Do publishers select books to publish based on literary merit or because the book might win a prize—which means more sales and more profit? Are publishers choosing authors—and then editing, packaging and marketing their books strictly so they can win prizes?
When David Davidar took over as publisher at Penguin Canada in 2004 he was very vocal about his aim to get a Giller prizewinner for his publishing house. To date Penguin had been frozen out. The 2008 win was Penguin’s first.
A writer friend reports that his publisher would like him to do a major revision on his new novel so that “book clubs and even juries might like it.” Imagine this:
Dear Mr. Joyce:
We are interested in publishing Finnegans Wake but our marketing department believes it will be too difficult for the average reader and therefore won’t do well in prize season. Please do a substantial rewrite to make the novel more accessible.
If it seems safe to assume that some publishers are aggressively searching out books to win these prizes, how often do they succeed and what are the implications for the industry and writers? Here is an article from TidewaterBooks.ca about the 2005 Giller shortlist:
Surprising Giller shortlist dominated by Random House – again. For the second year in a row, all but one of the books shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize are published by Random House imprints or McClelland & Stewart, 25% of which is owned by Random House.
Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator, published by House of Anansi Press, is the lone title not affiliated with the Bertelsmann-owned multinational. Random House’s three imprints and M&S each have one title the list: Joan Barfoot’s Luck, published by Knopf Canada; David Bergen’s The Time In Between, published by M&S; Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly, published by Doubleday Canada; and Edeet Ravel’s A Wall of Light, published by Random House Canada.
Moments after the announcement was made Wednesday morning in Toronto, Random House of Canada executive vice-president Brad Martin said he was overjoyed. None of Random House’s nominated books were the lead titles on their respective lists, so Martin thinks this will help with marketing. ‘On our list, if you look it, [the shortlisted titles] were second-level to the [Michael] Crummey, the [Jane] Urquhart, the [Sandra] Birdsell, and the Lori Lansens. Yes, this will give them a leg-up,” Martin says.
Moore is the only author on the shortlist who has previously been nominated for the Giller Prize – in 2002, for her short story collection Open. Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan couldn’t tell Moore the good news right away because the author was on a flight to Toronto for her launch Thursday night. Moore has already toured much of Canada for this book, but MacLachlan says the nomination will only help. ‘When we went into publishing Alligator, we were kind of determined towards marketing outside of the prizes,” MacLachlan says. ‘We were getting good reviews and coverage for her already – this is going to add to it.”
Ellen Seligman, vice-president and fiction publisher of M&S, said she was thrilled for Bergen, whose book she published. But she also thought there were some notable absentees. ‘I think it’s an interesting list, there are some obvious and surprising omissions. I think most people were expecting Joseph Boyden, Michael Crummey, and Jane Urquhart. So that was shocking,” she said. Urquhart, whose book A Map of Glass was published by Seligman, currently tops the Q&Q hardcover fiction bestsellers list but has received less than glowing review coverage.
Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, received generally positive review coverage and led Penguin Canada’s push to end the drought that has kept its titles off every previous Giller shortlist. When juror Elizabeth Hay read Gibb’s name, confirming that Boyden wasn’t on the alphabetical list, there was a noticeable gasp in the room. Shortly after the announcement was made, Penguin Canada publisher David Davidar said he was disappointed. ‘But you can never tell with juries. It is a very subjective assessment of the novels published this year,” he said. ‘There’s still the GGs to go. Let’s not forget that last year Miriam Toews didn’t get the Giller, but she’s the one author who kept selling and selling and selling. We’ve done very well with Three Day Road this fall”¦. I don’t see it as a setback at all. Joseph has another book to go. I think this is just the beginning.”
Brad Martin’s comment suggests that Random House had been backing Crummey, Boyden and Urquhart—in other words, RH editors didn’t pick the winner. Since publishers can only submit two books, they have fair amount of control over the list of possible nominees (more than two can be submitted if the books are by previous winners).
MacLachlan’s comments clearly acknowledge, at least for Anansi, that prize marketing is part of the agenda.
Susan Musgrave fondly remembers the days of Jack McClelland. “Jack published writers, not books.” McClelland was famous for nurturing writers and careers. If you had a book that had less than favourable reviews, so what? You moved on to the next book.
Steven Heighton thinks those days are over. “I agree with Susan M. one or two low-key prizes was/would be fine, but the proliferating glitter these days is blinding readers. Book clubs–a major consumer of today’s fiction books–use prize lists as crib sheets. if the prize lists didn’t exist, those same readers–thousands of them–would have to cast around, read reviews, listen to booksellers, try out books they didn’t know and maybe end up loving them and endorsing them to their club. Word of mouth. Books passed from hand to hand. It would give good authors who don’t get nominations, as well as small press authors, a better chance.”
Merilyn Simonds concurs with this opinion. Merilyn does lots of readings at book clubs and libraries. Like Steven, she says these groups almost exclusively use prize lists to pick books, and to select writers for readings. If you don’t make the short lists you aren’t invited to reading festivals, aren’t invited to give readings and don’t get teaching opportunities, all of which are important sources of income for Canadian writers. In other words, no prize nomination equals no career.
