By Jean Baird | March 4, 2010


It’s the 2008 award season in Canada as I write this—the GGs, Giller and The Writers’ Trust of Canada have been dolling out money for the past few weeks. Nino Ricci won the GG, Miriam Toews The Writers’ Trust Rogers Fiction prize, and Joseph Boyden the Giller. No agreement there. Only one writer appeared on all three short-lists—Rawi Hage. Shouldn’t that make him the winner? It would if we threw them all in one pot and used the numeral count method of determining the winner.

These announcements are quickly followed by the nah sayers. One is Richard Bachmann, owner of The Different Drummer Bookstore in Burlington Ontario, organizer of a wonderful writers’ series, winner of the Jack Award (for book-selling) and a really nice man who is committed to books. Here is his response to the 2008 fiction prizes:

For many years, A Different Drummer Books has watched with incredulity, occasionally tempered with outrage, as worthy books have been passed by for Canada’s most esteemed literary honours. Finally, in 1993 we assumed the responsibility of recognizing works of literature inexplicably ignored by the Governor General’s Award and, more recently, The Giller Prize. In some years our decisions have been immediate, the omissions being so remarkably egregious. So, we proudly bestowed the Drummer General’s Award upon Jane Urquhart for Away, Anne Michaels for Fugitive Pieces, Alistair MacLeod for No Great Mischief, and Frances Itani for Deafening. These superb books went on to garner glittering prizes elsewhere, but in each case ours was the first award given.

Once again it is our responsibility to provide a corrective to the other awards. Let us begin with an honourable mention for Helen Humphreys’s fine novel, Coventry (Harper Collins). Ultimately, though, we decided our award for fiction must belong to Patrick Lane for Red Dog Red Dog (McClelland & Stewart).

One of the blurbs on the book jacket of Lane’s book is written by Bachmann. Hmmm. Conflict of interest? You bet.

I would also point out that the list Bachmann cites—Urquhart, Michaels et al—are all pretty mainstream stuff. No risks. No sparks. None of these books stack up against, say, anything by Paul Quarrington.

When George was Writer in Residence at the University of Western Ontario a few years ago he was asked to be part of London Reads and championed Elle by Douglas Glover. Someone else was championing No Great Mischief. The evening of the great debate I had recently finished the MacLeod book, and I foolishly opened my mouth and suggested that although I thought parts of the book were wonderful (though very sentimental) that the sections that take place in Calgary with the sister were tedious and poorly written. I pointed out that MacLeod is a notoriously slow writer and suggested that he’d been pushed to take the book to press before it was really ready. People gasped. Honest. You would have thought I had said Anne of Green Gables was a loud-mouthed spoiled brat. I was admonished—clearly there are some literary sacred cows you shouldn’t mess with.

Now, to the 1973 Bookers.

Beryl Bainbridge: The Dressmaker, Duckworth; J G Farrell: The Seige of Krishnapur, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Elizabeth Mavor: The Green Equinox, Michael Joseph; Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince, Chatto & Windus

Jury: Karl Miller, Edna O’Brien, Mary McCarthy

Interesting mix. McCarthy, a US writer and known toughy. Miller is the founder and long-time editor of the London Review of Books. Edna O’Brien takes us back to my grad school days. I started my Ph.D. with the intention of writing a fairly straight-ahead assessment of her canon. Trouble was, there was no definitive bibliography of her work, and she’s prolific. As you may have noticed, I’m a tad obsessive sometimes. Anyway, it turned out that as I tracked the canon I ended up with a fully annotated checklist bibliography of O’Brien’s work including all interviews in major papers and reviews. Suffice to say I’m pretty familiar with her work. In the early 70s she was a hot property, and well-known in England because her books were banned (and burned) in Ireland.

