By Jean Baird | January 18, 2011

In a recent chat with Patrick Crean, Publisher and Editor Thomas Allen Publishers, we talked about the current messy state of publishing in Canada. Patrick says that Canada is one of the most difficult book markets in the world. The country is large, the population by comparison is small and there is just no economy of scale. Patrick believes:

  • There are too many books being published. He was recently on the CC jury for publisher book grants and suggests we could afford to lose half the existing book publishers without any huge loss to the industry. Karl Sielger at Talonbooks agrees.
  • There’s too much emphasis on growing talent and not enough effort made to connect books to readers! The monies poured into grants to emerging writers and publishers who publish them are creating mediocrity. We have more talent than we know what to do with and not many people wanting to read the books.
  • The sales and marketing departments in the big houses want to cherry pick which results in lists with no personality. Patrick says he has never seen a time in publishing with so much risk aversion. He believes the corporate nature that has taken over is destroying book publishing.

Cheery, eh?

It’s harder than ever to get attention for books and the prize industry takes advantage of that situation, and makes it even worse. When the Giller long-list is announced it gets ink. Then the short-list adds speculation, and ink. All that space is diverted from reviews of other books. Booksellers give prominent space to short-listed and winning books. Book clubs use prize lists as crib sheets. And so on.

Patrick suggested that in a usual year a novel that wins the GG will sell an additional 20,000 books; a Giller win an additional 60,000. Patrick is quick to point out that prizes are not a barometer of literary merit, and that some prizes have little impact on sales (Donner, Trillium). The 2009 Giller win, predictably, put Linden McIntyre’s unexpected winning book on the bestseller list. The Pullinger novel, winner of the GG, all but disappeared. Patrick and I wondered, are readers getting smarter? Are they becoming savvy to the down side of prizes?

What might be done, we wondered, to make changes in the Canadian publishing industry where, we thought, there are too many prizes and few having much impact? Patrick and I decided if we ruled the world (calm down folks, this is only fantasy) we would take 25% of the money currently spent on prizes (prize money to writers, payment to jurors, administration, travel expenses and advertising) and invest it in education about Canadian literature. You may remember a recent report from Canadian Heritage indicating that only 53% of Canadians could name a Canadian writer or Canadian book. Our schools are dominated by UK (Lord of the Flies) and USA (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird) novels. In BC, after lobbying the Ministry of Education, CanLit is now mandated in the curriculum. Patrick and I would invest that 25% in lobbying other ministries, and creating support material for English Language Arts teachers. In the long run we believe that would be better for Canadian writers. In other words, invest in education and the next generation of readers rather than more prizes, which even from a marketing perspective is preaching to the converted.

Around the time the 2010 Canada Reads list was announced, George Stanley mentioned he was reading Generation X. Generation A was on his book club reading list and he wanted to read Generation X first. I asked him to share his thoughts:

Not much happens in this novel. Three twenty-somethings, two M one F, come from Toronto or Oregon to Palm Springs CA, where they rent “bungalows”, work at “McJobs”, and pass the time telling each other stories. A couple of superficial definitely unromantic liaisons, no sex, not even much partying – that’s it. The characterizations are not skin deep, they don’t even get to the skin. One wonders, what’s the point?

The point seems to be that this way of life has come to be typical for the eponymous generation. Douglas Coupland’s conceit is that there is nothing going on in these people’s minds but a never-ending stream of consumer consciousness – products and brands which they mostly put down as out-dated – and an obsessive judgment of everyone else (and themselves too), based mainly on their clothing and makeup. And a fear of ageing: “Not even thirty and already my upper lip is beginning to shrink.”

There’s also guilt—a diffuse guilt that somehow they don’t deserve their lifestyles. “I can’t help feeling that we didn’t merit it.” And I think that’s the key to the fascination this book may have had for readers in the 90s. This “one dimensional” (Herbert Marcuse) life is the latest stage in cultural evolution—one brought about by the ravening need of capital to control every moment of human time, 24/7. A shift has taken place in self-consciousness. These people have become just what they have been told they are: consumers—and their guilt echoes a vaguely comprehended sense that people were once more than that.

