By | September 27, 2010

The book produced by the Booker foundation for its 35th anniversary is full of snippets of gossip, little interviews, etc. In one of them, Sir Michael Caine, who was the Chief Executive of Booker PLC, the retail warehousing company that until recently, sponsored the prize, explains why the company likes the sponsorship arrangement—and partly to dispel rumours that the sponsors haveany influence on what books win. He says whenever he was asked, What do you, or what does Booker, seek in the winner? That he always answered, “I hope that some winners will be A level set books in twenty years’ time.”

That’s a tough one, particularly looking at the first decade of the prize. Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, William Trevor, V S Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Kingsley Amis, Brian Moore and maybe a couple of others probably fulfill that expectation. But I would argue that the Booker did not make the reputations of these authors, although in some instances it may have enhanced their reputations.  For the most part the Bookers of the first 10 years indicate a stodgy period of English/British literature. Interesting that in biographies of Andre Brink it is mentioned that he deliberately decided to go to Paris rather than London because the literary scene in Britain was so dull.

Before he died, I had a chat with Paul Quarrington.  I was interested in his experiences with book prizes and winning. He’d had a fair amount of experience with that, well-deserved in my opinion—GG, Leacock, Canada Reads. This year he said he and Nino Ricci buoyed each other up—both had books on the long-list for the Giller that didn’t make the short list. ‘So it goes’ seems to be Paul’s attitude—if you win that’s great, if you don’t, who cares. Last year King Leary won the Canada Reads competition on CBC. Paul didn’t listen to any of the broadcasts, either while it was airing or after, though people assured him it was okay. He said it felt too “awkward.” But for him the real win of Canada Reads was getting the novel back in print; it had been unavailable for several years.

I think that is another downfall of a prize-driven industry—the books go out of print too quickly, whether they win prizes or not. It is cheaper for publishers to remainder a book after the initial buzz than to warehouse it. Newer books get the push and the backlist quickly disappears.

Canada Reads is an interesting twist to the prize format. While it gives the surface appearance of a prize structure/format it’s truer format is about trying to create good radio. The first year was a bit of a schmoozle. Of the five celebrity panelists only one had read all five books; in subsequent years CBC has clarified the rules and responsibilities and also, I would argue, made it more about theatrical radio than about books. The celebrity structure backfires sometimes. Just because someone is a good actor doesn’t mean she can be articulate about books. A few years there was a lot of visible cringing going on in the broadcast booth, so say my inner sanctum spies. The segments are taped so really bad gaffs can be edited out and boring bits edited down. All panelists submit a list of books, any one of which they would be prepared to champion. CBC staff vets those lists, checking to see which books already have Between the Cover readings available, author interviews, etc., the things used to promote the book after it wins. And, of course, they’re also after which five books will make the most interesting package—obviously they wouldn’t want two books about the same topic or theme. Negotiations happen with the publisher—will it be able to supply books, do advertising, etc.. Is the author alive to do publicity and readings after the win? So the apparent transparency is a bit of a fraud. What are interesting are the discussions and the obvious plotting of various jury members. Much to my surprise some listeners actually think these discussions are live when actually all five segments are taped months in advance so there is sufficient time for preparation, printing, labeling and shipping of books.

This just in:


2009 Scotiabank Giller jury announced

March 16, 2009 | 12:39 PM | By Steven W. Beattie

“In what is always an early harbinger of how Canada’s richest literary prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, will eventually shake out, the three-person jury for the 2009 edition has been named.

“This year’s jury is comprised of novelist and short-story writer Alistair MacLeod, novelist Russell Banks, and historian Victoria Glendinning. For the first time in 16 years, the jury consists of only one Canadian – MacLeod. Banks is American and Glendinning is from the U.K.

“This will be MacLeod’s third time on the jury; he was part of the 2000 jury, which notoriously chose two co-winners, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards, and he was on the 2004 jury, which awarded the prize to Alice Munro’s Runaway.

“If you subscribe to the idea that when you pick a prize jury, you pick the winner, today’s announcement looks like good news for Lisa Moore, a fellow Maritimer like MacLeod, whose new novel, February, is due out this spring. All three jurors tend toward naturalism, which is bad news for more experimental writers (sorry, Lisa Foad; regrets, Stuart Ross). It’s also a cinch that Margaret Atwood’s new novel, due out this fall, will make an appearance on this year’s shortlist.”