Elizabeth Mavor—The Green Equinox U Vic

Sometimes mentioned as A Green Equinox I had a lot of trouble getting a copy of this one. Nothing at VPL, UBC or SFU. I figured I would just buy a copy (having recently donated the expensive Thomas Kilroy novel to UBC) but there is not one copy on abebooks. Eventually I did find one copy, on bookfinder, for just a bit less than $500.00. The guys who collect first editions of the Bookers must be on a constant lookout for this baby. I did locate a copy in the library at the University of Victoria. We were going to a reunion in Victoria and I arranged for our hostess to get a friend who teaches at U Vic to take the book out so I could read it while we were there. The extents to which I go!

And what an odd book. A mixture of first and third person narrative. Hero Kinoull, a repairer of antiquarian books, is having an affair with Hugh, the rococo expert, who is married to Belle. By the middle of the book Hero is wildly in love with Belle and by the end, is living/loving Hugh’s mother. Perhaps she has been sniffing too much glue.

The events around which these love affairs are hinged are a zinging combination of bathetic small-village comedy (a group of women wrapped around an ancient elm protecting it from bulldozers) and unlikely disasters—car accident, typhoid epidemic, near-drowning, drowning, and fire.

I can see why Edna O’Brien would like the comedic and unusual examination of love in a claustrophobic small village setting.

Beryl Bainbridge—The Dressmaker ILL

A few curious details here—a family cat named Nigger, a brother who is a butcher but can’t stand the sight of blood. It is a book of details on a small canvas. Two sisters and their niece share the familial home. The brother (father of the niece) visits. It’s 1944, the USA has joined the war and England is torn between the support of the troops and the resentment of the decadent and relatively wealthy Yanks in a country that has been scrimping for years.

The oldest sister Nellie watches over the family and is obsessed with her long-dead Mother. Family relationships are tense—the conflict between the harsh morals of a previous generation and the live-for-the-moment attitude of the late war. Tightly written, and tense. Who’s afraid of Baby Jane? Like O’Brien’s first novels, Bainbridge is focused on feckless girls who find themselves in trouble because they have no education or knowledge of the real world from their restrictive upbringings.

J G Farrell—The Siege of Krishnapur UBC (THE WINNER)

My mother was born in India. Her parents were in India as missionaries under the Presbyterian church. Growing up I was uneasy whenever there were stories about those days in India, under British rule. It seemed like such hypocrisy speaking of “those poor little black babies,” and their need to “find the Lord.” So, with that confession I will say this is the best book of the whole lot so far.

The book is about the siege of Krishnapur in 1857 during the Indian rebellion and is a penetrating look at British Victorian values. Farrell takes on opium use and production, the righteous anger of religious zealots, the problems created by the Crimean war (not enough available young men, for one), the fad of phrenology, social structure, the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, medical procedures (in one scene two doctors with opposing beliefs in the treatment of cholera thrash it out), issues of ownership and property, beauty and art, materialism, science and industry. It’s a scathing attack of the dangers of belief in a superior culture.

But it’s also funny, really funny—the Padre and the Roman Catholic chaplain fight over the allotted plots in the graveyard, and later the Padre and Fleury have a heated theological argument while digging graves. When needed to help fire the canon, Fleury isn’t sure what to do because he “had not been paying attention when the cannon was loaded; the beginnings of an epic poem had been simmering in his brain.”

It’s impossible to read this book—written in the 1970s, looking back to the previous decade—without considering our own culture; as a reader there is no smug way out. It isn’t possible to feel superior to these characters—that trap has been exposed. Instead the reader is forced to consider the occupation of Iraq, the “war on terrorism” and the fight to bring democracy and capitalism to another culture, and the assumption that North America’s relatively new culture is better.

In the novel, the Indians are little understood by the British; “In spite of the years he had spent in the East the Collector had never managed to get used to the appearance of the pariah dogs. Hideously thin, fur eaten away by mange to the raw skin, endlessly and uselessly scratching, timorous, vicious, and very often half crippled, they seemed like a parody of what Nature had intended. He had once, as it happened, on landing for the first time at Garden Reach in Calcutta, had the same thought about the human beggars who swarmed at the landing-stage; they, too, had seemed a parody. Yet when the Collector piously gave to the poor, it was to the English poor, by a fixed arrangement with his agent in London; he had accepted that the poverty of India was beyond redemption. The humans he had got used to, in time…the dogs, never.”

