By Jean Baird | February 1, 2011

Over the past several years I’ve observed George participate on several juries. Some have been good experiences for him, and resulted in top-notch winners. It was fun to see those two octogenarians—Robin Blaser and John Ashbury—ascend the stage at the Griffins. As the lone juror (when there is only one person on a jury you know it isn’t a compromise choice) of the Saskatchewan novel award George was pleased to give the prize to Gloria Sawai for A Song for Nettie Johnson, which went on to win the GG fiction prize.

He’s had other experiences that weren’t so favourable. One poetry prize had just 7 books entered, or that qualified for the prize. The administrating body wanted a short-list of 6. Huh? In that instance the jury had a clear winner and the debate, such as it was, was over the short list. But in another poetry situation—this time a contest—George and his fellow juror plowed through the 25 entries and didn’t find any they thought merited a prize. This particular competition had pre-readers so the jury asked to see the removed 75 poems, wondering if something interestingly experimental or overly difficult might have been tossed at the first stage. Nope. In the end, after an enormous amount of time and careful discussion a winner and two short-listed poems were decided on. Encouraging young/emerging writers is a general waste of time, resources and money?

I think there are too many small prizes and niche prizes, some of which are focused on ethnicity or geography, or on age or genre. One of the oldest and most prestigious is the Stephen Leacock award for humour. There are also lifetime achievement awards—the Molson, Matt Cohen, and B.C.’s George Woodcock Prize. There are prizes for children’s books, the  most prestigious of which is the Vicky Metcalf. Geographic prizes include those for provinces—Ontario, BC, SK, Alberta—cities, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa. There is the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, for best first collection of short fiction. And so on, and so forth.

While I’m suggesting above that some of these smaller prizes have little if any relevance and/or impact (except for the pleasure of being the winner) and could be lost or reconfigured—the prize with only 7 entries, for instance, might better be a biannual—even the prizes with hundreds of entries get challenged. Following are some excerpts from “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” an essay by William H. Gass in Finding a Form. Gass says that being awarded the Pulitzer is “nightmarish.” He explains it thus: “Because the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill—not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley…Any award-giving outfit, whether it is the National Book Critics Circle or PEN, with its Faulkner Award, is doomed by its cumbersome committee structure to make mistakes, to pass the masters by in silence and applaud the apprentices, the mimics, the hacks, or to honour one of those agile surfers who ride every fresh wave.”

Gass acknowledges the power of a jury. “Some judges, some juries, abide by their names and treat each work before them as someone accused of a crime.”

(One day when I was listening to Canada Reads, I noticed George, across the table, cringing. “Imagine,” he said, “having to listen to someone talk that way about your book.” Perhaps that’s why most writers with nominated books don’t listen. But come to think of it, I rarely listen to the CBC these days either, and when I do catch it in the car, far too often Jian Gomeshi is interviewing some US pop celebrity. Things have come to that.)

Gass continues, “…the fact is that good taste and sensible judgment are rare, and excellence itself is threatening, innovation an outrage. On the other hand, one must be most weary of the jurors who boast that only literary quality guides their selections, because the phrase ‘literary quality’ is a conservative code word these days that means ‘I wouldn’t toss a dime into an ethnic’s hat.’ And ‘experimental’ can be more frankly replaced by ‘self-indulgent and inept’ so often as to cause one to despair of the word. In the face of all these frailties, then, is it any wonder that awards go awry?” Remember it was the Pulitzer that overlooked Absalom, Absalom! in favour of Gone with the Wind.

By comparison, how accurate have Canadian juries been at spotting the best fiction writers? Let’s have a look at winners of two or more GGs.

(Three writers, incidentally, have won the GG for both fiction and poetry, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje. Atwood won the GG in 1985 for The Handmaid’s Tale so she doesn’t make the cut. Bowering won with Burning Water. So from that group of three only one goes on the list: Timothy Findley won two GGs, but one was for drama “Elizabeth Rex” so he doesn’t make the list, either. His one fiction win was 1977 for The Wars. David Adams Richards has two, but one is for non-fiction so out he goes. Same for Laura G. Salverson. ) Ondaatje has won the GG five times, twice for poetry so that gives him three fiction wins. Like Ondaatje, Hugh MacLennan won the GG five times, twice for non-fiction so he also has three fiction wins.

So here, ladies and gentlemen, are the best fiction writers in Canada, as measured by multiple GG wins:

Margaret Laurence

1966, A Jest of God

1974, The Diviners

Hugh MacLennan

1945, Two Solitudes

1948, The Precipice

1959, The Watch That Ends the Night

Brian Moore

1960, The Luck of Ginger Coffey

1975, The Great Victorian Collection

Alice Munroe

1968, Dance of the Happy Shades

1978, Who Do You Think You Are?

