By Jean Baird | September 20, 2010


A recent survey that received a lot of press indicates that only 53% of Canadians surveyed could name a Canadian writer. A follow-up piece in the National Post had a full-page, front cover of the Culture section with pictures of 7 Canadian writers (like a test, can you ID these people); Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Leonard Cohen, Alice Monroe, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies. Hmmm, of  these seven writers, three are dead and none are under 65. Houston, we have a problem—a problem with the media.  More on that later.

In the meantime, there’s another source of this problem. For decades we have been graduating students from high school who have never read a Canadian novel as part of their schooling. For as many decades we have been graduating high school English teachers who are not required to take a CanLit course as part of their undergraduate degree or teacher training. Given this, why would anyone expect adult Canadians to be able to list any Canadian writers at all?

This just in from The Globe and Mail:

“Calgary judge dropped from book-prize panel after husband nominated


FEBRUARY 20, 2009

“In what’s being called an “extraordinary precaution,” the London-based Commonwealth Foundation has withdrawn a Calgary academic and writer as judge from a panel that this week included her husband’s novel as a finalist for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Canada/Caribbean region.

“The foundation’s decision to remove Pamela Banting from the three-member jury was announced yesterday – a day after The Great Karoo, a novel by her husband, Fred Stenson, was named one of six finalists for 2008-09 best book from Canada and the Caribbean. Ms. Banting is a published poet, critic and professor of English at the University of Calgary. Mr. Stenson is a former nominee for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Literary Award. For its book prize, the foundation divides the world into four regions – Africa, Canada/Caribbean, Europe/South Asia, Southeast Asia/Pacific – and appoints a three-person panel to determine a shortlist of five to seven titles in the categories “best book” and “best first book” for each region. Each regional winner earns almost $2,000 while the overall best-book laureate receives close to $18,000; the best overall first-book winner $9,000. Last year’s overall best-book winner was Burlington, Ont., author Lawrence Hill for The Book of Negroes.

“In a statement, the foundation said “at no point was there any breach of ethics surrounding the nomination of [the Stenson] novel.” Contest rules say a judge can’t nominate a book by a spouse or family member to any shortlist. If the relative’s book makes a shortlist, “the judge should not take part in deliberations” for that book. If the book goes on to win, the foundation and regional chair have to explain that “the judge had no part in the deliberation and that the book was chosen based on literary merit.” The other judges on Ms. Banting’s panel are from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.”

Here’s what I don’t understand—if your husband has a book out, why would you agree to be on the jury in the first place? And, doesn’t the very presence of the wife/husband have an automatic influence on the other jury members?

Recently I had a lengthy conversation with Alberto Manguel. He has extensive experience as a jury member for English language prizes but also in other languages including Spanish and French. Before we talked specifically about prizes, he said it was important to understand the context in which prizes are now happening—the changed world of publishing. Manguel argues that in the last 5 to 10 years the publishing world has changed enormously and those changes have had catastrophic effects. The publishing world now conducts itself on the supermarket industry model. The publishing market is run by conglomerates and the market rules—market sellability, not quality of books. Books have a short shelf-life, like this summer’s pair of shorts. Since the federal government began taxing publisher’s on their backlists, most keep no backlist to avoid taxation and stockage expenses. Manguel argues that when you are publishing without publishers (in the traditional sense) then we are heading for something very bad.

Manguel recalls receiving a letter from his long-time friend Doris Lessing about 6 months before she won the Nobel prize for literature. She had a completed novel but her English publisher wouldn’t publish it. She was no longer considered hot.

Traditionally,  literary publishers understood that part of their role was developing writers, and they understood that failure is part of the process. These days one failure can virtually end a writing career.

Manguel says that one challenge with prizes is that they don’t take enormous risks. In other words, the books that win tend to be “commercially safe”—i.e. not experimental or controversial. A few years ago the Canada Reads competition was won by Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, a book translated into English by Shiela Feishman. The CBC organizers were not pleased. The book was too difficult so in subsequent years they’ve been more careful to vete the books before the jurors get them.

Manguel suggests that the awards that most support writers are those done in secrecy. A foundation identifies a writer who has great potential. It gives that writer money so she/he can have time to go off and write, to learn the craft. In other words, organizations that are really supporting writers are not interested in publicity or branding.

He says his recent experience with the Booker International was very positive and points to a number of reasons;

-jurors are well-paid so they take the responsibility very seriously

-jurors are well-paid so the organizers have access to better quality jurors

-the prize is well-organized and promoted

In order for a prize to have real authority, he argues, the jurors must have time for in-depth reading and discussion.

Manguel is not in favour of academics being placed on juries. His experience has been that academics have some area of specialty they wish to promote, or theory they wish to illustrate by supporting a specific type of novel or writer. He thinks populist juries—movie stars, actors, etc—denigrate a prize and that the Booker is in danger of losing its prestige because of the types of juries that are now being put together.