Ken McGoogan suggests that prizes are a promotional tool for the publishing industry and without them things would seem rather drab. The alternative—no prizes—would “make everyone invisible.” He thinks they serve a useful purpose though he acknowledges the downside if your book doesn’t make the cut.
In these tough times, what will happen if publishers continue to pursue the golden egg mega hit?
Denise Bukowski, George’s agent, circulated the following message with the subject line, “It’s as if Dan Brown and The Gargoyle brought down Doubleday.”
December 4, 2008
Publishers Announce Staff Cuts
By MOTOKO RICH
In a day of especially grim news for the book business, Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, announced a sweeping reorganization aimed at trimming costs, while Simon & Schuster laid off 35 people.
The moves signaled just how bad sales have become in bookstores and followed
the news this week that the publisher of the adult division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the house that represents authors including Philip Roth and José Saramago, had resigned, presumably in protest of a temporary freeze on the acquisition of new books.
Industry insiders were already calling it “Black Wednesday” as news trickled out about further layoffs at Houghton Mifflin, a cut of 10 percent of the staff at Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest publisher of English-language Bibles, a freeze on raises at the Penguin Group unit of Pearson and a delay of pay increases at HarperCollins, the books division of the News Corporation.
The news at Random House, which included the resignations of the heads of two of its largest groups, followed months of speculation about the company. Ever since Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate that owns the publishing group, appointed Markus Dohle, formerly head of the company’s printing unit, to head Random House in May, most people assumed he would consolidate some imprints and make staffing changes.
In a memorandum to the staff on Wednesday, Mr. Dohle said that Irwyn Applebaum, publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, and Stephen Rubin, publisher of the Doubleday Publishing Group, had stepped down. In a separate message, Mr. Dohle said that he was in discussions with Mr. Rubin about “creating a new role for him at Random House.”
Bantam Dell publishes authors including Dean Koontz and Danielle Steel. Doubleday’s authors include John Grisham and Dan Brown.
Mr. Dohle did not announce any further layoffs on Wednesday. But in an interview, a spokeswoman, Carol Schneider, said publishers would be reviewing their staffs. “There may be some difficult choices that they’re going to have to make down the road,” she said.
In a message to the Simon & Schuster staff, Carolyn K. Reidy, the president and chief executive, said the 35 layoffs at the company resulted from “an unavoidable acknowledgment of the current bookselling marketplace.” Rick Richter, president of the Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, also left the company. Ms. Reidy said Mr. Richter resigned to “explore other opportunities in publishing.”
Simon & Schuster, publisher of authors including Stephen King and Bob Woodward, is the books division of the CBS Corporation.
The shakeout in the industry comes during what publishers and booksellers have described as the worst retailing environment in memory. Recently, Leonard S. Riggio, chairman and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, predicted a dreadful holiday shopping season and wrote in an internal memorandum that “never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.”
The deterioration in book sales appears to have come late in the year. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, sales for the year are actually up slightly. But several publishers said that sales in October and November had weakened drastically.
The industry was bracing for more layoffs. Last month, John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, whose publishing houses include Farrar, Straus and Giroux and St. Martin’s Press, said in a companywide meeting that he could not guarantee that everyone would have a job going forward. Mr. Sargent declined to comment. Macmillan is part of the Georg von Holtzbrinck publishing group.
“During good times, you can better absorb a variety of lines not doing well than you can when the economy is in this kind of condition,” Robert Gottlieb, chairman of the literary agency Trident Media, said.
At Random House, Mr. Dohle announced changes that elevated the roles of Sonny Mehta, head of the Knopf Publishing Group; Gina Centrello, head of the so-called Little Random unit; and Jenny Frost, president of the Crown Publishing Group, publisher of two memoirs by President-elect Barack Obama.
Mr. Mehta’s empire will expand to include the Doubleday and Nan A. Talese imprints, merging authors like Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem with Knopf’s writers, like John Updike and Toni Morrison.
Ms. Centrello, who oversees the Random House Publishing Group, which includes the Ballantine division, will assume Bantam Dell, the Dial Press and Doubleday’s Spiegel & Grau. Ms. Frost will take over imprints including Doubleday Business, Doubleday Religion and Broadway Books.
Many people in the industry were not surprised that Mr. Applebaum was resigning from Bantam, considered Random House’s weak link. A significant part of its business is the mass market segment, the smaller paperback format of thrillers and romances, whose sales have declined over several years.
But industry veterans were surprised that Mr. Rubin, who is well regarded in the business, was being removed from his post and that the Doubleday Group was being dismantled, despite a particularly bad year.
Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code, failed to deliver his next novel, originally set for release in 2005. Jon Krakauer, author of the adventure hits Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, withdrew his book about Pat Tillman, the former football star killed in Afghanistan, originally scheduled for an October release.
To top it off, The Gargoyle, a first novel for which Doubleday reportedly paid $1.25 million, flopped, selling 34,000 copies in hardcover, according to Nielsen BookScan. In October, Doubleday laid off 10 percent of its staff.
