By Jean Baird | October 4, 2010

Here’s something for both all you faithful prize followers and/or skeptics:

The Friggin Speech

Accepting the Friggin Prize

June 5, 2009

by Michael Boughn

“I just want to say a few brief but profound words about this extraordinary evening. Receiving the Friggin Truss Prize is certainly an unprecedented—I’d like to say honour, but I’m not sure that’s the appropriate word. Event, let’s say unprecedented event. And to see all of you here—all 30 of you—is a moment I will remember for a few weeks. We are here tonight because we share something. We are sharing beer and the importance of that should never be underestimated—but beyond that, we also evidently share a belief in Literary Excellence (whatever that is). I suppose we should consider that—what literary excellence is since we have come out tonight to celebrate it. Although no one wants to admit it when all the prizes are at stake, it’s kind of hard to say, because the fact is you just kind of know it when you smell it. We do know what it’s not. It’s not Dada poets making fun of people and writing stuff you can’t understand and that makes you feel stupid. I think we can reasonably say that it is part of a deep commitment to never do what’s not already been done but do it better than it was done before as long as you don’t go too far and get caught out on a limb with your participles dangling in the breeze. Something like that. That I think is literary excellence without any question, having a brand that people can trust to deliver the goods every time. And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence—that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill.

“But beyond this shared commitment to literary excellence, I think we all share something else as well. We share an understanding of the role of poetry in contemporary society. We have no illusions about that like those Dada poets do. And not just the Dada poets, but some of the other poets too, that are hard to understand. Now, some of them think poetry is about truth, about honouring the mysterious, confusing complexity of the world rather than making sense of it, or even about standing up to the hypocrisy and self-delusion of a world gone mad with a kind of uncontrollable lust to fill the emptiness in its heart with more and more stuff even if it means killing off vast numbers of people in distant corners of the world in order to guarantee getting that extra dollar day saving because who the hell even knows who those people are and they probably deserve to die anyway because if they aren’t terrorists yet they will be terrorists soon and then they will want to come over here and try to take our stuff away from us and/or blow it up.

“And then there’s the people who think poetry is about beauty, about creating rather than consuming, about taking ordinary words and weaving them into moments of exquisite and unprecedented experience, about going toe to toe with all the tawdry and degraded moments bequeathed to us by a vast machine hell bent on turning everything we know and love into just another piece of cheap shit for sale in the market place that has spread like cancer into every nook and cranny of our lives laying waste to everything that once had enduring value.

“And then, worst of all, there are the people who think poetry is about using your imagination to make things out of words, things that dance and sing and jump around and hoot and holler, things that tickle your fancy and whisper sweet nothings in your ear, things that refuse to be branded or even make sense because sense rhymes with cents and is just another kind of deodorant lined up on the shelves of civilization looking for some poor sucker who thinks that if he buys it, it will make him taller and slimmer and get rid of his wrinkles and embarrassing bodily fluids and make him young forever. These people, of course, are often connected to the aforementioned Dada poets, the curse of literary excellence and an affront to sensible, civilized poetry lovers.

“We however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you? It’s about sending out scurrilous, defamatory letters to the press slandering other poets who might otherwise get the prize so you can drive them away and then you can become the Professor of Poetry in Necrophiliac U.

“But of all the prizes that are out there—the Oxford Professor of Poetic Slander Prize; the Governor General’s Nepotism Prize; the CBC’s Award for Inoffensive Banal Verse; even the richest, most lucrative prize in the world (as we are often told), the macho-bitch-slapping-super-power of prizes, the Griffin Circus Maximus Poetry Prize with its longest of long lists and its shortest of short lists and its most exclusive of guest lists—there’s still one prize none of them can hold a candle to, the best prize of all. And why is it the best Prize of all? I could say it’s because of the integrity of its procedures; I could say it’s because of its charming modesty; I could even say it’s because of the way it cleaves so honourably to the principles of literary excellence. But, of course, that’s all bullshit.

