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The Giller and The Booker: do literary awards resonate with Canadians?

November 12, 2008

Do “ordinary” Canadians follow the life and times of prestigious literary prizes – who wins, who doesn’t, does it matter? This year’s Giller Prize winner is Joseph Boyden whose work, Through the Black Spruce, “focuses on the experience and traditions of Canada’s First Nations.” Even Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet, via the Hon. James Moore, minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages weighed in with a gracious very short presser, perhaps consciously trying to make amends for the cultural “snafu” surrounding the comments of his boss during our just completed federal election.

Canadians who follow such matters will probably know about the Giller, or more properly the Scotiabank Giller Prize, clocking in at a cool $50K; not the richest prize but certainly one that gets the most Canadian media attention. Adam McDowell for Canwest News service posted a little piece tracking just such coverage, and he states that his “unscientific survey” confirms that most arts editors and literati cover this prize more than the staid Governor General’s or the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Founded by Jack Rabinovitch, one of Canada’s high profile philanthropists in memory of his wife, Doris Giller, this year’s prize was adjudicated by Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, and, er, Bob Rae.

The lead up to the announcement of the winner usually generates interest as well – everyone loves a horse race – and this year was no exception. The Globe and Mail featured a lengthy and fascinating online discussion with short listed authors and their nominated works: Boyden as mentioned; Anthony De Sa for a short story collection, Barnacle Love (Doubleday); Marina Endicott, Good to A Fault (Freehand Books/Broadview Press); Rawi Hage, for Cockroach (House of Anansi Press) and Mary Swan for The Boys in the Trees (Henry Holt/HB Fenn).

In Britain, the Man Booker Prize (formerly the Booker) has for many years been both scorned and praised – the 2008 winner, Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger (Atlantic) is a thirty-three year old writer who won for his debut novel. Each of the debut novelists to win the prestigious award have been “non native Britons” – Keri Hulme (New Zealand) for The Bone People in 1985; DBC Pierre for Vernon God Little (American) in 2003, and most controversially, Arundhati Roy (Indian) for The God of Small Things, in 1997. Both Ms. Hulme and Ms. Roy were excoriated in the British press for a range of reasons; in the case of Ms. Roy, even her good looks seemed grist for the mill. Perhaps in response, the Man Booker Prize sports a “transparent” website, that encourages all kinds of interactive online discussion about the merits of the “short and long” lists of nominees.

Given the brouhaha that erupted here over arts and culture and our PM’s theorizing on such matters, I’d be interested in knowing what readers of this blog think about the Scotiabank Giller – do you agree with this year’s choice? In 2006, Stephen Henighan published in Geist magazine a very critical look at the Giller prize and was roundly condemned. Thoughts?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    November 14, 2008 9:21 am

    I have to admit that I don’t pay much attention to literary prizes. The judging is inevitably fairly subjective, and likely to favour authors whose chosen topics or styles happen to be fashionable among the literati. I choose my books mostly through word of mouth, or through browsing the shelves and just buying whatever looks interesting, although I’ll sometimes go looking for a book I’ve seen mentioned in the media. With that said, “Through the Black Spruce” sounds like it might be good. I’d quite possibly never have heard of it if not for this blog post – so thanks very much!

  2. November 13, 2008 2:39 pm

    Thanks for the wrap of this year’s Giller nominees and winners. I haven’t read Boyden’s new book but I loved the Three Day Road, which I thought should have been shortlisted last year. He is a brilliant story teller and I’m going to buy his new book on my next airport visit. The Giller has introduced me to many new Canadian writers over the years. If I didn’t subscribe to the Literary Review of Canada, listen to Canada Reads or speak to novelist friends like Shaena Lambert (author of Radiance), I’m not sure how I would learn about Canada’s literary community. I wish there were more opportunities for Canadians to get to know our authors and poets.

    As we start to develop our narrative for Canada’s role in the world, I’m hopeful that we will be able to tap into this incredibly rich community of artists to help us bring our new story to light. I wonder what Boyden would have to say about Canada place in the world?

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