Interesting, eh? I wonder if the editor who brokered the Krakauer deal is still on staff?
Jury: Ion Trewin, AS Byatt, Elizabeth Jane Howard:
Ion Trewin was a journalist with The Times who later became editor-in-chief at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is now the administrator for the Booker (that means he’s the one to pick the jurors). Byatt, the novelist. Howard was a model and actress before becoming a novelist. Her third husband, and the one at the time of this award, was Kingsley Amis.
Beryl Bainbridge—The Bottle Factory Outing UBC
Another small canvas with two more feckless girls who work in a wine-bottling factory—these girls have even less feck than those in The Dressmaker. Laverne and Shirley, British style, but with black humour you’d never see on mainstream US television. The world of the Italian immigrants who work at the factory is so isolated. In the end, a death/accidental death is easily covered up because no one would miss her. Sad, but not in the least sentimental—no redemption.
C. P Snow—In Their Wisdom UBC
It’s like Bleak House for the 1970s—just how disastrous can a legal suit become? This world is about as far removed from the girls of the bottle factory as you could get—House of Lords and law courts. These characters are the intellectual and landed aristocracy, the movers and shakers concerned with money, position, power, and how to keep these things.
Snow has such a rich vocabulary, more than the other writers so far—“inspissated scorn”, “tenebrous room”. I spent more time with my dictionary reading this book than I have for more than I can remember.
My Ph.D. began with a minor in Shakespeare and a major in Modern British Literature, before it got derailed into bibliography. That meant my comprehensive exams were on modern British. I read a lot of C. P. Snow, but not this one. And frankly, not a lot of the other novels so far. When I was working on my doctorate in the late 80s/early 90s the influence of the Bookers had not penetrated the academic towers at McMaster. Murdoch, Spark, Naipaul and Amis were all there, but not because of the Booker. The reputation of these authors had been well established through what was the usual method for those times—book reviews, critical response and readers’ response.
Kingsley Amis—Ending Up UBC
Through fiver geezers who live in a small cottage—Tuppenny-hapenny—Amis explores the nasties of aging. No wisdom and mellowing with this lot. They are both monstrous and petty. Even the cat and aged dog are cranky and incontinent. Loss of memory. Loneliness. Physical decline. Misogyny. But it is the nastiness, and our lack of sympathy for any of this crew that really gives the novel its edge.
Just recently, before I began this crazed Booker project (ah, the good old days) I read The Biographer’s Moustache. It’s better than this novel. So are Lucky Jim and The Green Man.
Stanley Middleton—Holiday UBC WINNER (shared)
Here’s a piece from The Sunday Times:
January 1, 2006
Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile
Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale
THEY can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.
One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.
Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.
None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.
Only Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, expressed an interest, and that was for Middleton’s novel.
She was unimpressed by Naipaul’s book. She wrote: “We . . . thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.”
The rejections for Middleton’s book came from major publishing houses such as Bloomsbury and Time Warner as well as well-known agents such as Christopher Little, who discovered J K Rowling.
The major literary agencies PFD, Blake Friedmann and Lucas Alexander Whitley all turned down V S Naipaul’s book, which has received only a handful of replies.
Critics say the publishing industry has become obsessed with celebrity authors and “bright marketable young things” at the expense of serious writers.
Most large publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts from first-time authors, leaving the literary agencies to discover new talent.
Many of the agencies find it hard to cope with the volume of submissions. One said last week that she receives up to 50 manuscripts a day, but takes on a maximum of only six new writers a year.
Last week, leading literary figures expressed surprise that Naipaul, in particular, had not been talent spotted. Doris Lessing, the author who was once rejected by her own publishers when she submitted a novel under a pseudonym, said: “I’m astounded as Naipaul is an absolutely wonderful writer.”
Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, who teaches creative writing, said: “It is surprising that the people who read it (Naipaul’s book) didn’t recognise it. He is certainly up there as one of our greatest living writers.”
While arguing that the best books would still always find a publisher, he added: “We need to keep the publishers on their toes as good books are as rare as hens’ teeth.”
Middleton, 86, whose books have a devoted following, wasn’t surprised. “People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays,” he said. Naipaul, 73, said the “world had moved on” since he wrote the novel. He added: “To see that something is well written and appetisingly written takes a lot of talent and there is not a great deal of that around.”
“With all the other forms of entertainment today there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”
So, here is my report on a novel that would not get published in today’s publishing industry.
In this novel Edwin Fisher leaves his wife 18 months after their two-year old son dies. He goes on a holiday to the seaside where he had vacationed as a child. What happens during that time is superficial and of little importance to the novel. It’s about Fisher, inside his head as he slowly examines, then reexamines the events of his life.
In October 2006 my daughter died in a car accident. George and I are coediting an anthology that Random House will be publishing fall 2009 called The Heart Does Break; Canadian writers on grief and mourning. Right now George is working on his introduction. He describes my behaviour in the moments and days after Bronwyn’s death as too “normal.” With very subtle handling, this novel explores the thin lines between “normal” and madness, how grief dulls, and our inability to grieve and connect during mourning.