He asked that I don’t mention the specific prizes but he did tell me about several jury experiences that were not favourable. Some are badly organized. One was a mail-in ballot, numerical, no discussion format. He said if he’d known which book was going to win he would have resigned from the jury—he was embarrassed to be thought to have supported that book winning. When he found out how the win had come about he realized he’d been Callaghaned—my term, not his.

1977 Jury: Philip Larkin, Beryl Bainbridge, Brendan Gill, David Hughes, Robin Ray.

Philip Larkin is GB’s favourite poet. Bainbridge, novelist, and previously short-listed for the Booker. Brendan Gill, American, is best knows for false accusations against Joseph Campbell and for chairing the Andy Warhol Foundation. David Hughes—I’m assuming this is the British novelist and friend of Gerald Durrell. Robin Ray, British actor and broadcaster.

Caroline Blackwood—Great Granny Webster UBC

Lady Caroline Blackwood was an heiress to the Guinness fortune, an acknowledged beauty of her day and one-time wife of Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell—she must have been attracted to brilliant, tortured men.

Apparently this novel is as much autobiography as fiction. And you think your family is dysfunctional! Great Granny Webster is the family matriarch. She makes Miss Havisham seem all sweetness and light. Then there is Aunt Lavinia who reminds me of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. She goes through men as if they were socks, loves to party and dress but has a suicidal streak—we first meet her fresh out of the asylum. The young, nameless narrator is the granddaughter of GGW. Her mother is also in an asylum having tried to drown her grandson at his christening. The family seat in Ulster (where all 3 butlers wear Wellingtons at all times because of indoor puddles from the leaking rooves) is where the young girl grows up as her mad mother haunts the halls, before she is eventually committed by GGW.

Now, this may sound grim, and it is, but it’s also hilarious. The narrative tone, partly because of the young age of the narrator, is more reportial than judgmental. This novel is not parodying rural life as does Cold Comfort Farm. It’s closer to the novels of the Mitford sisters. A good hoot but it doesn’t belong on an award list.

Paul Bailey—Peter Smart’s Confessions VPL

Peter Smith is a young actor who is obsessed with Hamlet, and not surprisingly, has suicidal tendencies. We are first introduced to him as he is emerging back to consciousness after his most recent attempt. Hmm, I see a pattern developing here.

This is a romp of painfully larger-than-life characters: Peter’s mother who always calls him “you;” Peter’s father who speaks in two or three word sentences. Peter’s mother housekeeps for a libidinous doctor/writer (though his autobiography is a dismal failure) after the death of his father—she attends to all of his wishes. And Nancy, the woman Peter marries, has been seeing a psychiatrist—Peter meets Nancy when he saves her from jumping off a bridge, the very bridge he was approaching so he could jump off. Nancy clearly has some serious problems but Peter marries her anyway, or in spite of the obvious. Nancy has a child, Stephen, but has no interest in the boy. She won’t even prepare meals for the child, so Stephen becomes the sole responsibility of Peter.

The novel is at its best when it parodies theatre and the theatre scene. There is a wonderful poke at Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Peter’s friend Neville, also an actor, loves champagne and having sex with his most recent pick up with Wagner blaring away. The review of Hamlet (Peter stars as Reynaldo) is hilarious—the reviewer is smitten by Reynaldo and reviews the play without mentioning the character of Hamlet.

And there is a sense that the novel would be best on stage, as farce, where the witty and quick comebacks and dialogue would work well. In one scene Peter and his mother are at the funeral of the recently departed doctor. The widow, a woman neither has seen before accuses Peter’s mother:

“’You shameless creature! You were my husband’s bit of fluff, were you? You were his kept woman?’

“Mother smiled. ‘He did say once that I put all other women in the shade.’

“’You were his fancy piece? You were his mistress?’

“’I was.’

“’You’re not exactly glamorous.’

“’Neither are you.’”

It turns out the deaf widow is at the wrong funeral. Her husband’s funeral is next.

So it’s funny, and gets off some good swipes, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. Well, that’s not entirely fair. The first half was going someplace, as a bildungsroman, young talented though sarcastic young man surrounded by loonies. But the second half falls apart and the end is a cop out. Oh, and remember back to Ludovic in Mrs Paltrey? Apparently Paul Bailey was Elisabeth Taylor’s inspiration for the character of Ludovic. Perhaps this book is on the short-list because Bailey had previously won the E. M Forster Award and an Arts Council Award for the best first novel.