“No. There are three short reasons why the Friggin prize is the best Poetry prize of all. It’s because, (and please feel free to join in here) there’s no long list, there’s no short list, there’s no guest list—there’s just the Friggin Prize.”

I found 1979 a particularly odd year…

Jury: Lord Asa Briggs; eminent historian. Benny Green; jazz saxophonist and a successful author who wrote biographies of Fred Astaire and PG Wodehouse. In later life he presented a long-running Sunday afternoon programme on BBC Radio 2. Michael Ratcliffe; journalist and one-time literary editor of the Observer. Hilary Spurling; journalist and biographer. Paul Theroux; American novelist and travel writer.

The hostile relationship between Theroux and Naipaul is important, and is well worth checking out, from Theroux’s 1998 biography of Naipaul Sir Vidia’s Shadow to his marvelously nasty piece in the April 6, 2008 Sunday Times, (which Jean’s original quoted in full but which can’t be published here because of copyright (ed. note. If you’re curious, you can find it here

Paul Theroux was teaching English at university in Kampala, Uganda, when he met VS Naipaul. It was 1966 and the two became friends – or certainly mentor and student (Naipaul, already a famous novelist, was writer-in-residence).

When Naipaul returned to England, Theroux followed and was introduced to literary London, but Naipaul claimed he had overstayed his welcome and wrote him a dismissive letter. Theroux did not take the hint. “After he left in 1966, he was an absolute bore,” said Naipaul. “I wrote a very ironical letter to him thinking this would put an end to [his] letters . . . but it never did.”

However, Naipaul was not averse to the odd lunch (Theroux paid) and relations worsened as the young American became a successful travel writer. In 1996 both men were invited to the Hay literary festival for a staged discussion. The atmosphere was thick with tension. Naipaul reportedly refused to meet Theroux’s gaze.

Afterwards, Naipaul – now married to his second wife, Nadira – said, “You must not overplay this notion of a friendship after Africa. I hardly knew the man, our meetings were very few. Hay-on-Wye was the moment of breaking. I found it impossible. I just wanted to leave as soon as possible.”

Theroux was further incensed when he discovered that one of the precious first editions of his work that he had given his old mentor was for sale in a book catalogue for $1,500. He rattled off an angry fax but received only a response from Nadira which, in Naipaul’s words: “[Told] him to keep off the grass and stop saying things about me.”

In retaliation, Theroux published Sir Vidia’s Shadow in 1998, a memoir of their friendship in which he decried his former mentor as a bitter, racist snob.

The two men have met only once since Hay, in the street in South Kensington. “He wanted to talk to me about it,” remembered Naipaul. “I was on my way somewhere and could not stop. The conversation was very brief.” He gave Theroux a typically caustic piece of advice: “Take it on the chin and move on.”

There are some reports that members of the 1979 jury didn’t want to give the Booker to Naipaul because he had already won. But it is hard not to wonder if the personality of Naipaul was an influence. It shouldn’t be, I think. The work ought to remain separate from the person. Otherwise we start down a slippery slope—Hemingway, Pound….

Julian Rathbone Joseph VPL

If you love The Lord of the Rings, Don Quixote, or anything by Fielding you will likely fall for this novel. Clocking in at 651 pages, it purports to be the writings of Joseph Bosham, discovered during research by Julian Rathbone. In part, the premise is an appeal to Wellington from Joseph for a half-pay pension for services rendered.

Dustjacket synopsis: “Spain – 1808 to 1813 – where Revolution collides with Reaction, a British Army with a French; the Spain of Goya, where ignorant armies clash and from under them all comes the voice of Joseph: by birth European, by education enlightened, and living in Salamanca which suffered a new invasion every six months and saw one of Wellington’s greatest battles. From the moment in early childhood when Joseph hurls a stone at a playmate and makes an evil enemy for life, to the last page when he climbs a hill in North Spain accompanied by a donkey, a giantess and a new-born babe, and blunders, not for the first time, beneath the feet of the Peer and into a battle, he takes the reader by the elbow and hurries him ‘will he or will he not’ across the terrible years that saw the birth of our own times.