If I were under time constraints—in other words, if I were a judge and had to read 120 books—this is one that I might put aside at 100 pages. And be wrong to do so. Tip: if you want a better shot at winning a prize you must grab the reader’s full attention at the beginning and not rely on a brilliant ending.
Nadine Gordimer—The Conservationist VPL—WINNER
For a time I was considering doing work on Gordimer for my Ph.D. I read a lot of her novels and decided I was too apolitical to take it on. Well, apolitical is an overstatement. But I was keenly aware that every word in a Gordimer novel is charged with the political situation in South Africa.
Half way through the novel I’m wondering if this is the one I didn’t finish years ago—if this is the novel that convinced me not to do graduate work on Gordimer. I’m finding it a slog.
Mehring is a rich man from pig-iron, and his position at birth, i.e. white. He buys a farm, in part as a seduction plot. The comparison of his life in the city and on the farm illustrates in painstaking detail his total alienation from what is going on around him. His wife, mistress and son desert him. I wish I could. But, no, there you are, right inside his head. This is not easy reading. At times you plod on because you know “this is important” stuff.
1974 Ion Trewin—The Guardian
We were three judges – AS Byatt, Elizabeth Jane Howard and me. At the shortlist meeting, Jane remarked that she thought Ending Up by Kingsley Amis (then her husband) was his best book and should go on the shortlist. I looked first at Antonia, and then at Martyn Goff, the prize’s administrator – both remained impassive. We broke for a breather. Martyn said that as chairman it was up to me. Antonia liked the novel (as did I). On literary grounds neither of us had problems about shortlisting it, but what would the press say?
The Booker was already familiar with controversies. Martyn, I know, was not averse to the publicity that our decision would inevitably bring. (This was to centre around a vituperative correspondence in the Times.) But would the burgeoning reputation of the prize be damaged? He thought not. More important was our choice of winner. Antonia and I spoke up for Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, but Jane was less impressed. She remained keen on Ending Up, but realising that neither Antonia nor I would countenance it winning, she concentrated on Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, a study of middle England that she saw as a “perfect miniature”.
With only three judges, it seemed important to me that we did not compromise or produce a two-one verdict. Might we split the prize between Middleton and Gordimer? Martyn said he knew of no reason why not. We were vindicated by The Conservationist being selected this year for the Best of the Booker shortlist.
My favourite Booker winner remains Schindler’s Ark (1982) by Thomas Keneally (but I must declare my interest and say that I was its editor).
What would Andre Alexis say about this situation?
It is unusual in Canada for jurors to be open and transparent about the jury process. In private and in confidence jurors may tell you what transpired, but not publicly. Here are two exceptions.
First are some excerpts from an interview with Christian Bök. Interviewed by Owen Percy (PhD student at the University of Calgary), originally published in Open Letter 13.3 (Summer 2007): 113-131.
The Politics of Poetics:
Christian Bök on Success, Recognition, Jury Duty, and the Governor General’s Awards.
OP: What do you think of the concept of national prizes or recognition—for example the Governor General’s Awards, which purport to speak for “Canadian Literature.” What do you think of an award which claims to be ‘national.’
CB: Oh, well I think that any prize that aspires to be “national” is probably more concerned with propaganda than aesthetics. All the prizes, of course, claim to pick the most meritorious work. To me, assertions about merit have to address the innovation that a work might have to offer literary history—not simply for one minor nation, but for our whole planet. Nevertheless, nobody creates a prize saying ‘We’re going to pick only the most conservative, most recognizable, work.’ Every panel of judges is going to say that their choices for winners represent the cutting edge of all contenders. But from my perspective as an academic looking at the history of literature on a planetary scale—the shortlists for these prizes often seem very pathological. The jurors are supposed to be selected from among your peers—but when I see the results of their deliberations, I always ask myself: ‘What the hell are my peers thinking?’ How is it possible that they can call themselves writers, aspire to greatness, know something presumably about literary history, and yet nevertheless pick mediocre work—work likely to be forgotten within fifty years?
OP: I’d like to have a conversation about the jury experience and specifically how jury members can and do influence the awarding of a prize. You have recently had a unique experience as a GG jury member. I’d like you to explain or give me a quick narrative about your experience on and subsequently off the GG jury. I would also like to know how you ended up on this year’s GG jury in the first place, and how your subsequent experience altered your perception of the awards process.
CB: Of course. Perhaps I should contextualize my anecdote by talking about my other experiences on juries prior to this one. I’ve been on numerous juries for both prizes and grants. I have found each of those experiences very interesting and they have taught me a great deal about the social politics of the awards process. What pleases me is that my experience has been, for the most part, very collegial and relatively uneventful. However I have noticed that some jurors come more prepared than others or less prepared than others, that some come to the process with unreasonable expectations about their influence on the jury. Others come with more reasonable expectations. I think that some jurors have greater or lesser expertise than you might like to see in such a context. Nevertheless, I think that my experience has been pretty normative, and I have generally been very happy with the results of my work on juries. I think that merit has generally prevailed. I don’t think that I have ever had to make unhappy concessions. I have never felt that I have somehow compromised my own sensibilities. What I’ve noticed about the fundamental psychology of the process is that, for most people on a jury, a vote for the winner is actually a kind of vote for yourself. You are hoping, in a certain sense, to see yourself either reflected or embodied in the winner. I think that this fact alone may account in large part for the mediocrity of many prizewinners. I think that, if you are a mediocre assessor , you are going to have difficulty advancing the cause of your betters at the expense of your own career.
