By Jean Baird | February 3, 2010

Jury: Cyril Connolly, Dr. George Steiner, Elizabeth Bowen. Down from 5 to 3. Wonder why? And only 4 short-listed books rather than 6 of previous years.

John Berger: G, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Susan Hill: Bird of Night, Hamish Hamilton; Thomas Keneally: The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Angus & Robertson; David Storey: Pasmore, Longman

From Brian Fawcett:

1972 had Steiner and Cyril Connolly—who was the most perceptive British literary critic of the entire century (he went to school with George Orwell, and was able to recognize both his and Henry Miller’s genius: he’s the one who told that hilarious story about Orwell going to Paris to try to convince Miller to fight in the Spanish civil war.)

Most of these contests are made or broken by their jurists. In 90 percent of cases, it becomes a prize for conventional behavior. Once in a while, you get a jury like this one, and you get a winner like G.

I’m increasingly interested in the whole jury process—selection, discussion, etc. Basically there are three methods used for literary prizes. 1. One judge picks the short-list and winner. 2. Between three and five jurors meet, discuss choices, pick a short-list, then a winner. That’s how the Booker jury works. 3. Between three and five judges make a list of their top five books. That list is sent to the organizing body and using a numerical system, a short-list and winner is announced. That’s the system the BC Book Prizes uses, in theory to avoid the possibility of one judge bullying the others.

Curious to know if I could see some pattern, I made lists of the winners and short lists for the following prizes, (beginning in 2001, the first year of the Griffin)—Griffin, Governor General Award for Poetry, BC Dorothy Livesay Prize for Poetry. If there is a pattern I couldn’t find it. A BC poet will appear on the Griffin, but not on the other two—Robert Bringhurst for 2001. In 2002, Karen Solie was on both the Griffin and BC list, but not on the GG. In that same year three other BC poets were on the GG but not on the other two—Roy Miki, Tammy Armstrong, Colin Browne. BC poet Robin Blaser was given the lifetime achievement award at the Griffins in 2006, the Order of Canada in 2007, then in 2008 won the Canadian part of the Griffin prize. In the 45 odd years that Blaser has lived and been writing in BC he has never received the GG or the BC Book Prize (actually, never even been short-listed for the later).

Then I thought of another way to review prizewinners as measured through other methods. The BC Book Prizes began in 1986. The Order of BC was created in 1984 to acknowledge the highest achievement in the province. Of the 274 who have received the Order during that time, there are five writers—George Bowering, W. P. Kinsella, Joy Kogawa, P. K. Page, and Jane Rule. You would think this group might have stacked up a few BC Book Prizes, right? Wrong. The total is one—P. K. Page in 1988 won the non-fiction prize for Brazilian Journal. If I add David Suzuki (who surely received the OBC for his foundation and environmental work) we can add another prize. And, if I add Howard White (who probably received the OBC for his dogged work for the publishing and writing community as long-time publisher of Harbour) we can add another.

I asked Fred Wah about his experience as a BC Book judge. Does that system work? “It does and doesn’t work. It only works if, during the discussions, there seems to be some consensus, at least on the shortlist(s). But I was on a jury in Alberta with similar guidelines and I protested, after the winners were announced, that not one of my choices was even on the shortlist. In other words, with this method it could happen that two of the three judges’ totals negate the other judge’s choices completely.”

There have been complaints to the BC Book Prizes about this very thing. When George was a judge a number of years ago not one of his top three made the short-list. Now, the administrators tell me, the top pick of each judge is guaranteed to be on the short-list. I don’t know how that affects the numerical calculations but it might explain why the prizes now have short-lists of five where before the short-list was usually three books. But it doesn’t seem to solve the problem of 2 judges eliminating the opinion of the third.

I asked Brian Fawcett about his experience with the BC Book Prizes. He responded in classic Fawcett style.

We were invited to discuss the submissions and to provide one another with shortlists, and so we did. What I caught, as did one of the other jurors, was that the third juror had an agenda, which was that she liked one book because it was good, but was also, for reasons she didn’t disclose,  determined to get another not-so-great book on the shortlist, and thus was plumping her vote accordingly. Between the two of us, we figured out the weighting system of the votes, and acted on it—without having to openly conspire–to get the book both of us preferred over the top. The book that the third juror liked but didn’t have a personal agenda on might have won had we not figured this out, because it was also second or third on our lists, too, whereas our common  favourite didn’t rate  in her calculation at all—she’d figured out the system, too, or thought she had. Her weakness was that she thought she was smarter than we were, or that we were going to be too principled to manipulate the system the way she did. I decided to let her think that, and both the other juror and I adjusted our voting to cancel out strategic weighting.