In the end the people of the garrison are forced to recognize that “the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilization could no longer be sustained.”

Too bad George W. is not a book reader.

Iris Murdoch—The Black Prince UBC

I have a little book where I keep track of books I want to read, either because of something else I have read, a review, or a tip from a fellow reader. The Black Prince has been on that list for some time. It is often referred to as Murdoch’s best novel.

Bradley Pearson, the first-person narrator, makes Bertie Wooster looks like an emotional giant. Brad makes Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, appear to be an uncomplaining, unbrooding optimist. Remember the dolt of a narrator from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, John Dowell? Well, Brad makes John seem reliable. Okay, I’ll stop.

Divorced from his wife, half-heartedly going after his best friend’s wife (both Bradley and his best friend, Arthur, are writers, though the friend is more successful) rumored to be a closet homosexual who really loves Arthur, Bradley falls desperately in love with Arthur’s daughter. Bradley’s rambling about his feeling are almost unbearable to read. Do men talk like this? His sister, Priscilla is even worse.

But I’m on to Murdoch and I was looking for the twist at the end, though I couldn’t anticipate what it would be. She snuck up, and clobbered me, again. In this novel the ending almost forces you to start at the beginning again to see how she pulled it off.

1973 Edna O’Brien—from The Guardian

Mary McCarthy and I were the judges, with Karl Miller presiding as chairman. Disputes were negligible. From a batch of about 20, it was whittled down to two contenders – The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell and The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, with Farrell winning by a whisker. Next day, Mary changed her mind and it was left to Miller to cast the deciding vote, which he did with alacrity and no rancour. The prize has changed as the literary/publishing world has undergone a radical and not always edifying sea change: the celebrity virus now infects authors and judges alike.

I can’t remember how it came up, but one day when Susan Musgrave was over and prizes were mentioned she said she thought all prizes should be abolished. So, I asked her why. This was her answer:

Prizes are a mockery, a snare and a delusion. Very bad for writers (all but the ones who win); very good for the odd publisher, the marketers and booksellers, etc. All the focus on one ‘best’ book (and we all know there is no such thing—it is simply the arbitrary decision of a bunch of writers like me, or George, and depending on what our taste is – that book wins.) Often the book that is the compromise (one that is fourth or fifth on everyone’s list but at least is on everyone’s list) wins for that reason. I have never been on a jury where the Number 1 book on anyone’s list has been the winner.

The attention focuses on one book, but there are hundreds that never win prizes and because they do not win prizes they a) do not sell foreign rights and b) get relegated to the non-prize-winning section of the bookstore (I’m thinking of the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto.) Books are not commodities, they are worlds…prizes focus on product, not process.

I’ve heard that often from writers who have done jury duty—that the top book on their lists never wins, that juries are an exercise in compromise. But the people administering the prizes certainly do everything possible to say the winner is the best book. For the 2008 Canadian prizes in fiction, three different juries came up with three different winners. There was hardly any overlap on the short-lists. It seems to me that whoever is selecting the jury is the one with the real power. Essentially when you pick the jury, you’ve picked the winner.

Rex Weyler: The downside is that the prize process may also influence writing, which is a negative … and may also award the in-crowd, which is another negative because that kills real creativity.

Ah, and then there’s the in-crowd problem. The following article is from the Toronto Star in response to the GG poetry winner for 2008

Canada Council denies conflict of interest

November 25, 2008



The Canada Council, which administers the Governor General’s Literary Awards, is standing by the decision of its jury to award this year’s poetry prize to Jacob Scheier in the face of complaints by some critics that the decision is tainted by conflict of interest.