The generation born between roughly 1955 and 1980 were the first generation to be brought up on TV. But they were also the first to discover they no longer had any claim to the American Dream—a long-term secure job, a house to raise a family in, a sense of merit. And as their world changed, so did that of their parents—the boomers. Childhood, as a distinct stage in human development, ended, as the late Neil Postman wrote, in the 1980s, and along with it, adulthood. (Romantic love ended too.) There are now just older and younger cohorts of consumers, divided not by tradition and experience, but by consumer demographics—lifestyles. The pathos of the novel comes from the reader’s realization that these kids’ sad world is their own as well.

GB had read Generation X a few months back. When I read him GS’s write up he said, “it is better than any of the writing in Generation X, and more insightful.” GB says Generation X is shallow irony.

So, why is this book on the Canada Reads list? Surely neither the book nor Coupland need the visibility. It seems to me that there are responsibilities that go along with prizes. It is the responsibility, for example, of the administrating body to do its best to select a jury that will be unbiased and undertake the task with due diligence. Being mindful of these responsibilities becomes even more important when a prize (or similar promotion) welds power. Considering the sales power of Canada Reads, was it responsible to select Generation X and Fall on Your Knees for the 2010 line up? The Jade Peony also falls into this category though not at the same level.

JB: This book put Coupland on the world map. Because of the quality of the book, its insights, or because the title is so coinable?

George Stanley: Not the quality; as George says, it’s not literature. It’s some kind of sociological fiction (which verges on speculative fiction – like The Handmaid’s Tale or some of Philip K. Dick’s novels). In an odd way, too, it reminded me of Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut, though Fawcett’s book isn’t written as fiction. An imaginative work written to make a point about society.  How about Candide?

The title would never have been coinable if it weren’t for the insights—but insights is not quite the right word.  Coupland describes something that’s right on the surface of ordinary life, but apparently, few (other than some philosophers like Marcuse) had noticed it as such.  Or maybe more to the point, he describes the absence of something—of a human depth that people took for granted, like air.

(I’m about to begin reading Generation A for my NDP book club.)

… a week later…

GS: Compared to Gen A, which I just finished, X is Emile fucking Zola. A is probably the most dreadful book I have ever read.

You will remember Generation A made The Writers’ Trust 2009 short list. Was this a nod to Coupland’s reputation rather than an acknowledgment of a good novel?

I asked Brian Fawcett if he had read Generation X: Sure. I read it shortly after it was published, mainly because he stuck it in my hand and asked me to. It has the best single anecdote about our cultural condition written in the last 40 years. It’s the one where the characters are sitting on their porch with their large dogs. They notice that the dogs have a gooey crust around their muzzles, and it dawns on them that the dogs have been rooting around in the garbage at a nearby liposuction clinic, and that what they’re looking at is human fat.

The rest of Coupland’s career has gone downhill from there, sort of.

Doug Coupland is not a novelist, and to judge his opus on those terms is unfair to him–or at least to his gifts. He’s a man with an unique talent for cultural analysis, and his ability to spot and identify telling cultural detail is unparallelled. That he’s used the novel as his primary format is a commercial decision, not an aesthetic one. I don’t think it’s what he should have done, because he’s not interested in character (all his characters are aspects of himself and his sensibility) or even human interaction. So to read him, you have to plow through a lot of second rate novelistic debris to get at what he really does well: spot and elucidate cultural tropes and tableaux. Since he’s mainly interested in popular culture, this has its limits, too.

I decided to listen to the 2010 Canada Reads episodes. Has Generation X had its day or can an argument be made to convince the whole country to read it? After Oprah has issued the Golden Ring of her book club hasn’t everyone who might read that over-rated novel, Fall on Your Knees, already done so?

Day 1:

The introduction states with pride that Canada Reads has a history of “turning winning books into bestsellers.” That’s a bit of a cheat when you consider this year’s books since three of the novels are already bestsellers. Jian Ghomeshi who hosts the show cites the sales numbers for the winner of the previous year, The Book of Negroes. Claiming these figures are a result of Canada Reads is a big fat lie because The Book of Negroes won the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize in 2007 and the Commonwealth prize in 2008 before the Canada Reads win in 2009. But there is no denying that Canada Reads sells books, particularly the one that wins.