I think most prize juries operate the same way—certainly almost all of the dozen or so juries I’ve been on have had greater or lesser degrees of it. One judge will be bullying, another politicking, and who knows who’s sleeping with whom, in the end, and the worst juries I’ve been on were carried on with the greatest airs of elevated correctness.

Personally, I think we’d be better off if prize jury deliberations were done in the open, with jurors arguing their cases for the books they like, which would help to expose  pressures being exerted, allow inside connections to be outed and public commentaries and counter-arguments made by jurors along the way—most of it stuff that goes on in juries that are pretending to be objective and principled.  The publicity that would result would do the prizes more good than the fakery that goes on with the ‘objective and fair’ decision-making processes. There’s no such thing as “fair and objective” in the real world, and no bureaucrat is going to create a system to prevent it that won’t also ensure that only mediocre and conventional books—the compromise winners that always seem to emerge when jurors try to be fair and objective– win all the prizes. They manage to do that in 99 percent of cases anyway, but anything that prevents that is for the better. Making it wide open and public would at least make it more fun and less hypocritical. It’s also worth noting that the selection of jurors is done by the bureaucrats, and is often done on the basis of an agenda, which might be artistic, commercial or personal. Nobody ever looks at that possible source of corruption. It would be much more fair if a pool of jurors was created, and the jurors then picked at random.

But in the absence of a more public jury system, a juror should pick his or her winner, and do what’s needed to ensure that it wins. Because the other judges, by the same or different means, will almost certainly be doing the same.

Sounds messy, doesn’t it?

Susan Hill—The Bird of Night VPL

Another book about a madman.

Francis (the mad but genius poet) and Harvey (Egyptologist) live together for 20 years during which time Francis writes the brilliant long poem “Janus” between bouts of depression and suicidal madness, to which he finally succumbs. As an old man Harvey writes about their time together and tries to stave off the academics in search of the poet’s papers: “I will not have the bones of them picked over, I will not have those arrogant, salacious young men sniffing about his books like vultures over carrion.” I liked that part.

The writing is overwrought. The relationship between the two men is never fully examined—are they buddies or lovers? Part of the structure of the novel is the use of sections from the diary of Francis. There is no evidence this guy can write well.

Recently Susan Hill has published a YA novel so there are various interviews floating around, this one from a London paper:

Have you written any books you now do not like?

“Yes. I think THE BIRD OF NIGHT is a bad novel, though there are some powerful scenes in it. But I just don’t believe in the central character any more and I think it’s a pretty unlikely story. Oddly enough, it won me the Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for The Booker !!”

How refreshing is that?

Thomas Keneally—The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith VPL

I’ve scanned the coming shortlists and we’ll be seeing a lot of Keneally. This book is based on the real-life story of a half-breed young man—Jimmy Governor—who, after much abuse, flips out and goes on a killing spree. The book touches on the issues around Australian racism and in many ways is both deep and complex. But there is also something unsettling.

I’m again reminded of the bizarre election we just watched to our south. Sarah Palin at rallies accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Otherwise upright citizens charging that Obama is a “Muslim” and the “anti-Christ” (how can he be both?). The First Brigade of the Third Infantry Division (3,000 to 4,000 soldiers) was deployed in the US for crowd control of “unruly individuals.” And the police in LA were concerned about race riots if Obama didn’t win. Fear mongering creates such a thin line, and you can see the potential for folks to flip out.

One of my problems with Jimmie Blacksmith is that he doesn’t flip out. It isn’t madness of the moment. Keneally describes his mental process:

“Now Jimmie himself knew that Newby was not what he wanted. He was in a fever for some definite release. Killing Newby, however, was not it. When he put his rifle against Newby’s gut, he knew that he wished to kill that honey-smooth Miss Graf. His desire for her blood, he understood, came as a climax to his earlier indecencies—relinquishing Harry Edwards to Senior Constable Farrell, for example. He wished to scare the schoolmistress apart with his authority, to hear her whimper.”

Elsewhere in the book: “Jimmie Blacksmith was suddenly ashamed and overcome with a fatalism native to his blood, the fatalism that had kept him at Verona once against his will.”

I don’t want to get into the issue of voice appropriation, but there is something here that might be voice misappropriation. More to the point, the book suffers because there is no distance. Periodic psychic analysis, which is what happens here, doesn’t work.