More from the world of literary scandals:

Literary prize implodes in “pantagruelian” scandal

March 24th, 2009

By PHILIP WILLAN in Rome—One of Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes faced the prospect of liquidation last week after allegations of sexual harassment by a majordomo from Mauritius snowballed into a full-blown fraud investigation.

“The Grinzane Cavour literary prize was the creation of Giuliano Soria, the son of a carpenter who created a multi-million euro cultural industry that brought Nobel prize-winners to Turin and helped to put the northwest province of Piedmont on the literary and cultural map. Nobel laureates who have been honoured by Soria’s organization include Wole Soyinka, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Orhan Pamuk and Doris Lessing.

”Last week Mr. Soria’s cultural empire lay in ruins following allegations of sexual harassment and ill-treatment by a 22-year-old illegal immigrant who had been employed as a valet and general dog’s-body by the Italian intellectual.

“Hemrajsing Dabeedin worked briefly for Mr Soria in the summer of 2008 before going to the police to complain of mistreatment. He had been exploited at work, racially abused and sexually molested, Mr Dabeedin – generally known as Nitish – told magistrates in Turin, one of Italy’s leading cultural capitals.

“He had been called “Negro”, “animal”, and “slave”, slapped, and had euros 50 (pounds 47) docked from his pay for a cup of cappuccino judged to be sub-standard by his overbearing employer. Mr Soria had even tried to climb into his bed, Nitish claimed.

“The former employee’s complaints have been backed up by video evidence recorded secretly on his mobile phone and by the testimony of numerous witnesses and they have led to a wide-ranging investigation into the financial affairs of the Grinzane Cavour, named after a small town in northwest Italy and run as a personal fiefdom by Mr Soria.

”Mr Soria – who denies mistreating Nitish but admits to a certain confusion between his personal finances and those of the Grinzane Cavour Association – is now in prison. Last week the prestigious names on the jury, headed by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jalloun, all resigned, and the association’s board voted to put the organization into liquidation.

“Prosecutors accuse the Grinzane president of diverting some euros 915 million for his personal use, having allegedly used association funds to refurbish private properties in Turin and Paris. Fund-raising had never been a problem in the 27-year history of the Grinzane, which was backed by Italian publishers, private sponsors, national and regional governments in Italy, and by the European Commission.

“The Grinzane Europe Network for the Promotion of Books, Reading and Translation managed to obtain Commission funding for a study on young people and reading that involved institutions in Britain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.

“Extravagance was one of the hallmarks of the Grinzane Cavour, which reportedly spent euros 242,000 on restaurants and euros 238,000 on hotels last year.  “The catering was Pantagruelian, with fabulous food and wine,” said Antonio Mendoza, a Venezuelan journalist and poet who attended a prize-giving ceremony in 2004.  On that occasion the recipient of a euros 15,000 prize for lifetime achievement was the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Chilean author Luis Sepulveda was on hand to deliver it.

“Members of the press were flown by helicopter to inspect an historic castle in the vicinity and put up in a sumptuous hotel. “It was one of the most luxurious hotels I have ever seen,” Mr Mendoza said.

“Mr Soria firmly denies the charge of sexual harassment, saying in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper that what Nitish had taken as racial and sexual slurs had been simply friendly banter. “If it’s true that I have been filmed, the most it will show is that when I get up in the morning I walk around in my underpants,” he told the paper.

“Last week the writer and mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi was called in to try and rescue the prize but reportedly found his efforts stymied by two long-standing associates of the discredited president. In an interview with L’Espresso magazine published on Friday Odifreddi said the cardinal of Turin, Severino Poletto, had objected to his appointment, while a local Turin bank insisted that at least one of the new directors should be a Roman Catholic. “What the cardinal has to do with a literary prize only God knows,” Mr Odifreddi, an outspoken atheist, told the magazine.

“The mathematician said he had been required to perform a delicate balancing act between the political and cultural groups interested in the prize. “An atheist had to be balanced by someone religious, someone bald by someone with hair, a short-sighted person by someone long-sighted, all things that have nothing to do with literary merit.”