OP: Or of your own ego?
CB: Yeah. I mean, it seems to me that, in the history of art, consensus never explains who the best people are in the short term. Really, I think that any statements about the future importance of an author for posterity’s sake are generally made as wagers by charismatic individuals staking an expert claim against history. I had never been on a jury for the GG prize, and typically you have to be nominated by your peers, and you have to fill out paperwork indicating that you’re willing to participate in future committees. In this case, I was called directly by the Governor General’s Committee, which is a branch of the Writing and Publishing Section of the Canada Council. The representative asked me whether or not I would be willing to participate, and I said ‘Certainly!’ Nobody with my expertise from my generation had ever been asked to participate on this jury, and despite many other competing priorities, I felt obliged to do this community service. As a young writer, you never really imagine that can ever get your hands on the levers of cultural control, you know? So when you’re given an opportunity like this one, I think that you’re obliged to take it. I received a description of my responsibilities in the mail —paperwork outlining conflicts of interest, guidelines for assessment, and a schedule of obligations. I had to reserve about five months in order to read about 125 books. I got them in increments, as they were received by the GG Committee. I had to generate a longlist of ten books that would be subsequently submitted a fortnight in advance of any deliberations so that other jurors could see what we would be discussing. I was pretty assiduous about my performance, and read all the books completely. I ranked them all with notes to remind myself about my rationales for each evaluation. I felt pretty confident that I had a very good longlist of ten books. Now the Canada Council did offer a description of what constituted a conflict of interest, and I thought that it would be very difficult to be an informed committee member without having some reason to comment upon a potential conflict: first, by being involved in an intimate relationship with a poet; second, by being financially obligated through cultural institutions to another poet; and third, by being an artistic collaborator with other poets. The community is very small despite the number of people writing in Canada, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that I would have to fill out some sort of paperwork. Now, I’ve been on grants and juries where I’ve had to face very serious conflicts of interest: I participated in a jury for the Toronto Arts Council, which called for blind submission, and my girlfriend at the time had submitted a proposal, not knowing that I was a juror, because, of course, I had to be confidential about it. I recognized the work immediately, and so I informed the administrators, not the other judges, because even they couldn’t know about my involvement—and I was basically told that any deliberations around the work required that I remain mum, without making any commentary. At the end of the process, when the identities of submitters was revealed, jurors were quite impressed with my objectivity upon discovering that my girlfriend had been a contender. She didn’t get the grant, and the other jurors were somewhat dismayed that I had followed the rules so scrupulously even though I could have tried to argue on her behalf. I have been involved in many other analogous situations—and in each case there have been very deliberate rules of governance around the handling of these problems.
OP: Your personal experience recently on the GG jury in terms of conflict of interest…?
CB: Right. This last year, my best friend Darren Wershler-Henry published a book called Apostrophe with his good friend Bill Kennedy. Apostrophe is a work of poetry written almost entirely by machine. In the 1990s Bill Kennedy wrote a very whimsical poem called “Apostrophe,” which consists of a whole series of non-sequiturs, each of which begins with the phrase “You are.” He read from it quite frequently in Toronto when Darren and I were apprenticing as poets, and it was always a crowd-pleaser. Darren and Bill wanted to collaborate on a project, so they decided to design a piece of software that would hijack a Google search-engine, inputting individual non-sequiturs from this poem and returning results from the Internet, collating the random results from these requests. The engine would spider any websites returned from these searches, looking for subsequent predicates that began “You are,” and then the software would concatenate these sentences into a new poem. The machine is quite brilliant. It constitutes an amazing use of the Internet as a means for writing poetry. And it shows something about the collective brilliance of people writing on the Internet—the inadvertent poetry lingering in these beautiful synecdoches linked across the network. The book is a very conceptually sophisticated artifact, and it has some important influence now upon any millenial conception of our relationship to the Web. This book, to my misfortune, came out this year, when I had agreed to be on the GG jury. I did not receive the book among any of the boxes that had been sent, and about six weeks into the process I wanted to be sure that it was in fact being submitted so that I could fill out the appropriate paperwork about any conflict of interest. I felt obliged to say, ‘Look, this is my best friend, I have a tremendous amount of intellectual influence upon him and vice versa, and it’s important for any jurors to know about my relationship with him because, chances are, if this book appears on the reading list, I would want to discuss it with the judges.’ It wasn’t in the first salvo of boxes. I phoned the people responsible for managing the logistics of the GG and asked if the book had been submitted. I, of course, couldn’t phone my friend, and I couldn’t phone ECW, the publisher, because I had to maintain confidentiality. The rep at the Canada Council told me that, yes, the book had been submitted, but that it was being held back. So I needed to say ‘Look, I just need to know if it in fact qualifies for submission so that I can fill out the appropriate paperwork about a conflict.’ But they were being very cagey about telling me whether or not the book was going to be submitted to the judges, and I was a bit concerned by this behaviour. I, of course, wouldn’t have cared about some sort of bureaucratic snafu—such as the book being submitted after deadline, etc. But the rep at Canada Council seemed to be intimating that the office couldn’t decide whether or not the work was actually a legitimate book of poetry, and they wouldn’t tell me why. I tried to make an argument that we on the jury, should be judging its poetic merits, and I really did need a statement from them about whether it was being submitted or not so I could actually declare a conflict to the other jury members. I also wanted to ask about the protocols around handling any conflict, because they weren’t actually made explicit in any of the received paperwork. No document outlined my duties in the case of a declared conflict. If we ended up discussing the merits of this book, I wanted to know how I had to behave. On juries for other grants and awards, I would have been permitted to discuss all other works except the one for which I might have declared a conflict. and sure enough the officer in charge explained to me that, if this book should be shortlisted, I would be excused from any subsequent discussion to pick the winner. Given that the other two jury members were Evelyn Lau and Mary Di Michele, I felt that I was very unlikely going to delegate any of my authority to them, so that they would choose a winner on their own. If the book were to be shortlisted, I would probably bracket any discussions around it and suggest that the book itself be excused from any consideration so that I could actually participate in the selection of another winner. The protocols of the award seemed perfectly consistent with my own experience on other juries, so I didn’t question the officer further about the issue. So I proceeded to finish my readings over the next four months or so. I then received a phone call on the very day when I had to submit my list of ten books. I had received an email that very morning requesting my longlist, and I hadn’t yet submitted a response to it, but a few hours later I received a phone call from Writing and Publishing indicating that I was excused from my responsibilities due to my conflict of interest declared several months earlier. This was, of course, an extraordinary surprise, especially since I had just received a request for my top ten list that morning and I hadn’t even submitted it yet. No one had even seen my selections. The rep explained to me that my friendship with Darren and my questioning of the committee about Apostrophe excluded me from my duties. So I got into a very heated argument with the rep—a very prolonged and impolitique argument over the course of about a week. I was constantly in discussion with this bureaucrat in hopes that I could, in fact, be reinstated as a juror. I was stonewalled throughout the process. The rep felt that expressing my interest in the book to somebody outside of the jury process, indicated that I would be disqualified from any objectivity. Now this excuse seemed to me to constitute a real Catch-22 given that, if I wanted to discuss the protocols around any conflict of interest, I would have to actually do what I did. I felt that I was being punished for demonstrating good judgment, and I wanted to know what the rules of governance were for handling this process because it seemed extremely arbitrary. The administrator told me that in fact I could not be allowed to excuse myself from any deliberations around a winner. And in fact, the earlier rep in charge had given me misinformation about all the protocols for such a process.
OP: But there are protocols in place?
CB: Well, actually, there are none. That’s what is so galling about the whole experience. As is the case for any other jury on which I have participated, I did all the work on the assumption that there are actually very formal rules of governance written down, to which the jury members and the award managers must conform. Apparently there are none for the GG prize. The woman to whom I first spoke was responsible for managing the logistics of the prize, and she apparently gave me information that was completely incorrect. I would in fact not be able to participate. When I asked for the formal documentation indicating what the protocols were. no one could provide it because it simply didn’t exist. Members of the committee had decided quite arbitrarily to excuse me from duty at the last minute, in effect for no good reason. They had made up the protocols as they went along. For whatever reason, they felt a lack of confidence in me after several months of work. I don’t know why— the excuses of the Canada Council seemed absurd to me. The committee had suddenly decided (months after my initial enquiry) that I had exceeded my duties as a juror and that it would be impossible for me to judge any application objectively by virtue of having made inquiries about the book’s submission to the prize.
OP: Now, you say that you were dismissed for ‘no good reason,’ but I would imagine that someone had to have formulated some definitive reason somewhere along the line…
CB: Well, the ‘no good reason’ has to do with the fact that there are no rules of governance—so they’re making up the reasons as they go. And to me that’s unconscionable for a prize that’s supposed to be this important. Throughout the process, the woman responsible for managing the GG in Writing and Publishing was saying that she was trying to “protect the integrity of the award.” This justification seemed to me completely bogus. As you have already noted, there have been many occasions in the past when the committee has not really cared about the integrity of the award—and without written rules of governance, there is no standard by which we might judge the integrity of the process. It seemed to me that the rep at Canada Council was poorly informed about the history of Council’s relationship to experimental writers. I felt outraged that, as an experimental writer on a jury, I was being excused, despite being a PhD with a long history of involvement in similar juries.