Scheier, a 28-year-old Toronto poet living in Brooklyn, N.Y., won for his debut, More to Keep Us Warm. In the acknowledgements, Scheier thanks two of the three jury members: poets Di Brandt, who helped translate a poem contained in the collection, and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who blurbed the book.

This has sparked an outcry among some in the poetry community. Eyebrows were raised almost immediately after the $25,000 award was announced last week, with naysayers venting their objections on the literary website Bookninja.com

“We followed guidelines and process to the letter,” Melanie Rutledge, the Canada Council’s head of writing and publishing, said yesterday. “We feel that it was a consensual decision reached by all three of the jury members. We stand behind the process. We stand behind the professionalism of the committee.

“At the same time, if some in the poetry community believe that we should not have been satisfied with the committee’s ability to be 100 per cent objective, then we must graciously and responsibly accept this feedback and continue to try to do the best we can.”

The Canada Council guidelines stipulate that a conflict “may” exist “if the assessor has made a direct, intellectual contribution to one of the books” or “if the assessor’s name is listed in the acknowledgement section.”

As the word “may” suggests, it’s a discretionary call.

Brandt denied the existence of a conflict in a comment to Quill & Quire.

Questions of perceived conflicts are not uncommon, particularly in a country with a relatively small literary community whose members are largely known to one another.

“It’s a sort of Catch-22 for the writer involved here,” allowed Bookninja publisher, poet George Murray on a website posting. “(Scheier) didn’t choose the jurors and can’t help if his book was elevated to the shortlist by what are likely well-meaning people who probably really did enjoy his book.

“But when one juror has provided a blurb for your cover and another has collaborated on one of the poems within (and is thanked for editing), you have to wonder about the ethics of the choice – especially from the jurors’ point of view. Wouldn’t you recuse yourself?”

“Although Canada Council jurors who review grant applications are expected to disqualify themselves from potentially conflicted decisions, no such provision exists for Governor General’s Literary Award jurors.

And more from the Globe and Mail:

Literary prizes and judgment calls

The poetry jury has turned Jacob Scheier’s GG award into a poisoned chalice, André Alexis says


NOVEMBER 29, 2008

The recent controversy over Jacob Scheier’s winning of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry is both interesting and dull. Interesting, because it brings up moral and aesthetic questions. Dull, because it brings up the same questions we are often asked: What is objectivity? Can a juror know a book well and still judge it fairly against others he or she knows only glancingly?

Di Brandt, one of three jurors who judged Scheier’s More To Keep Us Warm to be the best work of poetry published in the past year, was acknowledged in Scheier’s book for her “ongoing advice, support and feedback in the process of writing this book.” Brandt also co-translated the first poem that appears in the book, Rilke’s The Voice. That is, Brandt helped to shape the book and had a hand in the creation of one of the book’s poems. This constitutes a conflict of interest, doesn’t it? In which case, Brandt should have stepped down from the jury, once it became clear “her” book was one of the finalists, don’t you think? As one who has stepped down from a jury in order to avoid judging my then-partner’s work, I understand some of the conflicts.

First, Canadian writers know other Canadian writers. We’re not such a large community that you can easily avoid all other practitioners of your art. The conflicts range from “I met Poet X at such and such a festival and liked him and his work” to “I have had a friendship with Poet X for several years.” Meeting and liking a poet should not compromise your judgment overmuch, while deep emotional relationships probably do.

Second, there is the matter of aesthetic leanings. Canadians don’t share a single, monolithic aesthetic approach. Despite some general similarities (a tendency to the personal or confessional, for instance), Canadian poets have a great many approaches at their disposal. From the formal (would anyone be surprised if a Canadian poet released a collection of sestinas about his or her divorce?) to the so-called avant-garde (poems generated using three goldfish, the I Ching and a 1956 telephone book from Mombassa). Naturally, it’s almost impossible for a single person to be equally well versed in all the different aesthetic traditions, to treat a sestina and a concrete poem with the same objectivity or critical acumen.