At the weekly meetings/lunch of The Club (of which I refuse to be a member) when Willy starts an item from The List George will frequently interrupt and demand, “What’s the category?” Partly, George does this to see if he can make Willy forget the item, forcing him to rewind the tape machine and listen again. But often Willy will respond with the well-established categories, Delayed Hilarity, The Talented Linguist, Guy Against Technology, The Amazing Modern World, What I Want to Know Is. (If you really want to know more about Willy, George and The Club I refer you to George’s new-but-still-untitled work that his agent says is “X-rated Stephen Leacock.”) I’ve decided that many of the Bookers almost demand to be put in such categories so I’m going to start that tradition. Saville—Long-Winded Family Saga. Peter Smart’s Confessions—Dysfunctional Family/Dysfunctional Life.

Penelope Lively-The Road to Lichfield UBC

A few years ago I read Moon Tiger (Booker winner for 1987) but don’t remember anything about it at the moment. I’m most familiar with Lively as a writer for young people—The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, A Stitch in Time and The Revenge of Samuel Stokes. Lively won the Whitbread Prize for Children’s Literature for A Stitch in Time (that’s probably not often done, winning major awards for both children and adult writing). In her children’s books Lively often has characters learn about their present by examining the past—sometimes ghosts, sometimes time travel.

This novel is interested in the past/present connection, too. Anne is a part-time history teacher at an elementary school safely married to a boring lawyer (Category—Mid-Life Crisis Affair As the Result of a Marriage to a Boring Professional, remember that poor Irish woman from The Doctor’s Wife?). Her father who lives a distance away has moved himself into a retirement home and has declined rapidly. Anne heads north from her quaint village to visit her dad, sort out his house and during her visits has an affair with a neighbor and fishing buddy of her father.

Anne is fired because the new headmaster believes that history is an outdated concept. Well, to be more precise, Narrative History. This does not stop Anne, the narrator, from narrating her narrative. She struggles with how to reconcile past with present as she fights to save a heritage cottage in her village (lost cause—the developer pulls it down in the middle of the night). One member of the committee believes historical things need to be adapted to contemporary use. Another uses past objects as decoration.

“It’s just I feel worried about indiscriminate hanging onto the past—in the form of buildings, or—anything else. Sometimes I think we’re not too sure why we’re doing it—and we may not even be quite clear what it is we’re hanging onto. But at the same time I think it’s very important to know about it—but to know properly, not just to have a vague idea or even to adapt it to suit your own purposes.”

She’s muddled. So is the reader. This novel isn’t about resolution.

It’s an okay book. Readable. Competent. What bothers me most is the internal monologue of the dying father. Anne discovers that years before her father had an affair, one her mother never found out about. The father has sent monthly cheques to the daughter (not his) of this woman, and still does. Anne’s curiousity compels her to search out this woman and visit her. That’s fine. But the narrator takes us inside the head of the father character, in a home, barely aware of the real world, usually unable to recognize his own daughter or others. We are told that on his death bed this man is yearning for this earlier lover. Hmm. The affair stopped years before. I’m not persuaded. It’s only there to serve the past/present theme. Oh, secondary category: Rosebud.

Paul Scott—Staying On UBC WINNER

Scott is probably best known for The Raj Quartet. The story in this novel takes place after the events of the quartet, post 1947 when the Brits are pulling out. But not all the Brits do leave, which is the focus of this novel. Category: Obnoxious Know-It-All Brits Abroad.

As in Scott’s earlier The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith there are those issues of voice, stereotypes and caricature. Ibrahim, the servant of the Smalleys (who have stayed on, in part, because retirement in England would be less affordable) doesn’t trust Indian doctors to treat a white man. “At a pinch a Muslim doctor would do, but a Hindu doctor never.” He skulks around, gossips (and sleeps) with the other servants and is constantly trying to outmanipulate the Smalleys.

Mrs. Smalley has a rich internal life, either further shaping her fantasy lover Toole or conversing with non-existant visitors from England, reliving the glorious days of British occupation to quiet her discontent with her present. Her husband, Tusker, is the brutish but (sometimes) loveable retired army man. And so on goes the list of characters.

My favourite is Mr. Bhoolabhoy, a small virile man married to the enormous Lila:

“His morning had begun in a peculiar way. He woke to find himself in bed with Lila, stark naked, his mouth and nose half-smothered in her immense breasts, his shoulders clamped in the iron embrace of her arms and his legs pinioned between hers. She seemed to be blowing playfully on the top of his head.

“What puzzled him was to find himself in bed with her at all. He could not actually recall being summoned. He wondered whether while he slept she had crept into his room and carried him over her shoulder to her own bed, stripped him of his pyjamas and then lowered him on top of her. Since he had daily waking evidence that he probably spent most of his sleeping hours in a state of readiness, he supposed it would have been quite possible for her thus to have availed herself of the opportunity to enjoy what otherwise went to waste without his having to wake up and consciously co-operate. After all, she had the strength.”

The novel has such moments of humour, more often than not with sexual overtones. But I remember watching the television version of The Jewel in the Crown years ago. I think those characters had a complexity that is lacking in this book. Yes, Scott tackles the challenges of the situation, change of power, lost loves and dreams. But it seems, somehow, stale. Not really interesting. A sameness.