OP: Well presumably, had your poetics and your personal avant garde sensibilities been an issue, you wouldn’t have been invited onto the jury in the first place…
CB: Yes, but my personal history with the Canada Council has always been somewhat vexed. The rep was very surprised when I reminded her, for example, that my book hadn’t been shortlisted for the GG. The very fact that people didn’t know that I might have some concerns about being personally involved in the process was disconcerting. It seemed that the GG committee had taken this opportunity to redress what was a very long oversight in the past and now, suddenly, were rescinding all of it. I could not believe that members of the committee could just make up these rules as they went along and then say that they were protecting the integrity of the award, when in fact there were no rules of governance around its management. If you can make these kinds of arbitrary decisions on a whim, then there is no integrity to the process. I don’t see what you’re protecting. I think that they could have demonstrated their integrity by adhering to the protocols that they had initially given me rather than making me do all the work after the fact, only to change their minds. I should have been having these arguments four months earlier, not on the very last day when they requested my longlist. So this brouhaha only highlighted for me the bureaucratic incompetence in the Canada Council; the process simply undermined my already-failing confidence in the institution—
OP: What’s the solution in terms of an administrative fix at the GGs or at the Canada Council in order to prevent this from happening again?
CB: Obviously they have to have a set of rules of governance in place. The Council has admitted to me that there are none, and I have said that this situation is unconscionable. I am dismayed that an institution like this can run for 40-odd years without some protocols formally in place. I don’t know how that’s even been possible. I don’t know how the Canada Council can suggest that this award is well-managed, when in fact it actually has no governance. In any other organization of this scale, there would be written protocols in place, produced through consultation with the literary community—protocols that would have been assessed by a board of governors of some sort, and that would have been generated like a constitution. The very fact that the Council doesn’t even have these basic structures in place undermines the credibility of the award.
OP: The results of this year’s GG deliberations have obviously come out now—you were replaced by Cyril Dabydeen and—
CB: Yes, I was actually required to return all of the books, all 125 books, on short notice. I had to box them all up and send them back. I spent four or five months of dedicated time reading those books. I had to read a couple per day in order to maintain the pace required, and they insisted that whoever replaced me on the jury would in fact read all of the books and make an objective assessment about their merits. In less than two weeks. I think that’s impossible. There’s no way that anyone could’ve done a respectable job reading that many books and assessing their merits in less than two weeks. Now, they certainly paid me for my time of course, and I did receive letters of apology. I did make sure that some sort of recognition was paid—
Have changes been made to CC selection policies because of Christian’s situation? He reports, “The new protocols (such as they are) are toothless, and from my
And a piece by Brian Fawcett written for the Toronto Star a few years ago:
If you’re fond of literary bloodsports, you’ve probably been tracking the fall book celebrity prizes, and you know that Margaret Atwood won the Giller Prize (AKA the Downtown Toronto Prize), that John Ralston Saul won the Governor General’s award for non-fiction and that Guy Vanderhaeg won the GG for fiction. That means you’ve probably also noticed that there’s been an awful lot of whining over the Governor General’s awards over the last several years, and that this year has been no different. Some is the predictable complaining of wounded losers or publishers bickering over administrative foul-ups, along with a few loudmouths along Toronto’s Queen Street who noticed that the now-more prestigious Giller Prize nominees were very well dressed while the GG fiction short listees have straw sticking out from under their collars.
If you’re really nuts about these kinds of things, you may even be aware that in the last few years, jurors themselves have been doing their share of whining and bickering about the GGs. Last year, Bronwyn Drainie carped that there were too many books for a busy woman like her to read and that publishers weren’t being selective enough with what they submit–meaning that she didn’t want to have to read all those hayseed autobiographies and scholarly monographs about transformational representation of acne in Canadian fiction and other, similarly dim PhD thesis subjects. More than one juror has whined bitterly about being paid too little for the use of their valuable time. It’s hard to find anyone in the writing and publishing community who doesn’t have a gripe, actually: the choices are too regional, not regional enough; the prizes are too small and ill publicized; not enough representation by minorities, too much representation by virtual foreigners. The more the whiners have had to drink or smoke, the louder, sillier, and more nasal the whining gets.
This year I was a member of the non-fiction jury, so I got to see the process from the inside. That means, among other things, that I’m not supposed to be writing this, since jury deliberations are confidential. But because the Canada Council is too underfunded to defend their process–or publicize the prizes adequately, and the Council staff are too overworked to defend themselves, I’m going to break the rules and shoot off my mouth.
When I got the invitation to serve on the jury, my first question was the predictable one: “How many books?” There was a deep pause on the other end of the line. I’d have to evaluate over 200, and I’d be paid what worked out to about 20 cents an hour for it. I thought about it for almost five seconds before I said yes. I agreed to serve because being on a GG jury is a civic duty and, I suppose, an artistic honour. I’m more interested in civic duty than in artistic honours, but there you are.
The truth is that I also saw it as an opportunity. Several opportunities, actually. It was an opportunity to be able to read nearly every work of non-fiction published in the country at least one year of my life. It was also, I suppose, an opportunity to be able to blow off anyone asking me to review fiction by saying I’d decided to read nothing but non-fiction in 1996. And to be completely candid, it was an opportunity to keep Rudy Wiebe and his conspiratorial colleagues out of at least one jury spot for one season.
