Booker Prize in 2000. “One wins, the others lose.” A scarred veteran of the prize wars, Atwood knew what she was talking about. In the past decade, awards have become the nuclear reactor that makes the literary world go round. An explosion of buzz from publishers, writers, booksellers and the media greets every short list—half of it complaint and conspiracy-mongering, half praise for the discerning judges. The more glittering the prize, the louder the buzz. And in Canada, where the Giller Prize’s unique fusion of high-culture aesthetics and pop-culture glam has made it an icon, awards don’t shine any brighter than Jack Rabinovitch’s brainchild.

On the eve of its 10th anniversary, the $25,000 Giller is a sales generator and famemaker without compare. It matters, to readers’ choices, publishers’ bottom lines and authors’ careers, in a way its much older competitor, the Governor General’s Literary Award, never has. The Giller rewards highend literary fiction that’s also popular and accessible, written by already well-known authors with access to healthy promotional budgets. And it does so at a lavish blacktie affair—being held on Nov. 4 this yearattended by hundreds of movers and shakers. The combination works wonders: in a celebrity-obsessed society, the Giller radiates power and influence. For Austin Clarke, winning for The Polished Hoe last year “literally changed his life,” says the book’s editor, Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen Publishers— Clarke went on to share the Trillium award ($20,000) and win the Commonwealth Writers Prize ($22,000). “He’s going to meet the Queen in March, for God’s sake.”

THE GILLER isa fame-maker without compare in a celebrityobsessed society

The Giller is the gorilla on the CanLit block. And its every twitch and grunt is potentially predictive of the future of Canadian writing and publishing. This year’s judges—Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Rosalie Abella, University of Ottawa professor David Staines and Edmonton writer Rudy Wiebe—put out some intriguing signals in their choices. They are: Margaret Atwood, 63, for Oryx and Crake, and John Bemrose, 56, for The Island Walkers (both McClelland & Stewart); AnnMarie MacDonald, 45, for The Way the Crow Flies (Knopf); M.G. Vassanji, 53, for The In-Between World ofVikram Lall (Doubleday); and John Gould, 44, for the sole short-fiction collection, Kilter (Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press). A prize for any one of them would mark a change in course, however slight, from the Giller’s track record.

In its first years, the prize picked relative youngsters like Vassanji (then 44) and Rohinton Mistry (then 43) in 1994 and 1995. But the award has long since settled down as a reward for established authors who’ve paid their dues. Although short-story collections are regularly nominated, this is only a polite gesture—the Giller is a novelist’s award. (Alice Munro, whose stories are considered a cut above almost anything, is the only short-fiction writer among the winners.) No debut novelist has ever won, and no one younger than 50 has since Mistry. Indeed, the average age of subsequent victors is 60— and every one of them had long been prominent. Nine out of 10 prize winners live in Ontario and, from a regional perspective, the 10th, Montrealer Mordecai Richler, might as well have.

Munro (winner, 1998), Atwood (1996) and Bonnie Burnard (1999) form the surprisingly small female contingent among the laureates. Richler (1997), Michael Ondaatje (2000), David Adams Richards (2000) and Richard Wright (2001) join Clarke, Vassanji and Mistry as the seven male winners. The list of their prominent peers who missed out is short: Timothy Findley and Carol Shields—both now dead—along with Barbara Gowdy and Jane Urquhart.

What has allowed the Giller to reward an entire galaxy of CanLit stars during its brief life are felicitous accidents of timing. Big books from big names have rarely faced off. Nor has anyone ever won twice—no one, before this year, has even been nominated after winning. Victors either didn’t produce eligible books afterwards or saw them ignored, like Mistry’s Family Matters last year. The one true battle between heavyweights was Ondaatje vs. Richards in 2000, an epic struggle in the jury room that resulted in a tie. This marked tendency to celebrate the already celebrated has only helped cement the Giller’s place in CanLit. The book world wants its favourites to win—when a very ill Shields was denied for the second time last fall, there was a palpable sense of disappointment among some in the crowd.

Prominent authors mean major publishing houses, and the Giller has never been won by a small press. McClelland & Stewart, the self-styled “Canadian Publishers,” has taken five of the 10 awards, including the first three. HarperCollins, with two past Giller victories, was shut out this year, despite having published Frances Itani’s heavily hyped Deafening and The Romantic by Gowdy. Their absence from the nominations, echoed by the Governor General’s short list (page 78), caused the biggest stir. Rabinovitch heard about it within hours. “Oh, five or six people phoned me to say Itani should have been on the list,” notes Rabinovitch. “And I went down the street for a coffee today and ran into a friend, and he told me Itani should be there. But I trust the juries to make the right decisions. ”

The Random House group also has two Gillers (a Knopf and a Doubleday), while Thomas Allen won last year. Thomas Allen may not be a major in the manner of M & S and the foreign-owned firms, but neither is it one of Canada’s many small presses. Given their place in publishing’s food chain, nurturing younger writers who may eventually migrate to larger houses, it’s unlikely a smallpress book will ever win the Giller.