Okay, I am going to jump off this cliff—Salomon Rushdie’s works depend on the clichés set out in these novels. This is Scott’s last novel and is on the list and won because of the other books, not this one.

Brian Fawcett is visiting. He says he read The Siege of Krishnapur because of my reports, but didn’t really like it. I’ve told him I won’t send more report until he submits his report for Seige, so stay tuned. But, I’m a bit nervous. Really. Things happen, eh? For example, when you are teaching a first year university course with several hundred students and the first term essays hit your desk, and you start marking, after dozens and dozens and dozens of C-, D and C papers your heart misses a beat when you read something bright. Relief alone wants you to give the essay an A or more. You must catch yourself.

Yikes. I am verging on the What is Greatness problem. Do I really want to tackle that one? On and off this week I’ve been checking in on Canada Reads. There are lots of discussions there about Big Books, Important Books (hey, there’s a category) Books You Should Read Because They Are Good For You (same category??) Oh, I know, I’ll just morph back into another book…

Jennifer Johnston—Shadows On Our Skin UBC

Back to Ireland, and its troubles. Joe Logan, the younger of two sons, hates his father, the fallen hero—and is an aspiring poet. Joe is his Mam’s favourite and as a child she kept him by her every second, in part to avoid the drunken, abusive lout who is her husband. The older son Brendan who adores his father and his “fairy tales” returns home from England with, we suspect, thoughts of joining The Movement. Category: Dysfunctional Families.

Ah, that’s unfair; the book is more complicated than that. Isolation. Being caught in the web of historical battles. The challenges when guns and violence become part of everyday life. Being a foreigner in your own land. Not surprisingly, it all goes terribly wrong in the end.

Oh, and like the brutish young hero (or anti-hero) of Saville, Joe writes bad poems.

Barbara Pym—Quartet in Autumn UBC

Brian Fawcett foolishly had too much wine with dinner his first night here and said “Sure” when I suggested he do a guest report on Quartet in Autumn. Here it is:

“Well, Marcia,” Lettie said, wondering if she might have lemon in her tea later in the afternoon—and only a half teaspoon of sugar, “Should we move the doilies from the far end of the davenport closer to the window?”

Marcia paused to reflect, but her mind was empty. In a field somewhere nearby, a pheasant pecked at the grain spilled by a careless Nigerian immigrant. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Or perhaps we should ask Norman when he comes back from vacation.”

“Oh, what do men know of such things?” Lettie said, her lips twisting in a derision that didn’t penetrate far. Meanwhile, the years dissolved into one another, a grey and indistinct brocade that wasn’t quite monotony.”

*             *               *

“If a large segment of the novel-buying market is made up of elderly people too boring to do anything more vigorous than read, does it follow that novels should be written about elderly, boring people sinking deeper into physical and emotional incapacity? Quartet in Autumn is a poster child for what you get when literature settles for this.”

I don’t think he liked the book much.

From the Guardian– Beryl Bainbridge

“Making a choice was very difficult – because it was this great prize of the world, one had to be very careful. Since I was published by Duckworth, it was very peculiar to have a Duckworth novel – Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood – included in the vote. I put my vote forward – for Blackwood – but the discussion on it lasted only about three minutes, because it was such a short book. So nobody was really interested in that. All I can remember of the final meeting is that I got terribly tired, I literally sank lower and lower under the table. Brendan Gill, who I thought was American, went towards the balcony saying he was going to throw himself off, he was so fed up. Philip Larkin was completely silent most of the time. Nobody dared say a word to him and he never said a word back. The only one who was in total control of everything was Robin Ray. He was so clever that we all went along with whatever he said, and he wanted Staying On by Paul Scott to win. Poor Scott was too ill to collect the prize.

“I’ve been shortlisted for the Booker five times and never won. I’m just very pleased to have been noticed.”

I have great sympathy for Brendan Gill. But wait—in a book published by the Booker administration in celebration of its 35th year it says, “Chairman Philip Larkin threatened to jump out of the window if Paul Scott’s Staying On didn’t win.” Who’s a girl to believe?

In that same book David Hare is quoted as saying, “Everything that’s best in British and Commonwealth literature is in the performing arts—theatre, television, and films, are all light years ahead of the poor old British novel, which seem stuck in the 1950s,and which nobody I know bothers to read.”

I think he’s being generous. Much of what I’ve been reading is closer to the 19th century and mid-20th. Closer to Jane Austen than Joyce. It is often suggested that 1981 is the turning year, so I’ll soldier on. Those of you paying close attention will recall that John Fowles was on the jury in 1971. But he would not let any of his books be nominated to the Booker. Neither would John le Carre. I’d much sooner be reading Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy


  • 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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