I know it’s about good radio but isn’t it dishonest to say you are presenting the rules but not giving the full information. The pretence is that each juror picks one favourite book, while in fact they pick five each then CBC staff decide on the finalists. The CBC person who blogged for the week, in response to the argument that some of these books don’t need the attention, states “no one can control what a panelist chooses to put forward” but that is exactly what the CBC does by asking for a list of five then vetting the list without disclosure to the public. The CBC has actually bargained with publishers. A few years ago the CBC contacted a publisher about a book being considered for Canada Reads. The CBC wanted the publisher to reduce the price—at $40 CBC thought the book prohibitively expensive. The publisher refused to discount the book, but suggested another book by the same writer, smaller and retailing for under $20. In the end, that was the book that was championed. CBC has a whole list of things it expects from the publisher because they know a Canada Reads selection is a windfall. But if the publisher can’t or won’t comply, out goes the book.

After the cutesy introductions the panelists make a brief statement about their books. The level of critical assessment isn’t high: “I love this book.”. “Universal themes.” Only one panelist mentioned the quality of the writing. That pretty well set the tone for the whole week.

The cleverest approach came from Simi Sara who suggested the other books have had their day and the country should be reading something new. And when the longer discussions ensued it was evident that many of the panelists had indeed read one or more of Generation X, The Jade Peony or Fall on Your Knees years before.

One of the more interesting exchanges happened during the discussion of Nikolski. The attacking panelist found the book “thin,” wanted “more character development” and a more “complete story.” Michel, who was defending that novel, pointed out that the novelist wants the reader to work and gives the reader credit. Good one. Michel is a writer, critic and editor and clearly had ways of discussing books that the others lacked.

Generation X was accused of being difficult. No forward moving plot. Characters annoying. A cult classic that’s had its day and doesn’t stand up well all these years later. Its defender, Rollie, argued that it is intensely clever, that it doesn’t define one generation but speaks to all generations of disenfranchised people. He said he identified with the characters.

Generally I would say that the jurors are an easily impressed group who for the most part read novels as escape.

Oh, and they pretended that the panelists are all heading home to think and reflect on what has been said when they actually tape the whole series of 5 episodes in one day. How dumb do they think we are? Jeeze.

Day 2:

Again the episode begins by acknowledging the sales power of Canada Reads. Winning Canada Reads means thousands of sales for the winning book.

Much of the discussion hovers around what makes a book good. Novels should: teach us something, encompass our humanity, deal with contemporary issues, explore universal themes and lessons. Reading such books should “make our lives better” as well as being “recreational.”

Several times different panelists claim that Generation X and Fall on Your Knees are Classics of Canadian literature. Really? A ten-year old book is a classic?

Again Rollie argued that the characters in Generation X are well developed. Other jurors argued (as do George Stanley and Brian Fawcett above) that the book is not about the characters. They all agree that aesthically it’s different from the other four books but are divided on the big question, “Does it stand up?” I suspect it will be the first book to leave the island.

Day 3:

The third day starts with each juror telling the book they want axed. Three pick Generation X and off it goes. Jean wins. I guess that answers my question.

The discussion today focuses on which books portray the most vivid sense of place and time. Most jurors believe it is important to relate to the book and identify with the characters. Which book is the “Most Canadian”, what does that mean and does that matter. Other broad topics included the themes of class and social status, and the complexity and diversity of Canadian culture.

In other words, much time is spent on big, hard-to-nail-down topics and little time on real discussion about the books

Day 4

Two votes against Fall on Your Knees and the melodramatic overwrought book bites the dust. Interesting that in days of “discussion” the word “incest” isn’t mentioned once.

As usual Michel is the only one talking about style, structure, tone, etc.

Some panelists complain certain books are an effort to understand and that effort frustrates them. Michel responds that in Nikolski the reader must build the story, it’s not about an easy read.

Other objections: “I didn’t get to know the characters.” “Didn’t leave me full and satisfied.” “Good to a Fault is cliché and predictable.” “The Jade Peony is disjointed—it’s not a novel.” “I don’t want to do that much work when I’m reading a book.” “You don’t want to have to think when you read a book.”

Oh dear.