The juries that have established these patterns show a certain similarity as well. Counting this year’s crew, 22 individuals, including five prizewinners and four unsuccessful nominees, have occupied the 30 judges’ spots. No one has done so more often than Staines, now on his fourth tour of duty. He’s a Giller insider, a member of the advisory board and one of the two men—the other was Richler—who helped Rabinovitch launch the award. (The prize is a tribute to Rabinovitch’s wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, who died in 1993.) Staines is also the focus of most of this year’s complaints from those whose choices aren’t on the short list.

Conventional wisdom in the literary world sees Staines as Rabinovitch’s conservative éminence grise, a corrective to last year’s jury, which apparently went out on a limb by giving the nod to Clarke’s brilliant Polished Hoe. More to the point, Staines is also seen as being too close to M & S—not only is he the editor of its New Canadian Library series, but each time he’s served on a jury, an M & S author has won. Besides, he’s a friend of Atwood, as is Abella. The first true outsider Giller juror—not a writer or critic or bookseller—Abella is painted as an insider by those who point to the thanks given her in Oryx and Crake as an “early reader.”

Some of this is contradictory, more of it is hypocritical, and none of it is out of the ordinary. It’s certainly a gift to conspiracy theorists that Staines has seemingly always found a M & S novel to be the most prizeworthy on offer, but his fellow jurors—who included the likes of Munro and Richler— evidently agreed. Staines can hardly be faulted for the fact M & S has historically had the deepest fiction list in Canada. (This year, given first-rate novels by Elizabeth Haynominated for a GG—Leo McKay and Alan Cumyn, an all-M & S list would have been conceivable.) And if Staines liked Alias Grace in 1996, well, so did the rest of the world: it also garnered Booker and GG nominations.

NONE OF the five candidates fits the Giller bill exactly—something will change this year

As for Abella, who was perfectly open about her Oryx and Crake connection with Rabinovitch and the other jurors, it’s preposterous to cast her as anywhere near as much an insider as the average literary juror. If everyone in CanLit’s inbred world who has some sort of relationship to highprofile books or authors avoided jury duty, or the books themselves were withdrawn, there would be no one and nothing left to judge. Last year Doug Glover sat on the Governor General’s fiction jury that shortlisted, quite rightly, David Bergen’s The Case of Lena S; this year Bergen is on the jury that named Glover’s equally deserving Elle. This is clearly less a Satanic conspiracy than a reflection of how small literary Canada is.

Meanwhile, structural changes are afoot at the Giller. Rabinovitch, who has personally paid out $250,000 in prize money to 10 winners, and thousands more to host the gala ceremonies, is 72 now. “Plans are in the works,” he says, to ensure the Giller outlives him. There are discussions over possibly increasing the prize money: $25,000 (as compared to the GG’s $15,000) is still a hefty sum in CanLit, but not what it was after a decade of inflation. And there’s talk of a Booker-style “long list,” a preliminary announcement of two dozen titles from which the final five would be drawn. The motivation is clear—a very Canadian desire to share the wealth. “One author was concerned about people losing!” Rabinovitch exclaims. “But what can you do?”

As for who’s going to win on Nov. 4, no candidate fits the Giller bill exactly—a celebrated Ontario novelist, 60 and probably male. John Gould’s Kilter is a symbolic nod to short fiction, small presses and western writers. Of the four novelists, Vassanji’s Vikram Lall seems least likely—it’s a good book, but not at the level of the others, nor does it seem possible the first two-time Giller winner could be anyone but Atwood. Oryx and Crake may not be the apex of Atwood’s art—many would opt for Alias Grace—but it’s damn close. Seven years ago, when Atwood pulled off the first Canadian triple-nomination (Booker, Giller and GG) with Alias Grace, a coup she has just repeated with Oryx and Crake, she won the Giller—over a field that included Ann-Marie MacDonald.

But this time around, the judges could just as easily pass the torch to the youngest winner in eight years, and pick MacDonald’s remarkable The Way the Crow Flies. Or, should the jury fracture between the two femaleauthored blockbusters, Bemrose’s Island Walkers may triumph. Something will change: the prize will go to a repeat victor or a younger generation or a debut novelist. Any of those choices would represent a natural shift in direction rather than a radical departure. The Giller gained its stature by combining celebrity, quality and popularity. It’s not going to reinvent itself now. HI