Thursday, November 02, 2006

It's a dirty job, but they pay clean money for it.

"Gastronomically-eventful?" Well, if the alternative is "gastronomically inert," then I'll take it.

[UPDATE: Michael Bryson has posted the entire Giller discussion on The Danforth Review, as well.]

Speaking of the Gillers, Steven Beattie offers his own take on the discussion at Good Reports, specifically the idea (which I endorse but he doesn't) that this year's shortlist was the result of at least some willfulness on the part of the jury. I agree that you can go too far with it and start sniffing out conspiracies in every corner (see: Henighan, Stephen), but at the same time, there's a whiff of utopianism (and often more than a whiff) about the idea that literary award juries simply pick "the best books they can."

It's the same daisies-and-baby-powder odour that arises whenever a book reviewer says that he reviews books "solely on their own merit." It's simply not true, nor should it be. You don't have to be a raging deconstructionist to understand that art has an artistic, cultural, and social context that informs a person's reception of it. The idea that a jury would massage its picks so that, say, unknown writers are favoured over veterans, isn't one that shocks me to the core any more than does the more frequent Giller practice of using the prize as a career-achievement award.

The only time I start to snarl is when the prize seems to reward the book with the most earnest and important themes contained within. Even then, it's a bit like complaining that big Hollywood movies lack believable characters. Really, what did you expect?

As J.J. Hunsecker would say, "are we kids or what?"

The problem occurs when we look to things like the Giller shortlist to help define "our writing" in any meaningful way. Not surprising, given the near-total lack of appetite for interesting literary criticism in this country (which, by the way, does not mean "more negative reviews!"), where even well-established writers with presumably strong opinions choose to only review books they like (if they write reviews at all), or view literary criticism as an adjunct to their own book's publicity machine, or as a kind of studio audience, there to sigh or applaud at the correct moment. Not surprising, given all that, but nearly useless all the same.

[title quote from here.]


Askinstoo said...
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Steven W. Beattie said...

I think there is probably a certain naiveté at work in the notion that the Giller jury (like the Academy of Motion Picure Arts and Sciences, etc.) is, or could possibly be, completely unbiased. There's obviously a measure of subjectivity involved in chosing a shortlist of "best" books, which is why it's been suggested that when you pick the jury for a prize like this, you effectively pick the winner.

And, if the jury was to have an agenda, better it be to give good but underexposed writers a shot at the limelight, secure in the knowledge that people will read the big shots anyway.

But, I still like to think that the jury remains as impartial as possible and, to the best of their abilities, judges each book on its merits. I'm comfy in my utopian little world, for now at least.

Thanks for the link, Nathan. And the comments function seems to be working fine.



ognir.rrats said...

I take a much less trusting position. All you have to do is look at the track record. Statistically, past Giller juries have been stacked with what are now Betelsmann authors (Random House/M&S) who have awarded the prize to others from the same stable. Is it a conscious decision? I would not rule out that possibility, but does it even matter, given the results? They are all functioning from a similar aesthetic perspective. A similar dynamic seems to influence the GGs, which tends to have a more diverse jury, and thus more diverse lists. (And I don't mean that diversity is necessarily better. The GG has gone to some shockingly bad books in recent years.)

Let's remember that Winter is published by Anansi, and has just signed on with Penguin. Clarkson and her husband are also published by Penguin and Anansi. And Munro has published numerous books at Penguin. Stack the Giller jury with Anansi/Penguin authors and suddenly you have an Anansi/Penguin-heavy shortlist.

nathan said...

Like I said, it's easy to go all conspiracy-minded with these things. Vincent Lam thanks Michael Winter at the back of his book! Randy Boyagoda is Clarkson's fellow Penguin author, but didn't make it off the longlist. Could this have anything to do with the unflattering portrait of the Governor General in his novel? Carol Windley writes vaguely Munro-esque short stories!

A Penguin-heavy jury delivers a Penguin-heavy shortlist... with no Penguin books on it!

There's more twists to this than a barrel full of pretzels....

I think the point about the similar aesthetic perspective is a good one, on the other hand. I think the real conspiracy at work with these things is a benign one, and one that exists across the board. Editors, agents, prize juries have to wade through a lot of shit, which tends to result in sudden bursts of enthusiasm for any sign of talent or competence. I'm guilty of this, and so is everyone I know who has to go through slush piles for a living. After a while, I'm sure you start to adjust your expectations, start looking for consistency and congeniality.

Not saying this fully explains the Giller shortlists, or the state of Canadian writing, for that matter, but I think it plays a role. So few writers live up to their potential, it's easy to become risk-averse, and to internalize that aversion to the point that it becomes invisible and unconscious.