Day 5

Good to a Fault gets axed, so now it’s down to Nikolski and The Jade Peony.

Simi gets to be the tiebreaker and she sticks to her guns, as declared on day one. She insists Canada Reads should be about introducing new books. Good for Simi. She successfully manipulated the process to ensure a book that had not already “had its day” in the sun got to be the winner. Nikolski “wins.”

In the end Canada Reads did highlight a book that few, well few in English-speaking Canada, knew about or had read. I’m sure people will now search it out and read it—good things. But not because Canada Reads ran an honourable promotion.

1985 Booker Jury: Norman St John-Stevas, politician and in 1985 Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, a position which became highly controversial for his display of opulence. Nina Bawden, novelist and children’s writer. J W Lambert, literary and arts editor for the Sunday Times. Joanna Lumley, actress best know in 1985 for The New Avengers.  Marina Warner, writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of myths, symbols, and fairytales.

Short List: J L Carr: The Battle of Pollocks Crossing, Viking; Peter Carey: Illywhacker, Faber & Faber; Keri Hulme: The Bone People, Hodder & Stoughton; Doris Lessing: The Good Terrorist, Cape; Jan Morris: Last Letters from Hav, Viking; Iris Murdoch: The Good Apprentice, Chatto & Windus

J L Carr The Battle of Pollocks Crossing purchase

Published as Carr’s sixth novel, this was actually his first novel but it was turned down repeatedly and he was unable to get it published until 1985. Based on Carr’s personal experience in the US mid-west. It’s 1929. George Gidner, a Brit obsessed with the American wild west applies for a teaching job, and journeys to Palisades, South Dakota. The book jacket promises that the small town has “a scarcely suppressed air of violence.”

I thought I’d conduct a small experiment with this novel. I read it, set it aside for 3 weeks without making any notes. I approach different novels in different ways. Sometimes I make extensive notes as I read. Sometimes I actually start writing my report as I read. Regardless of my reading and note-taking approach I always write my report within 48 hours of finishing the book. Now, 3 weeks after finishing I can barely remember anything about this novel. Not even the details of the shoot-out that is the climax. One of the short-listed novels from 1969, Figures in a Landscape, is as vivid as when I read it, now almost two years ago. Draw your own conclusions.

Jan Morris Last Letters from Hav purchased

I had difficulty finding this novel because used bookstores file all books by Jan Morris under travel. The clever Morris in this book invents a city named Hav then creates a book as if she (um, he?) were writing a travel book. What a neat idea, eh? When it first came out Morris fans were inundating travel agents wanting cheap fares to Hav!

The history of Hav is dense and complicated. Over the centuries it has been ruled by Russians, Arabs, Chinese, Venetians and hosts of others nations. Likewise, the cast of people who travel through the city is a Who’s Who including Hitler, Hemingway, Chekov, Nijinsky, Marco Polo, Mark Twain, DH Lawrence, Freud. And, if you can believe it, the sex life of eels is discussed!

It certainly is a work of fiction, but is it a novel? It also challenges our sense of travel, and travel writing; when you read about a place, either in a travel guide or other book, are you actually experiencing that place? But mostly the book insists on reflection about the connection of the 20th century to other times, of one mid-planet city to the rest of the earth. A couple of years back Morris revisited Hav, and published the original novel with an epilogue, Hav now post-bombing and intent on the tourism industry. In the introduction to that new novel Morris writes, “Hav had seemed to me a little compendium of the world’s experience, historically, aesthetically, even perhaps spiritually.” She’s right, and that’s what makes this book an interesting read.

Peter Carey Illywhacker purchased

This is Carey’s take on The Great Australian novel, or the Australian version of Midnight’s Children. Through the complicated life of Herbert Badgery, a hundred and thirty-nine years old, “something of a celebrity and … a terrible liar” Carey explores Australian national history and the Australian inferiority complex; “we Australians are a timid people who have no faith in ourselves.” The demeaning results of British colonialism are responsible for a lot of books.

“The matter is obvious. The land is stolen. The whole country is stolen. The whole nation is based on a lie which is that it was not already occupied when the British came here. If it is anybody’s place it is the blacks’. Does it look like your place? Does it feel like your place? Can’t you see, even the trees have nothing to do with you.”