Another Australian book about the Ned Kelly gang will be turning up on the shortlist later and perhaps this issue will arise again. I think George handled this challenge much better in Shoot.

I putzed around a bit, curious about this issue and found the following from a publisher’s preface for a reprint in 2001: “Keneally had read a book on Governor by the historian Frank Clune and after consulting various other works on Aboriginal kinship and newspapers from 1900, went about fictionalizing Governor’s life. It is very much a product of its time—it is a work whose story is told from the perspective of a black man but is written by a white man. Keneally in no way renounces the work, but acknowledges that if he were to tackle it in 2001, it would be more appropriately told through the eyes of one of the white characters.”

John Berger—G VPL—WINNER

You will know from the comments above that Brian Fawcett thinks highly of this book. So does George B. One evening when I was heavily sighing over the novel George frowned and said, “If you don’t say in your report that G is the best novel of the last half of the twenty century, we’re over.”

I reported this conversation to Fawcett who wrote, “Yeah, well, if you don’t put it in your Booker report I won’t pick you up and marry you after he dumps you. So George and I are in accord over that one.”

I can see I will need my Batman training to deal with this one.

“So”, she asked, “why do you think this novel is so great?”

“The writing,” he said.

“That’s it?”

“The writing and the experience of reading it.”

“But tell me about the book. If a grad student gave you those two answers, with nothing else, you’d fail him.”

“Well,” GB finally admitted, “I can’t really remember anything about the book. I read it more than 30 years ago.”


There have been times when a book has knocked me off my stool. That happened with As I Lay Dying. About 30 years ago. But I remember profoundly not just the language and the experience, but lines, very distinct details. More recently, The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, the sex scenes in Galveston, the ride into the middle of Cloud Atlas.

I’ve finished G. My socks are still on.

I can’t, of course, really imagine what it would have been like to read this book in the context of the time it was written. I was in grade 9, busy (and pretentiously) reading all of Ibsen and Shaw. I’m not sure it has the same punch anymore. Certainly the fractured narrative is used effectively to explore the nature of interior/exterior and the theme of exile displacement. So much is about ways of seeing, and new ways of seeing which appear so often in subsequent works by Berger (who at heart is an art critic). Here the emphasis is often about seeing things carefully and we suspect a strong Cubist influence. An example of the writing:

“I must emphasize that I use the word ‘play’ as a metaphor so that we can appreciate the essentially artificial, symbolic, exemplary and spectacular nature of the occasion. But the scene and the props are real. The winter weather, the hounds, the coverts to be drawn, the fences to be jumped, the country that is there to be ridden over, the drag of the fox, the fatigue of the man who has thrust all day – these are real: and the physical experience of these is all the more intenser because of their symbolism which every hard-bitten hunting-man feels.”

The style is frequently self-consciously modernist, which doesn’t bother me that much. Sometimes the narrative is taken over by an essay (which reminds me of Shaw) but again, although at times it gets long-winded and dated, this doesn’t’ bother me all that much. One thing that does get me is the analysis of sex. Why are any of the women interested in G? Only because Berger/the author says so (which, of course, is the point). G is a character (well, more a figure than a character) with no ability to connect with his surroundings. But, when he ensnares a woman we are to believe (or see) that he “recognizes” her as she has never known herself, or been seen before. “Looking at you he recognizes you. His recognition cannot be put out. It burns what it recognizes. And by the light of its burning it recognizes more and more until it is so bright that it recognizes as familiar what it has never seen.”

If part of what Berger is trying to achieve is to alienate the reader through his examination of alienation, he succeeded with this reader. If you are interested in the relationship of art/art criticism to the development of the novel, read this book. If you are interested in the influence of communism on the modern novel, read this book. If you are interested in the work of Michael Ondaatje and what influenced his writing, read this book. But give yourself lot of time to get through it. It is rich, and dense, and intelligent. Stimulating, and frustrating.

The blurb on the dustjacket calls the novel “luminous”.

Brian Fawcett: “(None of [what you write] disputes any claim that Berger was (and remains) a loose cannon.)

“I think he’s the epitome of the difference between creative and lucid intelligence (Primo Levi would be the illustration of the latter.)

G didn’t impress me because of its prose style. It impressed me because it was about the roots of everything we’re now strangling in: the thrill of technology, the wonder of flight, and the briefness of the period where one could actually be optimistic about the political, social and cultural effect of technology without also being a moron. I was thrilled by the ideas in that book, not by the prose. Berger’s prose has always been clumsy. He’s a little like John Ralston Saul that way. The ideation is remarkable, but each sentence he writes begs for revision.”