1986, The Progress of Love

Michael Ondaatje

1992, The English Patient

2000, Anil’s Ghost

2007, Divisadero

Nino Ricci

1990, Lives of Saints

2008, The Origin of Species

Mordecai Richler

1968, Cocksure

1971, St. Urbain’s Horseman

Guy Vanderhaeghe

1982, Man Descending

1996, The Englishman’s Boy

David Walker

1952, The Pillar

1953, Digby

Rudy Wiebe

1973, The Temptations of Big Bear

1994, The Discovery of Strangers

Three of these multiple winners have also won the Giller—Ondaatje, 2000, for  Anil’s Ghost; Richler, 1997, Barney’s Version; Munroe 1998, The Love of a Good Woman and 2006, Runaway.

Are these really the top Canadian writers? Or, rather, who’s missing, and which books are missing?

The short-lists for the 2010 BC Book prizes were announced recently. I know jurors on three of the juries. I didn’t ask which books they had selected but I did ask if they knew which book would be the winner. No, they said. They did not. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this system was put in place to reduce the likelihood of one juror overpower the others. It is interesting that when I speak to jurors from various prizes the same problems are frequently mentioned: jurors who haven’t read all or very many of the books, jurors with agendas to get certain writers on the short list or to keep certain writers off the list, and jurors who dominate the discussion and/or unfairly manipulate the decision-making. Is there a way to reduce such pushiness without resorting to a system where jury members don’t talk at all? Reports I’ve gotten from disgruntled jurors and administrators indicate that a staged decision-making process would help—a process that allows for discussion, reflection, and then more discussion, as with the Bookers. With such a system if a juror is pushing, other jurors can regroup, review the book, develop arguments to show that another book is a better choice.

One thing I do like about the way the BC Book prizes have developed is the tour that happens prior to the announcements. Short-listed writers tour libraries, schools and other venues throughout the province. This is a grassroots version of the glitz and always-sold-out reading that happens with Griffin Prize short-listed poets. But why I really like the BC format is that it gets the writers out of the Lower Mainland, taking them to the Interior and other places where readers would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet and hear these writers. This aspect, at least a bit, helps to take the emphasis off the winner and put more focus on all the books.

1986 Jury: Anthony Thwaite, writer, poet, broadcaster, critic, reviewer, academic, BBC producer, literary editor of The Listener, literary editor of the New Statesman (also with Andrew Motion, literary executor of the estate of Philip Larkin). Edna Healey, well actually, Lady Healey, wife of Denis Healey, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer. Isabel Quigley, writer, translator and film critic for the Spectator. Gillian Reynolds, radio critic, journalist and broadcaster. Bernice Rubens, the 1970 Booker winner.

Books Nominated: Paul Bailey Gabriel’s Lament; Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro An Artist of the Floating World; Timothy Mo An Insular Possession; Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone;

Paul Bailey Gabriel’s Lament VPL

Category: Dysfunctional families, or British eccentricity

Gabriel’s elderly father comes into unexpected money, becomes a pretentious snob and Gabriel’s young mother abandons both husband and son. Gabriel yearns for his mother while trying to survive an upbringing with a lecturing, demanding father. There is a mystery to the book that keeps you reading, and its resolution very near the end forces a reconsideration of everything that has gone before, but this is not the best of Bailey. Not by a long shot.

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale already own it (that’s a first!)

I read this novel years ago. As then, it remains immensely readable. As then, I was annoyed by its ending. Atwood’s vision is so complex that the novel seems too short to fully explore it. But how interesting to reread it now, post 9/11, in the midst of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and growing fundamentalism in the US. In this novel full of religious wars the catastrophe that collapses the USA government is blamed on Muslim terrorists. Yikes.

I finished the novel in the midst of Olympic fever in Vancouver, City of Fences. We allowed our city to be turned into a police state, the policies of public libraries to be set by corporations, and the entire visible advertising of the community to be controlled by VANOC and its sponsors. Brad Cran, poet laureate of Vancouver, refused to sign the gag order—a sane voice in the wilderness.

Kazuo Ishiguro An Artist of the Floating World VPL

Masuji Ono is an elderly artist, once of some prominence but now out of favour, who is trying to find his way in the post-war world. Morals and customs have shifted. One of his daughters had a marriage negotiation fail the year before and we slowly realize it was the reputation and war actions of the father that ruined the match. He used his art for Imperialist Japan propaganda. Ono seals the next negotiation by confessing to the misdeeds, as such activity is now viewed, to his prospective in-laws.