But conflict over traditions (regional, political, aesthetic etc.) is inevitable, and even desirable. A prize should not serve to endorse one aesthetic over another. It’s perfectly appropriate to have Christian Bök win the Griffin Poetry Prize one year and Anne Simpson win it another. Every three or four years, a jury’s choice will actually accord with your own. You celebrate for a few days and move on.

In an interview with industry trade magazine Quill and Quire, Brandt is reported to have said it is “absurd” to make an issue of her role in Scheier’s creative development. She added: “If people want to debate anything, they should at least be having a discussion on the level of poetics.” She is further quoted as saying, “There is a debate going on in Canada about what is the important poetics of our time, and I think that Jacob Scheier’s book demonstrates a poetic clarity … and spiritual engagement which is in some ways unconventional in the current, neo-Dadaist fashion in some circles in Toronto.”

Now, there may be debate going on about the “important poetics of our time,” but the problem with this jury’s decision to give Scheier the Governor- General’s Award has nothing to do with aesthetic conflict. It’s Brandt’s involvement with the winning book that is suspect. She worked as one of its de facto editors, even if she is not the editor of record, and that’s a problem for many of us.

Also, the assertion that Scheier’s work is being criticized because it does not meet the approval of “the current, neo-Dadaist fashion in some circles of Toronto” is a shameful effort to shift the argument from one about her own morally dubious behaviour to an argument about Toronto, its poets and their supposed dislike of Scheier’s book, as if one had to live in Toronto to believe a juror’s intimacy with a book gives the book and the writer an unfair edge over other books and other writers up for the same award.

There’s another aspect to this that is off-putting. Scheier is quoted as saying, “I think if [people] knew Di, they would see she has more integrity than pretty much anyone I’ve known in my life.”

Melanie Rutledge of the Canada Council has said, “You need to have a very serious conversation with the prospective juror and say, ‘Look, you need to be very sure that you can be 100-per-cent objective in evaluating [the submission].’ ”

All of this is meant to assert Brandt’s moral bona fides: She’s a “good person” and she chose “objectively.” But this controversy is not about whether Brandt is a good person or a bad one. It is about a kind of conflict that precludes objectivity, the objectivity of the process as much as of the juror. When you are on a jury, you have little time to assess works that have taken their authors years to produce. G-G fiction jurors are expected to read about 200 works of fiction in five or six months. Poetry juries probably read fewer books, but poetry is dense and intense and needs time to work its strongest effects. In principle, the juror starts at zero (or somewhere reasonably near zero) with a book, reads it and evaluates according to strong first or second impressions.

A juror who has worked on a book of poems, who has seen the progress of a number of poems, who has participated in their development can in no way be said to have started from “zero” or anywhere near it. The juror who has worked on a book of poems has an intimacy with the work in question that he or she does not have with the others under consideration. Brandt was intimate with Scheier’s work. She knew its warp and weave as she did not know that of other works. To assert that she can have been “objective” and to call those who doubt it “absurd” is self-serving and rude.

Scheier’s work had an unfair advantage over the others this year. (We don’t even need to get into the fact that another juror, Pier Giorgio di Cicco, had given Scheier’s book a blurb, or question just how dispassionate Brandt can have been when her own work was part of the book under consideration and a poem in More To Keep Us Warm is actually entitled Di and is addressed, one assumes, to her.) The Canada Council did not do anything to rectify this advantage, it seems.

At the very least, Brandt should have left the room when Scheier’s work was under discussion. Did she? She should have had no hand in choosing this book as the winner. Had she? So the Canada Council should take some (or even most) of the blame. It has guidelines, presumably, that should have been imposed.

In all this, I have sympathy for Scheier. This is nothing to do with him or the value of his work. Time will tell if More To Keep Us Warm is any good or not. But Scheier was given a poisoned chalice, and that’s sad, no cause for celebration. And I think those – from across the country – who feel this year’s Governor-General’s Award for Poetry is a bad job have a very good point.

How’s that for in crowd?


  • 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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