Hey! You know what? Now that it’s over and done with, I don’t have a single complaint. It was great fun, and not at all onerous. Making up my short list wasn’t exactly an exercise in agony, either. Once I’d made my interpretation of the Council’s guidelines and done the basic reading, there were about 35-40 books I thought were pretty good, and well over ten I thought were worth shortlisting.
My judgment criteria was fairly simple. Non-fiction supposedly draws its primary base from the “World-O-Facts”, and so should illuminate and educate. But it must also do what literature has always done: surprise readers with the play of authorial intelligence, and delight them with the clarity of its language.
Four kinds of books didn’t make it onto my shortlist. The first kind was the ones that were poorly written. They’re amazingly easy to spot, and plentiful. Most of the time, their authors weren’t much interested in language–they just wanted to tell their story and get on with it. At lot of the books of this sort came from small presses, often from people who don’t write professionally and likely won’t ever write another book. What they wrote are frequently valuable documents, usually of community interest. But they just ain’t literature.
A second type of non-contender were the scholarly books Ms. Drainie complained about. They’re non-contenders because the authors’ primary intentions are scholarly thoroughness and not art. Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals in theory, but in practice, they tend to be. That they are so mind-numbing wasn’t a problem I could correct. For the universities and the discourse they’re supposed to be fostering, they’re a huge problem, but that’s another kind of bloodsport, isn’t it?
A third category–let’s call it commercial propaganda–abrogates my understanding of language and human reality, which I happen to believe are both infinitely complicated. Any piece of writing that can’t or won’t acknowledge that complexity just isn’t competent literature, whether the book is about Karla Homolka’s consummate evil or a commissioned wank of Ted Rogers.
I also excluded what I’ve come to call “devotional literature”. These are books that proceed by an undisclosed set of exclusory attitudes or beliefs, and the authors are really just rearranging their play blocks on paper. Since art is by definition inclusive, any work that defines reality on devotional terms can’t be literature. That got rid of the religious, ethnic, preferential and otherwise-crazed entries.
Don’t get me wrong. The entry criteria for the GGs can’t and shouldn’t exclude any of these books, as Ms. Drainie would prefer. So long as Canada remains the democracy it is, publishers have the right to enter any or all of their books in the GG competition. Similarly, every writer has the same right to compete–why would they write at all if they didn’t believe their writings weren’t unique and excellent. There is always the chance that one of these books will lift itself from its apparent limitations. A few of the books I read for the GG’s actually did that.
Judging the quality of a work of non-fiction is, of course, notably easier than judging fiction. With non-fiction, there is a nexus of facts and ideas to consider, along with the degree of clarity to which the writing holds and upholds that nexus. With fiction, there are no such comforts.
What I’m suggesting, I guess, is that everyone ought to give fiction juries a break. They’ve got an impossible job, and in recent years, it has gotten worse. Part of their problem is the virtual collapse of genres, which has meant that no one is really sure anymore what fiction is. That has led most jurors to exclude genre-crossing writing altogether, and to pull their critical wagons in a circle around anything that resembles 19th Century fiction. The other part of their problem is the elevation of sectarian sensitivies to the level of social lunacy, a phenomenon that in fiction, has turned point-of-view into a minefield of competing correctnesses. A fiction juror’s only safe basis for judgment is the conventionality of narrative quality and writing style and a miniscule zone of “correct” subject matter that can’t be acknowledged: WASP writers expressing cultural guilt about what their ancestors did to the oppressed, or minority writers offering aggressive tribal hagiographies of one sort of one sort or another. Fiction prizes are now prizes for conventional and correct behavior.
Given that, and the fact that the GG fiction jury is charged to make its selection from across the country and its various clamouring regional sensitivities, there’s no way to make any choice that doesn’t tromp on someone’s toes. The winners don’t really win, and the losers all get to feel cheated whether they were or not.
Is there a better way? Sure. Since we’re now a free market society, let’s make a 90s kind of competition: triple the prize money, move the competitions for translation, poetry, drama and kidlit (they’re only club prizes anyway) to a lower category. Then we drop the jury size to one or two, announce the jurors at the beginning of the year, pay them properly (they’ll be working more or less full time) and let cyborg capitalism do its job. That means public debates, lobbies, and directed publicity campaigns throughout the publishing year–a free-for-all consciously aimed at influencing the juries. We now have the media capability to ensure tha
at jurors won’t be able to take a wiz on the sly let alone make a sneaky deal or play the home side. And anyway, openness is always the best safeguard against corruption. The prize profiles would get a huge boost in public interest from such a process. Why not televise the jury deliberations like a kangaroo court or game show so everyone can know exactly why and how the winners win? Wouldn’t it be entertaining to see judges holding up scorecards with their ratings? Maybe we could hire Don Cherry to do between-book analysis.
Ah, but then we’d have to drop our tribal affiliations, stop whining about how we’re being victimized, and take the GG’s seriously.
 In a letter of apology sent to Dr. Bök, the Writing and Publishing Department of the Canada Council admits that “this situation could have been avoided had we had a prizes-tailored conflict of interest policy in place.”
8900 words, March 17, 2010