Somewhere in Joseph Campbell he talks about Japan as a society without the notion of original sin, and how the lack of that weight makes Japan a very different culture from those in the West. That may well be, but this novel illustrates how honour, obedience and duty in Japanese culture replaces such guilt.

The book is structured in sections, each dated. This allows the character of Ono to look back, reflect, and alter his opinion. And for the reader to re-evaluate as well. The novel explores the nature (and accuracy) of memory and how the present makes us continually revise the past.

One of the themes is the relationship of the artist to his work, and to society. At a recent writers’ festival on Galiano Island this topic was discussed at some length, in part because the “poem” that was performed by Shane Koyczan at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics was actually commissioned and paid for by Canadian Tourism. Do we want our poets writing tourism brochures? It is one thing for artists to be supported and nurtured by government funding and quite another for the state to dictate content. Ono gets caught and the novel works to restore equilibrium, and show how the country of Japan is attempting the same transformation in the post-surrender years.

Timothy Mo An Insular Possession UBC

593 pages. Two font sizes, one very small. When prize jurors open boxes and something like this tumbles out their hearts must crumble. Plus the end covers are maps, United East India Company 1810, covering the extended territory around Hong Kong. Old maps make me nervous. I feel an epic coming on.

I hate a book that’s too big to read in the bathtub. George is reading “Much Ado about Nothing” and has been hauling around my Collected Works of Shakespeare, my textbook from grad school. This novel is the same size.

I’m 200 pages in and not liking it. Category: Brits Abroad. This time Macao and the time leading up to the opium wars. The first chapter is a long elegiac description of the river that flows through the land, “the highway of commerce.” Yeah, yeah, homage to Conrad. Mo strings together various types of text or created artifacts—newspaper articles, personal letters, diary entries—and you get the sense that he can’t throw away one scrap of research. He is imitating the writing style of the time, so it’s like reading a rusty, very early Victorian novel. Mo also has a tendency, particularly in the first 100 pages to use a difficult word when a simpler word would do the job. That showoffiness is off-putting.

Yes, I understand the form challenges the nature of recorded and recollected history. If that isn’t already clear, Mo draws a line under the challenge by having two of the main characters start their own newspaper, a challenge and contrast to the existing Canton Monitor. As an experiment, and comment, it’s interesting. But the resulting novel is unwieldy. The structure keeps the reader at a distance. I have no curiousity about what happens and doubt if the writing or structure will change and draw me in.

I’ve now struggled my way through to page 330, chapter twenty-seven. I am so fed up with the heavy, burdened language. Meanwhile George has started reading Smollet. How mean is that? Laudanum might help, and would fit the period.

At page 375 with hundreds of pages to go, I am no longer a careful reader. I am skimming rather than reading, something I’m sure many prize jurors resort to. This is a book with a mission—to turn our notion of recorded history on its head. It’s clever, but for such a long book it leaves an awful lot unsaid. Timothy Mo’s earlier appearance on the Booker short-list challenged our notions of Asian culture. This book completely ignores that issue. All the Asians are minor players and caricatures.

Typical sentence: “The long-dead controversy over the Chinese Rites has an unhealthy hold over Father Ribeiro’s mind, for the antique polemics between the Catholic Orders long ago ended in a reversal for the Jesuits and the end of their supple accommodation with forebear-worship and Confucius, which, quite against the overwhelming evidence of their own eyes, as they joined their converts in sacrificing and pray to the ancestral tablets, they regarded as not worship at all!

Much of the last half of the book is description of skirmishes, on land and at sea. I found those as plodding as I usually find such war novels.

From Publisher’s Weekly: All manner of arcane information, correspondence, news clippings, characters and events are knit together by chronology alone, in an apparently deliberate attempt to recreate the tenor of those times. Possibly more attuned to British readers the book informs rather than excites and seems to echo one character’s view of the world: “It is untidy, there are no reasons, the final sum never balances.”

It didn’t excite me, that’s for sure, though I did manage to skim my way through to the end.

Robertson Davies—What’s Bred in the Bone VPL

Another honking Victorian novel. Category: Canadian Gothic

I thought I’d read this one before. For sure I read the Deptford trilogy. But by page 200 nothing is familiar. Well, that’s not true—once you’ve read one Davies novel pretty well everything in the others is familiar. It’s Ontario seen through a very specific lens, harkening back, longing for the morals and rules of a previous time. This one has all the usual Davies issues—nature/nurture, art versus nature, piety versus lust. The novel is the story of the life of Francis Cornish, a painter, spy and arts patron. The plot is contrived. There is the usual Davies mysticism (though that isn’t quite the right word), here the duo of Daimon Maimas and the Angel Lesser Zadkiel, who have helped shape the life of Francis and act as a chorus for the story of his life. And, too, the Magus-like character that seems to be in all of Davies fiction, a bit heavy-handed and, it seems to me, just variations of how Davies probably saw himself—the all-wise teacher/mentor. There are times in the novel when that role becomes The Voice from Above, which somehow fits the tone of the novel: ponderous and pretentious.

But the prose does flow and the novel is eminently readable.

From NYT Review of Books:

Mr. Davies’s reliance on many of the conventions of the 19th-century novel, on an intricate series of literary and artistic allusions and most centrally on the symbolism and patterns of the Arthurian Grail legend and the biblical story of Jesus and Mary is based on a desire to find a system of interpretation he can share with his readers. Cornish and his creator both seek a means not simply to give artistic expression to life’s pain, mystery and beauty, but to offer a means of interpreting them. And both suspect their belief that ”art is a way of telling the truth” has been eroded by a world view dominated by skepticism and despair and the contemporary artistic emphasis on ambiguity, subjectivity, free play and art for art’s sake.

But is our age really so devoid of potent symbols, patterns, terminology and systems of interpretation? There are dozens of such possibilities available to contemporary writers – those of science (dismissed here because it has only ”a miserable vocabulary” and a ”pallid pack of images to offer us”), medicine, economics, computer systems, various musical forms. It may be lamentable that many people today are more familiar with the symbols of the film ”Star Wars” than with those of ”Morte d’Arthur,” that the big bang, entropy and black holes grip our imaginations more fully than biblical creation myths or the Devil or that Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics about fast cars, urban jungles and the promise of the open road speak to some more urgently about their longings and disappointments than classical poetry. But to ignore the emergence of contemporary myths and symbols, or to deny their power to move people and help them interpret their existence, is to risk being out of touch with one’s age.

At one point in What’s Bred in the Bone, Cornish is exhorted to ”Wake Up! Be Yourself, not a bad copy of something else.” The novel is certainly not a ”bad copy” of anything; its intricate conception and intelligence are impressive on their own terms. But those terms also prevent the book from being the original it might have been.

I would argue that the Star Wars movies also depended heavily on the grail myth, and other hero myths—Joseph Campbell was seriously involved in establishing those patterns for the movies. But I fully agree that Davies is out of step with his age. Atwood won the GG with The Handmaid’s Tale. What’s Bred in the Bone didn’t receive a nod; it wasn’t even on the short-list.

Kingsley Amis—The Old Devils VPL WINNER

Alun Weaver is a writer, poet, broadcaster and “up-market media Welshman” whose career and life have been conducted in the shadow of the deceased but brilliant Brydan (thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). Alun and his wife Rhiannon return to their native South Wales to retire. The novel focuses on the relationships of this couple, and three other couples from their hometown. Basically the eight are busy drinking their way through their elderly years.

The story explores the impact on the close friends when the obnoxious and promiscuous Alun comes home. This novel has been described as “sweet” and the word is accurate. Past sins are forgiven, if not always forgotten. Partners learn to love and cherish their mates with all their flaws. And in the end, love conquers all. What? Kingsley Amis and sweet don’t go in the same sentence. What did I miss?

“Not many people unacquainted with Wales or the Welsh would have found it the easiest thing in the world to reconcile Dorothy as she would be later with Dorothy as she behaved now, when the tea-things were removed for the second time and a bottle of white Rioja was brought from the kitchen.”

Dorothy is a drunk, but I’ve cited this passage because of the Welsh reference, and I think that is what I’ve missed. Apparently, knowing Wales will make you understand and treasure this book. I read somewhere that Martin Amis said The Old Devils is the novel his father will be remembered by. No way, this is no Lucky Jim.

From The Guardian 1986 Anthony Thwaite

My chairing of the 1986 judges was marred, or enlivened, by several scandals or leaks or items of gossip. I was said (wrongly) to have lectured my fellow judges on “how to read a novel”. I unwisely wrote to Julian Barnes to commiserate with him about his non-appearance on the shortlist: I was quoted as blaming it on “all those women” (my four fellow judges were Edna Healey, Isabel Quigly, Gillian Reynolds and Bernice Rubens).

It was a splendid shortlist: Kingsley Amis, Margaret Atwood, Paul Bailey, Robertson Davies, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo. We were still going to and fro up until 10 minutes before the press announcement had to be made: two strongly for Amis, two equally strongly for Davies (What’s Bred in the Bone), and a wobbler in the middle. At the last moment the wobbler came down on the side of The Old Devils, and Amis had won. A very satisfactory result, I thought.

3800 w. February 1st, 2011


  • 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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