Monday, January 22, 2007

"Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean Margaret Atwood isn't out to get me."

Stephen Henighan goes off the map to where the paranoia-dragons live in this Geist column on Vincent Lam's Giller win.

If the teaser deck ("In an instant, Vincent Lam became a member of the Family Compact") weren't enough, Henighan comes right out of the gate with a statement so baldly wrong it manages to demonstrate exactly the point at which exaggeration for rhetorical effect can lift one's point free of all truthful mooring:
The Giller Prize is the most conspicuous example of corporate suffocation of the public institutions that built our literary culture.
Whoa now, you might say, I know the Gillers can be pretty ridiculous and have only a tenuous connection to the creation and appreciation of actual literature, but the most conspicuous suffocator of our literary culture? The Gillers? Exactly how does a high-profile book award – one whose Max Fischer-like desire to be both popular and respected has resulted in an annual ceremony that manages to be both a low-camp, celebrity-obsessed self parody and a stiff parade of humourless bourgeois irrelevancy – exactly how does something like that kill off a culture?

Well, Henighan says, the problem is that the Gillers have consistently favoured books published by the various Random House imprints. Fair enough and true enough. But then, having made a valid point, Henighan can't resist ruining it with a bit of geographic paranoia:
From 1994 to 2004, all the Giller winners, with the exception of Mordecai Richler, lived within a two-hour drive of the corner of Yonge and Bloor.
Yonge and Bloor? Has Henighan actually ever been to Yonge and Bloor? It may astonish Henighan to know that a healthy percentage of the Canadian population lives within two hours' drive of Yonge and Bloor, a percentage that includes... the Guelph-dwelling Stephen Henighan! Note, too, that with this generous "two-hour drive" allowance, he manages to shoehorn in Richard W. Wright, who lives in St. Catherines, and Alice Munro, who lives (I think) in Clinton, Ontario.

(Sort of makes you wonder why Ben Kerr never managed to snag the mayorship, given his virtual residence at Canada's cultural ground zero.)

He goes on:
The 2005 Giller Prize was won by David Bergen, a skilful writer who conformed to type in that his winning novel, The Time In Between, was published by M&S and took place in an exotic foreign locale (Vietnam). Bergen’s earlier—and, in my view, stronger—novels, such as The Case of Lena S., were set in and around Winnipeg, where, to the horror of the Toronto media, the author still lived. “Winnipeg Schoolteacher Wins Giller Prize” read the baffled Globe and Mail headline announcing Bergen’s victory. This outrageous breach of etiquette was compounded by the fact that Bergen, a very tall Mennonite who looked like a serious fellow in photographs, did not fit the teddy bear image—think W. O. Mitchell, think Farley Mowat, think Timothy Findley, even think Richler in his final, mellower years—expected of male Canadian writers with a wide readership.
What exactly is Henighan arguing here? Follow the thread: Bergen wins with the kind of novel the Giller juries typically go for, and with a big, Random House-associated publisher, also a Giller preference. And it wasn't for Bergen's strongest novel. Again, all fair and true enough. Big prizes are poor arbiters of taste or artistic quality. (Hope you were sitting down when you read that last sentence.) So, according to Henighan, Bergen's win was not entirely deserved. But wait: having anointed Bergen, our Yonge-and-Bloor-dwelling cultural elite then shunned him for the heinous crime of living in Winnipeg and being tall and thin, and not a jolly teddy bear like, um, Mordecai Richler. What links Mitchell, Mowat, Findley, and Richler – a paunch? Has Henighan met a male over 40 with a sedentary career? Is that the central qualification for literary lionization in this country – a spare tire? Middle-aged spread?

Henighan can't quite make up his mind whether, in the case of Bergen's win, the fix was in or the little guy pulled off a rare victory. He does the same with M.G. Vassanji, painting him as both an insider and an outsider within the space of about three paragraphs.

And so he goes on to the 2006 win for Vincent Lam – who, as far as I can tell, keeps fairly fit. (I'm sure a wise editor has told him to lay off the sit-ups – he's a bestselling male author now!)

Read, amazed, as Henighan lays out the conspiracy in detail:
I should have paid more attention to the significance of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood withdrawing their 2006 titles from consideration for the Giller. This canny strategy enabled the old guard to become kingmakers.... As soon as Atwood stood up to introduce the fifth shortlisted author, Vincent Lam, anyone who understood power in Canadian culture knew that Lam had won. Margaret Atwood does not introduce losers. By placing her authority behind Lam, she was giving the equivalent of el dedazo, the crook of the finger with which a Mexican president signals his successor.
El dedazo! He fails to add that, shortly before the ceremony, the other nominees were handed the black spot. Here's where Henighan really gets into it, abandoning his obsession with Yonge and Bloor for a non-sequitur so bizarre and breathtakingly offensive I can only wonder how his pharmacist keeps his licence:
In an instant Vincent Lam, in contrast to previous “multicultural” Giller winners Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry and Austin Clarke—all of them relative loners, none of them born or raised in Canada, none of them able to boast an exemplary interracial marriage such as that between Lam and his Anglo-Greek-descended wife—became a member of the Family Compact and a potential teddy bear.
And there you have it. Lam, though Asian, and therefore multicultural, is not a loner, and has married outside his race, making him perfect for induction into the CanLit version of the Masons and the Illuminati. You can almost imagine Henighan saying all this in a heavy baritone on some after-midnight radio show way at the far end of the AM dial.

Now to be fair, there is more than enough to criticize about the Gillers, both in general and specifically with Lam's win. (Go here for some of that.) But what Henighan has done here is effectively discredit all criticism that shares any of his more valid points while stopping short of demanding that the RICO Act be enforced. The Gillers are a rotten borough, no question, but again, no big cultural award possesses integrity and venality in proportions that favour the former. Henighan's column displays so little perspective it may as well have been presented in cartoon form. To be honest, I hope every person he goes after in the thing comes away feeling just a little flattered to have been mistaken, if only fleetingly, for someone who wields genuine power.

[UPDATE: for photographic proof of the Giller conspiracy, click here and scroll down.]


ognir.rrats said...

Far be it from me to boost the Giller, but you don't suppose, do you, that Atwood et al threw their support behind Lam for the simple reason that, according to their tastes, they liked his book best? Nah, it couldn't be possible. There's gotta be a deeper, more nefarious reason.

The Giller has defined its tastes clearly, and identified its audience in the mainstream, bourgeois duty-read set. They chose their judges accordingly. That's their lot and they are welcome to it. This kind of contorted critique from Henighan is embarrassing because it so loudly broadcasts the petty jealousy of people who want desperately to enter the limelight. Aren't we all sick of writers (and publishers!) who claim to be in it for "literature", but are really in it for fame and money? (You know who you are.)

Someone should write a response to Henighan outlining the dog's breakfast he and other po-mo contrarian judges have made of the GGs.

And for the record, M&S did not come under Random House's influence until 2000. Shoddy research. Shoddy journalism.

Alex said...

Good response Nathan. Henighan seems to be losing it. When Words Deny the World was a good book, but since then he's been getting progressively stranger. I can see there being some real negative blowback from some of the things he said.

nathan said...


Like I said over at Bookninja, I really like the fact that he's willing to put this stuff on the record and face the consequences, but the goofy stuff (which I think was there even in Words Deny The World) is getting goofier and more emphatic.

You kind of want the guy to get a Giller nomination, just to see that the whole thing is crass and corrupt, yes, but sinister, no.

how to furnish a room said...

Nice one, Nathan.
I've always liked Stephen's take on things, but that was kind of spooky.
He may not need to worry about not being recognized around Yonge and Bloor for much longer.