“Battles, picnics (sometimes together), infatuations, fiestas, executions, births and deaths succeed each other. A host of richly portrayed characters – Joseph’s father whose constantly failing God is Reason; Rafael, heroic and doomed; Coffey and Nolan, Irish soldiers as at home here as they might have been in a Shakespeare History or a First World War trench; the mysterious and voluptuous Madam La Granace; Mistress Flora Tweedy who stands alone in the face of a troop of French Cavalry (but falls to … well, who does she fall to?), the Emperor himself in sublimely megalomanic mood; and, of course, the Duke – all these with support from witches, bull-fighters, gypsies, whores, guerrilleros make up a cast that would not disgrace the pages of Fielding.

“Racy, picaresque, but with an underlying seriousness, Joseph is the major work that Julian Rathbone has promised since the publication of King Fisher Lives.”

And like Ben Hur, a cast of thousands, which are as hard to keep track of as are the war scenes in Lord of the Rings (which David McFadden once described while trying to read it as “Bored of the Rings”).

Let me give you a sample:

“As I left the village Nature vouchsafed me a sight as fine as any in her stock—not the most sublime perhaps, but one unmatched for elegance, refinement, and harmony of parts: the sun cleared the edge of the distant sierra behind me and in a transformation scene that would, I warrant, have drawn applause at Drury Lane, changed the cold grey mass like freezing cotton waster than clung about me, into measureless numbers of jewels in which fine rubies predominated, with diamonds too, emeralds, sapphires, and amethysts, thereby following faithfully the Laws discovered by the Sublime Isaac (as my dear Father, by then dead, used to call him) by prismatifying itself into iridescence. The first moment passed, but not the beauty, for soon the chief hue shifted into gold, bright gold, as Sol inched further up the sky.”

This massive novel is in three volumes. Three! After I read the first one, I gave myself a break and read Praxis. Half way through the second volume I gave myself a break and started Confederates. The title should have warned me off. Another hulking war novel. I’ve never thought much about it before, but I am just not drawn in by this type of historical fiction. Showoffy stuff—oh, look at all the research I’ve done, how I’ve worked in all these little details. So add a category: Massive Historical War Novel.

I got a notice from the Vancouver Public Library that Joesph was due. I tried to renew it, again, and was turned down. I’d already used the allowable renewals. That decided it. I returned the book. I read to page 351—that would be TWO Weldon novels.

Fay Weldon Praxis UBC

Category: And You Think Your Family is Dysfunctional. Subcategory: It’s a Man’s World. The main character, Praxis is one of two bastard children of a rich Jewish father, who eventually leaves their mother. The novel tackles with various degrees of depth issues of women’s rights, the women’s rights movement, class expectations, madness, social responsibility, the sexual revolution, prostitution, parental responsibilities. Praxis herself is not a particularly likeable person, in any of her multiple transformations from eager student, submissive mate, prostitute, activist to murderer. Although the novel has a reputation as a liberal feminist text (and not surprising, then, to have Marilyn French putting in her two cents, “the history of womankind condensed to its essentials”, to compress “in the account of the life of one woman an entire spectrum of women’s lives”) it does not present an easy case. Praxis talks about her movement away from being a “doll” but she is not a deeply reflective character. And when she finds herself as the editor and major spokesperson for the rising feminist movement it is more because she has stumbled into that role rather than deliberately making a choice.