I had similar problems with this book as I had with Midnight’s Children. At 600 pages, it’s long and difficult to keep all the characters straight. Not that long in itself is a problem. Just ask Dickens. But when magic realism is added, this reader can get lost. Like MC I was swept up for the first 150 pages or so, most of book 1. In book 2 my interest came and went. Much of my reading of book 3 was fueled by determination, rather than real interest. Carey can write, that’s for sure. There are parts of the book that delight and shine. If you liked Midnight’s Children you should check out Illywhacker.

Hmm. I’ve just finished a big fat Carey and now I get to decide between a great bit fat Murdoch or a great big fat Lessing. What to do, what to do? George has just started reading Home Game by Paul Quarrington. It’s a fat novel at 412 pages with, as George points out, small type. “It’s going to take me forever to read this book,” he complains, with a big grin on his face. Lucky guy.

Iris Murdoch The Good Apprentice purchased

Guest review by Robert Priest

This is a book that began very well. It’s one of those tales where the protagonist makes a terrible mistake that results in the death of a friend. It’s written on the dust jacket so I’m not spoiling anything if I tell you that his crime was in secretly administering LSD to his best friend who had thus far decried its use and refused to use it. Unfortunately, for the call of sex in a nearby house, he leaves his friend asleep on the couch and when he returns an hour or two later his friend has stepped out of the window and killed himself having seen God as an elevator. All of this is gripping and the roiling of the conscience in the main character is believable. In fact for the first 20 or 30 pages I was thinking that Murdoch’s ability to explore the emotional terrain was finely honed and deftly appropriate to the theme and plot structure.

Unfortunately the book quickly goes awry. Unless a story is about coincidences my rule is you get one major coincidence. This book , when it is not wallowing in the sappy morass of the protagonist’s and everybody else’s finally exposed feelings, requires far too many coincidences to bring the various characters into each other’s presences for crucial exchanges. It also has a quite dated tone that might have delighted Victorian readers but to me quickly became nauseatingly melodramatic. Even if it had only gone on for 120 pages I would not have made it past the first hundred on several of the scores cited above. But this book is massive. It goes on and on and the characters say “Oh Jesse, I do so love you…” or “Oh Jesse I do want so badly to…” etc.. I like emotion more than many modern readers but my gag reflex was sorely tried by this overrated work out.

Doris Lessing The Good Terrorist purchased

Guest report from Rex Weyler:

Doris Lessing defies definition, a quality I admire in an artist. Is she a fantasy writer? A political commentator? A feminist? Perhaps, but in The Good Terrorist, she emerges as a matter-of-fact realist. She does not exalt the female characters or the politically correct. Rather, she bears witness to young 1980s radicals responding to decadent bourgeois society, occasionally getting it right, more often botching it horribly, and all the while revealing well-intentioned but insecure and wounded psyches.

I found this book painful because it so thoroughly exposes the contradictions of 1970s and 1980s self-styled revolutionaries, raised in privileged homes and infused with bourgeois values, attempting to set society right. As far as I experienced it in those days, Lessing nails the incongruity.

She sets the tale in a London squat house, in the early 1980s. Alice Mellings, 37, the anti-heroine, serves as surrogate den-mother to jobless idealists in the “Communist Centre Union” commune. She cleans, cooks, keeps authorities at bay, steals money from her parents to support lazy misfits, and then suffers isolation when the hard-core radicals exclude her from serious political planning. Meanwhile, Alice’s dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship with the younger, homosexual Jasper Willis provides scant comfort. No one, including Alice, appears to possess much self-awareness.

Lessing doesn’t excuse the presumptions and callousness of the status quo, even as she exposes the ineptitude of the radicals. Their cause has merit, but they do not possess the discernment or skills to achieve, or even articulate, their goals. Their meetings begin late, ramble, founder on jealousies, suffer from unspoken hostility, and dissolve abruptly without clear plans of action. I’ve been in such meetings, and Lessing’s portrayal scores a bulls-eye.