Technology? G dies before the beginning of WWI. Huh?

And from Steven Heighton: “Significant observation: I, like George, loved “G” but now

don’t recall a damn thing about it.”

After a few weeks, Steven added: “Further to my brief, lazy comment about G.  I said that I, like George, didn’t remember a damn thing about it–but writing that very line has apparently revived some neglected neural circuitry, because now things are coming back to me.  And I recall that a friend who read my last novel told me that the hero reminded him of the character G.  So–I guess the book has affected me more than I thought.

“What I was getting at in saying I remembered nothing about it was that novels of ideas always risk being forgettable in terms of narrative and character.  It’s a risk worth taking, I think, but there’s no use pretending the risk isn’t there.  I was thinking that G, as an embodiment of certain ideas of Berger’s rather than a conventionally “rounded” character, felt less vital, and was therefore less memorable, than, say, Falstaff or Anna K or Uriah Heep.  And yet  . . . the sum total of the character, a sort of gestalt of moral ferocity, has stayed with me.  And I recall admiring G’s unusual (or is it?) combination of sensual passion and moral austerity . . .

“And I shd add that I don’t believe narrative memorability is the only test of a novel’s merit.”

To which Brian Fawcett replied, “I don’t remember much about the narrative or characters in the novel, either. What I remember was its illumination of that period, just before WW1, where it was possible to consider technology and not duck and groan. I hadn’t, until I read that novel, realized what a fuckup occurred with World War I, or how many possibilities it took away from the century that followed–so in that sense, it was the beginning of my real education. I’d trade that insight for most of the literature of the 20th century–and the deluge of navel lint it has brought down on us.

David Storey—Pasmore UBC

Colin Pasmore wakes one morning full of despair. Despite his loving wife, children and good job there is something missing. He falls into depression, says he will leave his wife because he no longer has feelings for her, and becomes shiftless. Then he starts an affair with a mystery woman who once was a student, becomes totally regenerated, loving to family and friends. Renewed and refreshed by this “independence.”

It doesn’t last long. Of his mistress,  “He began to feel cheated. To feel, that it, that he was cheating himself. As time passed he wanted to make something out of his feelings for her. Nothing stood still.” Of his wife, “The continual need each time he returned home of having to court her, to reassure himself of her, to question her by his gestures as well as by his silences, began to wear him down.”

He sinks back into depression, and moves out of the house. Just when this reader is getting rather fed up with the navel-gazing whinner, the husband of the mystery woman shows up, and offers to pay Pasmore off. Pasmore refuses. The next day a hearse delivers a coffin to his door. Then funeral wreaths. Then a thug to badly beat Pasmore. None of it arouses any sympathy, or even much interest in Colin Pasmore.

As Pasmore moves increasingly into his nervous breakdown, he goes north to visit his parents. In other Storey books much is made of the industrial north, and the oppression of coal mining life, the social stigma, and the aspirations to do better but here it is not fully explored. Colin carries the weight of his father’s expectations, yes, but this doesn’t make sense of the rest of the novel. Nor does the ending, which returns us to the Pasmore family home. And perhaps that is the point—you can’t always find sociological explanations for personal bafflement.

Considering the competition, it doesn’t seem so remarkable that the prize went to Berger. A big book—yes. An important book—yes. The most important book of the last half of the C20th? Not in my books.

1972 George Steiner—from The Guardian

It was the most illustrious panel in the Booker’s history. Both the other judges, Cyril Connolly and Elizabeth Bowen, were too ill to attend the ceremony. I fought very hard for John Berger to win for G, and then he threw it in my face by giving half the prize money to the Black Panthers. It was a very grim experience. I was in a very precarious position at the time and I literally thought it was the end for me in this country. I thought I would have to pack my bags and go.

1972–Booker website

John Berger was the 1972 winner with G and another controversy hit the prize. Guests at the dinner in the Café Royal were astonished when Berger got up and announced he was planning to give half his prize money to the Black Panther movement in protest at what he alleged was Booker’s colonialist policy in the West Indies. In fact Booker had had its sugar plantations and refineries confiscated 10 years previously – and the Black Panther movement had dissolved two years before. Rebecca West, a guest, was so shocked that she stood up and protested noisily; another guest, Terence Kilmartin, the literary editor of the Observer, walked out in disgust at Berger’s behaviour.

3894 words, February 2nd, 2010


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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