In an extensive piece by Andrew Foley he argues that , “Although Weldon’s work frequently calls into question certain aspects of feminist thought, it is nevertheless true that for the most part Praxis functions as a “devastating indictment of patriarchal power and male supremacy” (Palmer, 1990:60). It forms part of a general political mobilisation in which, as Weldon (1998:viii) has observed elsewhere, one could sense “the forces of praxis converging”, but for “the gender revolution”, not “the Communist one”. (4) The novel charts Praxis Duveen’s gradually burgeoning awareness of the subservient position of women generally in a male-dominated society, and of her particular oppression at the hands of a succession of male partners.”

I’m not entirely persuaded, but if you are interested in the feminist movement, or feminist writing, have a look.

Thomas Keneally—Confederates UBC

Category: Massive Historical War Novel. The success of the movie Shindler’s List has turned Keneally into a superstar, and I know that novel is coming down the pike. I’m pretty sure this is my first Keneally novel. Clearly he loves research. Really detailed research. Nitty gritty day-to-day detail. This book is full of it—lice, dysentery, uncooked meat, rotting corpses. Keneally refrains from any romanticism but rather focuses on the daily lives of characters to portray the American Civil War.

The plot focuses on several main characters. The big characters—Stonewall Jackson et al—are background. I find the whole thing hard to follow, as if I should already be well aware of details of the civil war in order to appreciate the novel. The battles are muddled—who’s winning, and which side is this character on? But perhaps that muddle is the point, that in a civil war there are no definitive lines: “What did it matter to a boy from Michigan if South Carolina or Virginia wished to manage itself. What did it matter to him if there were slaves in the South?” These young boys just want to get home to their lives. The larger morality and politics don’t really touch their lives.

You will note that the jury chairman for this year is an historian. I go through fits of reading non-fiction history but it isn’t the wars that fascinate me. In The Civil War in Books, a bibliography the editors note: “The novel is grounded in large part in history but of course takes off with literary adventures unrestrained by truth. Other major characters, Horace Searcy and Dora Whipple, provide the contrasting roles of a British newsman and a nurse and spy who cares for Southern boys while providing intelligence for the Union. The work is wholly enjoyable, written with flair, and one of the finest on the period.” Apparently these guys are experts on the genre so their opinions are probably more valid than mine.

Major complaint: female characters, all of whom jump into bed without a blink even when a disabled child is outside in the barn, about to return. Sure, war breaks down social norms but this presentation is extreme and unconvincing, at least to me.

But reading these two massive war novels in a short period has made me realize one of the reasons I couldn’t get into Lord of the Rings, though I once loved The Hobbit. Why I didn’t get hooked on Dungeons and Dragons although a friend tried hard to make that happen. Why I would always head home if the other kids wanted to play Risk.

I’ve been having a discussion with Robert Priest about the makeup of juries, the difference between a personal opinion and an expert opinion:

Jean: “Here’s a comparison–Your taste about a diamond ring is as valid as mine. You know which one you like, which one you’d like to wear, or see your wife wear. I have my own taste in diamond rings which is as valid as yours.

“But I also have a graduate jeweller’s degree and two gemology degrees. I can put my personal taste aside, evaluate the grade of the diamond, the sophistication of the design, look at whether it is hand made or mass produced and come up with an expert opinion of the diamond ring that would (I am arguing) be more valuable than yours. This doesn’t mean that ring would necessarily be the one I would want to wear.

“While the GG juries do cover diversity pretty well they often fall short with expertise.”

Robert: “Intriguing comparison. It puts me up against some of my possible biases. I would definitely trust your judgment on a diamond over mine. But there are absolutes involved in diamond judgment. There would be some properties of any given diamond that pretty much all experts would agree on. The grade, etc then there’s monetary value which is not really an absolute but very ‘real’ in our culture. Authenticity — is it a diamond or is it not a diamond. Pretty definable. Not so in poetry. Experts frequently disagree. And what is or isn’t’ a poem is the perennial question. Poetry keeps redefining itself. And being contrary to itself. A good expert in a jury situation hopefully would be able to position poetry within the current context. We want there to be experts, yes. But surely everyone wants something reflecting his or her taste to win??