The book is not a political statement, but rather a psychological portrayal of self-appointed revolutionaries from affluent backgrounds. Lessing draws the portrayals from the history of this time, depicting the sort of amateur radicals, who likely orchestrated the 1983 Harrods department store bombing in London. The militants snub the new Greenpeace ecology crowd as bourgeois softies, precisely as Greenpeace was received at that time by diehard insurrectionists.

The tortured relationship between Alice and her divorced mother, Dorothy, provides the most emotionally poignant and morbidly humorous scenes. We witness the normally rational, capable Alice descend into spiteful nit-picking with the woman who raised her. We learn from Dorothy that she lost her home and now lives in a depressing flat because she supported Alice and Jasper for four years. Alice never quite gets it and rails against her mother for abandoning her social conscience. Dorothy coolly replies, “You spend your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge.”

And Dorothy is correct. Alice returns to the commune and promptly adopts her mother’s thankless service to others, gets taken for granted, suffers the selfishness of her own “children,” the witless revolutionaries.

After a final act of pointless violence, Lessing doesn’t describe what happens to Alice and the others, but we can figure it out from observing history. They will disperse. Most will conform and find a place in society. The stubborn ones will burn out and live with resentment. Others will simply fade away.

Lessing is not unacquainted with effective agents of social change – people such as Gandhi or Rosa Parks – and she knows that genuine radicals can change society, but in this narrative, she abandons advocacy to simply demonstrate how common human frailty and self-deception can undermine the best of intentions.

I asked Rex to read the book and do a guest report because, as a founder of Greenpeace, he “was there” and knew this scene. I had already read the novel before Rex and I talked about it, and for the most part agree with his detailed and insightful reading. Well, to be absolutely fair, Rex’s reading really informed my opinion and made me think more kindly of the novel (that’s why juries need to discuss the books—sharing opinions does inform on your own reading, others spot things you may have missed).

The book confused me rather. Much of the writing is dull and trudging, deliberately so one assumes from a writer of such caliber—dull writing to match the lackluster lives. There is too much coincidence—see Robert Priest’s complaint above. Alice can’t see past the end of her nose, can’t see through the manipulative and self-destructive Jasper whom she adores, and frequently forgets things but we are supposed to accept that she has “insight” and can tell details of the lives of others just by looking at them. Alice has an explosive temper and can rant like a two-year old. There is nothing compelling about her, or any of the other characters. At one time Lessing was member of the Communist Party until she became disillusioned. Perhaps this is her explanation, or revenge.

Keri Hulme-The Bone Peoplepurchased WINNER

Guest report by Leslie McBain

Upon a second reading of The Bone People by Keri Hulme, I am less taken, more critical, and yet more admiring of this novel and its author. I read this novel in 1985. It was shocking, unique and compelling in style and form, it had a hippy culture drift and was as visual as an acid trip.

The Bone People has, at its core, the twining specters of child abuse, and addiction. The subtext is family dysfunction, overpowering love born of need, and the Maori need for a defined national identity after the now familiar legacy of colonialism.

The almost eponymous Kerewin Holmes, the part Maori protagonist, is an eccentric artist with genius and piles of money from a lottery win. She builds a tower-like house reminiscent of a nautilus shell in a remote area on the coast of New Zealand. She is visited by a small Caucasian boy called Himi who can’t speak and will steal valued objects. The boy’s adoptive widowed father, Joe is a hard drinking, hard working, flawed yet spiritual Maori. He regularly brutalizes the child, who has already suffered an abusive past—a mysterious boat capsizing in which his abusive and apparently drug-running, parents disappear. The story follows the meeting up and entwining of Kerewin, Himi, and Joe.

Archetypal myths abound; the outcomes of situations are often predictable. Kerewin Holmes is brilliant and artistic, learned and humorous, strong yet vulnerable. The lottery win which has occurred before the novel opens, seems contrived and fortuitous; I kept searching for a symbolic meaning for this but was unable to link it to anything. It mainly removes all obstacles which would ordinarily render the lives of these folks much less colourful and adventuresome.

The style in which the novel is written defies categorization. It jumps around in voice, point of view, tense, dream and reality. It is intensely poetic. There are events which are explored in the characters’ minds without the reader ever getting the whole scoop.

But Keri Hulme is a writer who is comfortable in taking risks with her craft, which serve style and content, and inform and engage the reader. The tension is mostly well maintained and the characters are complex and well developed.