”Mr Odifreddi said the Grinzane Cavour might now be absorbed into Turin’s international book fair run by Rolando Picchioni, a long-standing professional rival of Mr Soria and a former member of the notorious P2 secret masonic lodge.”

Wow! That is going to be hard to top in the literary scandal department. I wonder if CC juries have appropriate representation from follical-challenged Canadians?

1978 Jury: Sir Alfred Ayer, Derwent Maym, P H Newby, Angela Huth, Clare Boylan. Newby we know from 1969. Sir Ayer, known as Freddie, was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London then the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford—best known for his promotion of logical positivism. Derwent Maym is a columnist for the Times and the author of several books including one about Proust. Angela Huth, a novelist, playwright and journalist. Clare Boylan, Irish novelist, best known for finishing Charlotte Brone’s Emma, to much acclaim.

Iris Murdoch—The Sea, The Sea UBC WINNER

The World Baseball Classic is on right now. That means our television is on a lot, and George spends most of his time screaming at it. I still remember wondering if George was going to fall out of his wheelchair during the 2003 World Series, screaming till he was deep purple, “Take out fucking Pedro.”, etc.  Often George has the TV on mute, and reads. Always during commercials, most of which he doesn’t understand anyway. Sometimes I’ll explain them to him. While George watches the baseball game and reads, I quilt. During baseball season I can finish a Queen-size quilt, no problem. Gosh, how domestic.

Anyway, these days between innings one of the stations is airing a Taco Bell ad. A young man and woman sitting on a bench eating Taco Bell’s new cheesy somethingorother. She’s impressed that he’s brought her to the park, and gotten such an interesting item to eat (ho hum). She then wonders if he’s really more interesting that she has previously thought. She wonders what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s a dark, brooding poet.

Then we switch to inside the guy’s head. He’s humming the tune to the Mexican hat dance—de dum de dum de dum, cheese.

George’s agent has mentioned that his X-rated Stephen Leacock novel/memoir of life at 15 confirms that you should never ask what a guy is thinking, meaning guys are always thinking about sex.

What, you are wondering, does any of this have to do with an Iris Murdoch novel? The book jacket blurb: “When Charles Arrowby, over sixty, a demi-god of the theatre—director, playwright and actor—retires from his glittering London world in order to ‘abjure magic and become a hermit’, it is to the sea that he turns.” And he also begins his memoirs. The Sea The Sea is ostensibly that memoir, all in first person. Charles wondering about this, Charles remembering that, etc. Well, I know the two anecdotes above are cliché, and I’m happy I’ve never been inside a guy’s head, and this narrative does not persuade me. I can’t believe even a self-centred lout like Charles would really think this way.

This is part of the sway of this novel. Charles, clearly doing his Prospero bit, is a wonderful satire on theatre and the theatrical life—he’s the epitome of the pompous tyrannical director. Charles is also obsessed with food and makes it a point to tell us what he is eating, some days at each meal. In detail. He has seriously considered writing a cookbook, The Four Minute Cookbook, and using his fame to make it a bestseller. Charles wants to own people, to “possess” them “body and soul.” Much of the book consists of his justifications for outrageous behaviour. We get a succinct outline of Charles behaviour from Peregrine, “You deliberately smashed my marriage, you took away my wife whom I adored, you did it carefully, cold-bloodedly, you worked at it. Then when you had got her away from me you dropped her. You didn’t even want her for yourself, you just wanted to steal her from me to satisfy the beastly impulses of your possessiveness and your jealousy! Then when they were satisfied, when my marriage was broken forever, you went jaunting off somewhere else. And what is more you expected me to tolerate this and to go on liking you! Why? Because you thought everybody always went on liking you whatever rotten things you did because you were wonderful wonderful Charles Arrowby.”

That one paragraph is a summation. Bang on. But the reader also gets about 100 pages out of a 500-page novel of Arrowby justifying the behaviour around this event. The novel becomes intolerable. It may have worked if a good editor had slashed it down to 300. The seemingly endless and long description of The Sea started to remind me of Don Quixote. Once a prof told me that when you are trying to read Don Q, if you come to a windmill skip 30 pages. I understand that the brooding sea is essential to the atmosphere of the novel, in part represents the disapproval by The Elements of Charles’ behaviour, but honestly, too much.