“I imagine I am stumbling over ground already well covered by anyone trying to work this stuff out. All that stuff about the dominant culture etc. My conclusion that I arrived at via what to do about social inequity particularly with regard to race was that power never gives itself up so a big diverse jury pool was the only fair way to go. Now, post our discussion, I would think an expert should be one of the ingredients. cultural/geographic/gender identification/specialist…. I know I’ve left something out. I’m not as pc as it sounds and what I’ve described is more for a govt-originated award than a wealthy donor thing. There are problems and ludicrous winners whichever way you do it I think.”

Jean: “I agree that there are some absolutes with diamonds but I think you are rather missing my point between personal opinion and expert opinion. My expert opinion may say ring A is worth the most amount of money, ring B has the best quality workmanship, but it might be ring C that I would prefer because it takes my personal fancy.

“Obviously you are correct in pointing out that poetry is more complicated. But I think as much as possible jury members should put aside personal taste when they take on the responsibility. You are pleased if a book that appeals to your personal taste wins but can you really champion the avante garde book (just as an example) against the lyrical prose one if you know the later is brilliant and most deserves to win? I hope not.

“When I was publishing In 2 Print the process was first to peer review then send the top 10 to 20 from that process to the professional advisor committee. Members at various times included Michael Hornyansky, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave, Lorna Crozier, etc. It was common to get work back with some variation of “this isn’t a style of poem that appeals to me but it certainly is well written and merits publication.”

Keep these musings in mind when you read Hilary Spurling’s comments about the 1979 jury, from The Guardian, below.

Penelope Fitzgerald—Offshore VPL Winner

Fitzgerald, along with Anita Brookner, is considered a miniaturist and this novel certainly qualifies; its very little action takes place around a handful of eccentric characters who live on barges moored at Battersea Reach on the Thames. Most of the novel is small, careful character development and the relationships between those characters. It is the habit of this small community to refer to people by the name of the boat they live on. So, Woolie who lives on Rochester is called Rochester as often as he is called Wollie. It is so tightly written that I made a crib sheet for myself, listing the names of the boats and people, otherwise I couldn’t keep track. The small bits of action all take place in the last 30 pages. There is no resolution.

The bookjacket: “This book is funny and serious, tender and harsh, in the true tradition of the English novel. In authenticity of setting, in observation of character, in the wit and accomplishment of the writing it is a constant delight.”

Ahem. “True tradition of the English novel”? Remember this phrase when you read Hilary Spurling’s jury comments below.

Anyway, the reputation of the novel defeats me. It’s jolly read, etc., but it’s slight, if accomplished. No wonder the win caused Fitzgerald a lifetime of embarrassment.

V. S. Naipaul—A Bend in the River UBC

The first couple of chapters of this novel drew me in, in that wonderful sense you get when you are in the hands of a master. Naipaul sure can write, and with such apparent ease. I’d say the category is Outsider’s view of Africa but that would be confining for the scope of this novel.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness first-person narrator Marlow tells the tale of Kurtz. This European view of Africa, or more specifically what we assume is the Congo, examines the impact of imperialism, the European fear of going native, light/dark, good/bad and the very notion of freedom. With Naipaul’s narrator, Salim, the reader is back to what again we assume is Zaire, now become Congo, and post-colonial psychosis. But A Bend in the River isn’t just an update, or validation of Conrad. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it might be. Homage, in part. But I think the word that best presents Naipaul’s relationship to Conrad is conversation.

In Naipaul’s novel, Africa despite independence is still defining itself through the eyes of Europe. But there are no more heroic or tragic whites—no Kurtz here. Salim is an Indian Muslim born on the coast of Africa—he is not Indian, not European, not African. He and his kind have become obsolete in the new Africa, no longer representing order and hope—Salim is part of the problem. And Europe no longer offers solutions:

“When I was a child Europe ruled my world. It had defeated the Arabs in Africa and controlled the interior of the continent. It ruled the coast and all the countries of the Indian Ocean with which we traded; it supplied our goods. We knew who we were and where we had come from. But it was Europe that gave us the descriptive postage stamps that gave us our ideas of what was picturesque about ourselves. It also gave us a new language.