Because child abuse is arguably one of the hottest of hot buttons for us, it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary for us to detach from the subject to review the novel. I was horrified by the acceptance of child abuse by the central characters. There was concern among the all characters in the novel but the horrific abuse was allowed to continue through the dynamic of honor in the extended family. There are images of abuse of the small adopted child, Himi, which have burned in my memory for these twenty-five years. On the second read, they are as powerful and disturbing as ever.

On the down side, the dialogue, the monologues are often a slog of detail, slang, and self-serving reflection. The shifting of time and perspectives is often confusing and tiresome. The last quarter of the book seems almost to be written by someone else. Though we are following Joe’s vision quest the voice is very different and, for me, disconcerting.

There is finally mending and redemption. I was glad to come to the end of the novel, I did not want the story to continue; I was feeling tired and annoyed by the compelling need to stick with the novel. I was wishing the editor had taken a more aggressive role.

In the final analysis, The Bone People has moved me, changed me, informed me and amazed me in both readings. I have talked to other readers who think the same. The novel is not perfect but what it lacks in restraint and order, it makes up for in imagination, and passion. Twenty-five years later, as a more jaded reader, I am not entranced with the novel, but still consider it a strong literary work. It was worthy of the Booker Prize in 1985.

Found online:

Here in New Zealand, there is a joke that the only people who read The Bone People today are students tackling it as a set text, German tourists or Booker Prize completists. It caused a bit of a stir when it was published, and in the early 80s (people were clearly enchanted by the story behind the novel’s publication, which did sort of fit the whole “kiwi battler surviving the odds” cultural narrative) it was THE book to be seen reading. And then it won the Booker.

People have hailed Hulme’s refusal to succumb to editorial pressures as an individual artist’s heroic stand against the vagaries of publishing, but, in the case of The Bone People at least, a good editor may have helped streamline the book into a more unified piece of work. To me, Hulme’s inflexibility smacks of preciousness (a preciousness communicated in her wince-inducing preface, “embalm in perspex” mention and all) rather than a bid for artistic integrity.

I agree with Leslie, for the most part. The novel does have power, but much of it is also a mess. And as a result, it is often merely irritating. A good editor would have made a difference (we aren’t there yet, but Yann Martel’s million-selling Life of Pi underwent a major rewrite by its British publisher—in other words the original Canadian edition which received little recognition when published is a vastly different novel than the UK version that won the Booker).

Should deeply flawed books win prizes?

1985 Marina Warner from The Guardian

Norman St John Stevas was our chair, and early on that summer he picked out a number of books which he recommended his panel to read. Among them was a surprise, a bulky novel called The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Alongside the many gleamingly designed offerings from the major publishing houses, it had the distinction of being published by a women’s cooperative in New Zealand, who, when the book won the prize against very high odds, came up in full island dress to collect it, chanting a Maori praise song.

Feelings in the final meeting – and afterwards – ran very high about this novel, but St John Stevas unexpectedly championed it throughout. Nina Bawden opposed it very strongly on the grounds of its violence (the novel tells a terrifying story of child-beatings), and wrote later publicly to distance herself from the decision. Nina found herself significantly outnumbered in her opposition, because Joanna Lumley didn’t attend the final judging. She sent a message to say she was in rehearsal and that her nominated winner was Doris Lessing, for The Good Terrorist. When she heard The Bone People had won, she too dissociated herself from the judgment. JW Lambert and I supported the book.

I think that the best argument for the whole cruel and unfair business of prizes is that they can lead readers to writers who wouldn’t otherwise be read much or perhaps at all. I didn’t think Lessing needed the prize (and she would agree) and certainly not for a novel that is not her best (though it’s a feature of prizes that authors often win for their weakest works).

According to Booker rules the chair is supposed to be neutral and can only cast a vote in the event of a tie. From Warner’s remarks it appears that not only did Stevas champion the novel he wanted to win, he directed the other jurors from the beginning.

Whether Lessing “needed” the prize should be irrelevant. Whether the Lessing novel is her best should also be irrelevant. The task of the jury is to decide whether the Lessing book is the best of this particular bunch, whatever that means.

6194 words January 18, 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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