The events of the novel are too absurd to outline, full of coincidental meetings that even Dickens wouldn’t have put forward.

20 years ago, Private Eye reviewed Murdoch’s then new novel, The Message to the Planet. The review ended this way:

“This is not so much an Iris Murdoch novel as the Iris Murdoch novel. It has the silly names (hands up anyone who knows a ‘Gildas’ or a ‘Marzillian’?), the overblown, italicized orations (‘Happiness, Franca, happiness, we have it, we’ll keep it, you must keep it’), the mad, gorgeous women who refer to their boyfriends as ‘darling silly beast’. Above all, it is interminable.

“It is Murdoch’s astonishing self-absorption that gives her those uniquely duff sentences that are her trademark. Years ago even Malcolm Bradbury was able to parody her in a phrase: ‘Flavia says that Hugo tells her that Augustina is in love with Fred’.”

Interesting, don’t you think, that Private Eye and I both fixed on the word interminable? I may make that a Category.

George Stanley says, “melodrama on steroids, that’s our Iris.”

This was Murdoch’s 19th novel and 4th Booker nomination. What is astonishing is that a jury was able to rally around this one, but see the notes from the Guardian below for more details on how that came about.

The good thing about being a jury member as opposed to reading all the Bookers in a short space is that you don’t have to read 4 Iris Murdoch novels in six months, with more to come. Sigh.

Kingsley Amis—Jake’s Thing UBC

If The Sea, The Sea is below par Murdoch, Jake’s Thing is below par Amis. I’ve read a lot of Amis, well both Amis guys but I prefer the elder. I may have read this novel before, but it doesn’t seem familiar. And in a few months or weeks I’ll probably have forgotten it, again.

The novel is amusing. Jake is having trouble getting it up. The thing of the title is Jake’s penis. Having for most of his life been a sexually active participant, Jake is concerned, seeks medical advice and ends up with a contraption he wears at night to measure nocturnal erections, has “genital sensate focusing” sessions with his wife to try and “cure” his problem and eventually participates in a Workshop. All of these events allow Amis to parody the navel gazing self-help obsession of the sexually awakened 1970s. Jake is a professor so there’s space for getting some shots off at academics and the promiscuity of university campuses. Jake is snarly, hates women and hates young people, so it’s not surprise when his wife leaves him for her best friend’s husband. Category: Smart Novel.

Andre Brink—Rumours of Rain UBC

In today’s newspaper there is a piece about Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa’s African National Congress, “South African voters appear determined to elect Jacob Zuma as president in two weeks, a man around whom the stench of corruption and abuse of power hang thick and heavy.” My son has spent much of the past two years in Africa, in Uganda, so there are frequent talks about oppression, corruption and the complicated mess that is 21st century Africa.

As you may recall, I didn’t much like the previous Brink novel. Perhaps it is because of my low expectations (or that Brink’s writing skills improved) but this one is much better. Martin Mynhardt is an Afrikaner “fanatic materialist” who applies the rules of apartheid—keeping different things apart—to all aspects of his life. He wants to control (and own) everything and everyone. The three decades that his family has occupied South Africa have taught him nothing. He is myopic.

The premise of the novel is that Martin has fled to London after his world has collapsed, to write his memoirs, so the book is first person narrative. Contrasted to the arrogance of Martin are his teacher/friend Bernard who becomes a terrorist, is captured and jailed; Bea, his mistress who is also caught and jailed, though Martin knows nothing of her activist life; his brother Theo who has deep ties to the family farm, which Martin sells for a handsome profit; his son Louis recently returned from Angolia, jaded by the monstrousness of that war. They are all thinking, feeling people. Martin can’t feel. Since the narration is first person, there is no distance. Odd parallels with the Murdoch novel, though very different books.

It’s a Big book in its scope, looking back for generations at how the situation has developed. But in the end it is somehow unsatisfactory. Perhaps it’s the smugness of the Afrikaners:

“We all know that malnutrition is no longer a real problem in the world. Daddy and I were just talking about it yesterday, how our Bantus have raised their standards of living…If anybody is still undernourished in our day and age…it’s just due to the wrong eating habits.”

Although Martin is supposedly writing this 446 page missive after his world has collapsed, there is remarkable little introspection. Only on the final page: “Does one inevitably become the victim of one’s own paradoxes in the end?”

If I were on a jury this is a book I would want to discuss. It baffles me a bit and I’d be interested in the opinions of others.

Bernice Rubens—A Five Year Sentence abebooks

After her Booker win for The Elected Member, Rubens said, “It’s all right, as long as you don’t believe you’ve written the best book of the year.” Ya gotta like that attitude.

Like the other novel, this one focuses on the mundane and bleak lives of nobodies. Rubens style is easy and the book is a quick read at 186 pages. But the content is so twisted—macabre doesn’t cover the vision. Miss Hawkins is retiring from her career as a bookkeeper at a confectionary plant. She is an orphan, raised by the hard-hearted matron at the Sacred Heart Orphanage. The route from the orphanage to the sweet plant in itself resembles a factory line. She plans to return home after her retirement party and kill herself, and has neatly arranged everything to accommodate this plan. But at her retirement party she is given a five-year diary. Since obedience to the orders of others has controlled her whole life, she believes she has no choice but to fill the pages, for the full five year, hence the title.

But just recording the dull events of her daily life doesn’t satisfy her. She starts to enter commands which she must then follow. “Went for a long walk.” The orders become increasingly daring, “Went to the library and met a man.” So, off she goes to the library. It’s an interesting premise for Rubens to explore the small, painful details of the lives of the lonely. But there is also something predictable—a Rubens formula. Small, lonely lives that blow up in the end. It’s a black comedy, but not of the first order.

Jane Gardam—God on the Rocks VPL

This project is affecting the way I read, even the way I respond to the physical appearance of a book. I just picked up Joesph from the Vancouver Public Library, getting ready to start on 1979. It’s a monster at 651 pages, tiny print. A quick flick through suggests I am going to learn the colour of Joseph’s nose hairs. Argh. I also find that I am developing patterns of expectation, Oh, here we go, another mundane Brit family saga. So this little book was a wake-up.

“A hot, seemingly endless summer between the wars, in a small seaside town in the north-east of England” is the setting. The novel is not first-person but we mostly see the events through the eyes of 8-year-old Margaret, child of religious zealots who follow the doctrine of the Primal Saints. The novel pokes at sexual awakening, moral hypocrisy, class boundaries and snobbery, and the pull to life’s pleasures. The novel is clever and the voice/black vision of Margaret is refreshing. It does get bogged down and in ways becomes predictable but there was enough there to intrigue that I will seek out other Gardam books if I ever see The Light Beyond the Bookers.

Penelope Fitzgerald—The Bookshop—couldn’t find a copy anywhere and eventually purchased it from a bookseller in California

A tight, compact book at 123 pages. Florence Green is a “kindhearted widow with a small inheritance” who decides to open a bookshop in a small, isolated seaside village in 1959 Sussex. An examination of “how nasty people can be to one another in small country places.” As Florence sets up shop in the Old House the whole community waits in anticipation of her failure. You can whiz through this novel so quickly that it seems only afterwards does the realization hit of how densely packed it is. And for what it is, highly successful.

Derwent May from The Guardian

“In 1978, all the five jury members had a different first choice, and they were all sticking to it. Suddenly someone suggested a compromise candidate that we all quite liked, but it seemed to me that we were now heading for disaster. Freddie Ayer, the chairman, had more or less pulled out, saying that the only novels he enjoyed reading were crime novels. So I went round the jury – the other three were all novelists, PH Newby, Angela Huth and Clare Boylan – and said to them in turn “Is this book your first choice?” All, rather sheepishly, said “No”. I said, “The winner must surely be at least one person’s first choice”, and I saw it was the moment for me to push what I thought was unmistakably the best book, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – which I knew was at least one juror’s second choice (the other shortlisted authors were Kingsley Amis, André Brink, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam and Bernice Rubens). I’m glad to say it won.

“The best three winners have, I think, been the Murdoch, William Golding’s Rites of Passage and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The prize has always lurched too much in favour of writers with unpromising backgrounds or good liberal attitudes, but it has unfailingly provided an excellent focus on the year’s new novels.”

4290 words: uploaded September 27, 2010


  • Jean Baird

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

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