“Europe no longer ruled. But it still fed us in a hundred ways with its language and sent us its increasingly wonderful goods, things which, in the bush of Africa, added year by year to our idea of who we were, gave us that idea of our modernity and development, and made us aware of another Europe—the Europe of great cities, great stores, great buildings, great universities…

“But the Europe II had come to—and knew from the outset I was coming to—was neither the old Europe nor the new. It was something shrunken and mean and forbidding.”

Naipaul’s vision is dark. Very dark. “If you look at a column of ants on the march you will see that there are some who are stragglers or have lost their way. The column has no time for them; it goes on. Sometimes the stragglers die. But even this has no effect on the column. There is a little disturbance around the corpse, which is eventually carried off—and then it appears so light. And all the time the great busyness continues, and that apparent sociability, that rite of meeting and greeting which ants traveling in opposite directions, to and from their nest, perform without fail.” And, says, Naipaul, we are like those ants. Trudging along. “Outsiders, but neither settlers nor visitors, just people with nowhere better to go—put our heads down and got on with our business.” And that is the astonishing thing of Naipaul’s dark vision—that we do carry on.

Africa is not a sick child that can be fixed with money from abroad. The novel penetrates to the birthplace of civilization, if that word is even fitting in this novel. It’s like peeling off the layers of an onion, but the more layers you peel off, the bigger the onion becomes. “Africa, going back to its old ways with modern tools, was going to be a difficult place for some time.” In this novel there is no escaping “the horror”—we are all transients, “in time it would all go.”

“It seemed to me that men were born only to grow old, to live out their span, to acquire experience. Men lived to acquire experience; the quality of the experience was immaterial; pleasure and pain—and above all, pain—had no meaning; to posses pain was as meaningless as to chase pleasure. And even when the illumination vanished, became as thin and half nonsensical as a dream, I remembered that I had had it, that knowledge about the illusion of pain.”

This is a major novel, within Naipaul’s body of work but also in the larger context of 20th Century literature. It is a serious gaff that it was passed over for Offshore. Since 1979 none of Naipaul’s novels have made the Booker shortlist.

The Guardian–Hilary Spurling

“I loved my Booker summer, which boils down in my memory to long, hot, hazy days spent lying under a tree in the garden reading novels and saying to anyone who tried to interrupt: “Go away, I’m working.” It was a strong field and the bookies’ favourite was VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Its opponents on the panel argued that the book shouldn’t strictly be classified as a novel, and in any case he’d won the prize before. The Naipaul lobby (including me) snapped back that the novel was doomed if it couldn’t expand to include this sort of documentary fiction, and that our job was to pick the year’s best book, regardless of its author.

“The final verdict was as much of a shock to the judges as it was to everybody else. We’d spent the entire afternoon at loggerheads, and in the end compromised by giving the prize to everybody’s second choice, Penelope Fitzgerald’s small, slight, melancholy but beautifully judged and executed Offshore. Her recently published collected letters make it clear that her triumph – and the general incredulity that greeted it – caused her humiliation ever after.”

How it could be argued that A Bend in the River isn’t strictly a novel (I assume because of some documentary or historical information) when those two hulking historical novels made the list is beyond me. And if the task is to pick the best book a previous win should be irrelevant.

I have read elsewhere that the Booker administration was annoyed by a leak of the 1978 winner so for 1979 the jury was to meet and make the final decision immediately before the ceremony thereby eliminating the possibility of another leak. But this system does not allow for reflection so that a rash or forced decision is made to stand. The jury process should give space for reconsideration, and for tempers to settle.

5032 words, October 3, 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.

More from Jean Baird: