By Jean Baird | October 20, 2011



I bought a bunch of Booker nominated books for a recent trip so I wouldn’t be hauling library books. The other day I took a bunch of them to a used book store, along with some other things George is thinning from his library. They didn’t want any of them. The owner explained that just because a book is nominated for the Booker Prize,  or wins, doesn’t mean that once the dust settles anyone wants to read it.




How much does it cost to administer prizes, and are the costs any of our business? It’s always interesting to know how these budget items line up, money to writers versus the expenses involved to run the award. As noted previously in the James English book, sometimes the expenses involved seem steep compared to the dollars that go to prizewinners.


In Canada, in the instance of the Griffin, for example, I would suggest that since the Griffin Foundation, funded by Scott Griffin, pays the entire amount that the only responsibility is to the board of directors. If Scott wants to throw the best party in town, then why not? And apparently he does—late in the evening at the 2006 awards I was sitting beside John Ashbery. According to English, Ashbery has won more literary awards than any other writer. Ashbery was gently shaking his head. He said he had been fortunate in his life to win many awards and attend many celebrations but he’d “never seen anything like this.” The painter John Boyle was also there that night, “You never see anything like this for the visual arts,” he lamented. So good on Scott Griffin for making poetry a first-rate event in this country, second to none.


I asked the Canada Council for budgets for the past few years related to the Governor General’s Literary Award which the CC administers. I am in full support of national arts awards, but it is public money so I’d hate to see an 80% administration expense. Here are the numbers for 2009-10:


Program Grants/prizes                                    448,000.00

Program services—Assessors (peers)                        203,399.89

Prize presentation                                             99,257.13

Professional service fees                                   59,748.64

Staff travel costs                                                    204.52

Professional service contracts                                420.08

Postage and distribution                                   10,919.66

Courier                                                                2,301.26

Catering on premises                                             126.75

Other meeting costs                                               158.93

Printing supplies                                                      24.31

Salary expense                                                259,107.52


Total                                                            1,083,668.69


Some clarifications on these numbers:


Program Grants is the money given to writers and includes no other travel or accommodation expenses.


Program services includes all expenses related to juries including accommodation, transportation, etc. I asked for a breakdown. The amount paid to jury members is $158,873.


Professional services fees are for publicists. All printing costs for posters and bookmarks are identified under Prize Presentation. The CC are now putting more emphasis on web promotion so both printing expenses and distribution costs are declining.


The salary line does not include Rideau Hall staff, or the Rideau Hall related expenses.


To be as fair as possible in the ration of administration expenses to money paid to artist, I’ll include the fee paid to the bookbinder that for 2009 was $19,182.


So for 2009 the total paid to writers (winners), writers (peer jury) and artists (bookbinder) was $626,055 or near 58% of the budget. Keep in mind that does not include Rideau Hall expenses.


The prize program at The Writers’ Trust is streamlined. Emphasis is placed on treating writers well, but the celebration does not stack up with the GG winners’ trip to Rideau Hall or the lavish party of the Griffins, nor should it.


In 2008-2009 The Writers’ Trust gave $449,304 directly to 99 writers. That includes workshops, lectures, the Woodcock Fund and all the other programs. Here’s the budget for the nine prizes:


Prize to winners                      159,000

Finalists                                    34,200

Juries                                         60,150

Travel                                        30,000

Office costs                                 6,177

Promotional Costs                    38,942

Staff costs                                 69,624


Total costs                              $398,093


The Trust receives $224,900 in direct sponsorship support for the awards and prize programs. The budget doesn’t include overhead like rent, photocopier etc. But neither does the GG budget. After direct sponsorship revenue is counted the rest of the money for these prizes comes from other fundraising, primarily the Writers’ Trust Gala in Toronto and the Politics and the Pen dinner in Ottawa.


But the financial sponsors often contribute in other ways that are not reflected in the budget. Rogers Communications through its publications arm gives the Trust in-kind advertising in Macleans Magazine specifically for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  This is worth about $45,000 for the full-page ad.


Walrus Magazine contributes about $50,000 of in-kind advertising support for the awards. The Globe and Mail also provides in-kind support for the awards both in print and on-line.  The value is about $75,000. The Trust gets discounted hotel rooms for writers travelling from outside Toronto and this varies each year but is equivalent to about $600 on average. The organization is trying to get airline sponsorship. It also gets some small discounts on beer, wine and food for the Writers’ Trust Awards event but the amounts are negligible.


The total to writers is $253,350 or about 64% of the total budget.




1990 Jury: Sir Denis Forman, was Director and later Chair of The British Film Institute, Chairman and Managing Director of Granada Television, and also for nine years the deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in London. Susannah Clapp, editor, theatre reviewer and one of the founders of the London Review of Books. A Walton Litz, US literary historian and critic, and Rhodes scholar. Hilary Mantel, writer and winner in 2008. Kate Saunders, British author, actress and journalist.


Beryl Bainbridge—An Awfully Big Adventure VPL


Unlike the main female characters of Bainbridge’s previous Booker short-listed novels Stella isn’t feckless. Disaster follows her, but she’s full of feck. Stella is 16, an abandoned child being reared by her aunt and uncle. The local Liverpool theatre company has agreed to take her on as assistant stage manager. The novel is so tightly written it will make your head spin. I’ve already given away too much information. It is fast, focused and sharp. The atmosphere is tense from the first two pages. Bainbridge has huge confidence in her reader. You get the sense that she threw 90% in the trash and kept only those elements that were vital. Pay attention. Don’t blink.


Attraction, love, and betrayal explored through the staging of Caesar and Cleopatra and Peter Pan. And that is the intrigue of Stella, like the lost boys, stuck somewhere through no actions of her own. It’s a short novel, 193 pages. When I finished I shook my head, muttered “what just happened?” and immediately read the first 40 pages again. Plus I want to find Peter Pan and read it again. Every theatre and book reference links, and pulls—well, the ones you catch do.


John McGahern—Amongst Women VPL


Someone online calls William Trevor and his gang “potato laureates.” Yes, this is another lament for Ireland. Michael Moran is the foul-tempered father who rules his house with iron will. An ex-IRA man, he is disgruntled by what has become of Ireland, the country he fought for. He remembers his IRA days, “the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again.” Moran is easily enraged by anything—“an air of friendliness” or things seeming too much at ease.


His second wife, Rose, tip toes around his moods, as do the rest of the family, except for the oldest son, who has escaped to London. Moran is a tyrant with his family, and the women allow him to continue. Regardless of the severity of his verbal (or sometimes to the boys, physical) abuse, they make excuses for him, “Daddy didn’t mean anything.”


The only good thing about Moran is his rugged goods looks and the fact that he doesn’t drink. The moral: live in the present and learn to forgive.


Penelope Fitzgerald—The Gate of Angels VPL


Another tightly written little gem from Fitzgerald. Pre-war Cambridge, a young scientist in an all-male college literally falls for an young woman not of the “marriageable class”—their bicycles collide and they end up in bed together since the woman who rescues them assumes they are man and wife. The book considers many tensions of the changing times including the suffrage movement, class discrimination, superstitions, legal systems, medical assumptions including attitudes toward mental illness, religion, etc. As I’ve said before about Fitzgerald, the book sweeps you quickly along and it’s only on reflection that the complexity really hits.


Brian Moore—Lies of Silence VPL


The writing style of Moore to provide background information about the characters seems very contrived, particularly following on the minimalist clarity of Fitzgerald. This is a thriller set in Belfast, complete with IRA hostage taking and bombs. The thriller style pulls you along, creates tension and does make the book difficult to put down. But the characterizations are simple or cliché. It’s a rip-roaring good read but great literature it ain’t. It helps if you can ignore the Irish sentimentality and melodrama. It gives the pretence of thoughtful examination of the issues but it doesn’t get beyond the shallow.


Michael Dillon runs a hotel in Belfast, his hometown he has earlier escaped to take a job in London where he meets then marries the bulimic Moira who only want to return to Belfast. Michael is having an affair, has decided to leave Moira and head back to London with his new love. Then the IRA intrudes on their lives. All of the characters are snivelers.


Mordecai Richler—Solomon Gursky Was Here VPL

In my head I can hear Richler saying, “Magic realism, eh? Okay, Rushdie, watch this.” In my opinion, the most ambitious and successful of Richler’s novels, Solomon Gursky Was Here makes Illywhacker look bungled. Huge, romping, funny, irreverent, goofy and utterly readable—and that doesn’t mean easy. Often in Richler novels the characters seem carbon copies from other novels, and cliché. Not here. Shaman/Raven Ephraim and Bad Boy Solomon versus money-grubbing Bernard. The scope of the novel is huge, from Gold Rush, formation of the North West Mounted Police, Franklin expedition to the arctic (yesterday in the newspaper was the announcement that they’ve found M’Clure’s boat HMS Investigator!), London theatre scene, to penal Australia. And unlike Rushdie, Richler builds and crafts the story rather than repeating and repeating. The narrative is not chronological, bouncing from 1920 to 1960 then back to 1940, but always with a new twist.

It has often been suggested that the Gurskys are thinly disguised Bronfmans. And although the novel zooms the characters over the surface of the globe, bumping into anyone of note in the process from George Bernard Shaw to Golda Meir to Jackie Onassis, this novel is completely Canadian, particularly the humour. Richler infuses Canadian history with the Jewishness of the Gurskys. Eskimos mysteriously wearing Jewish sashes. Mystery, comedy, and who-done-it.

This novel received no nod in Canada. It was not short-listed for the GG. (The Giller did not begin until 1994 and The Writers’ Trust award for fiction began in 1997.) The novel was published in Canada in 1989, which means it would have qualified for either the 1989 or 1990 GG. The fiction jury for 1989—Robert Harlow (chair), Sharon Butala and Kent Thompson—selected the following books as the short-list The Golden Thread by Ann Copeland, Whale Music by Paul Quarrington and A View from the Roof by Helen Weinzweig with the win going to Quarrington. The fiction jury for 1990—Leon Rooke (chair), Sandra Birdsell and Henry Kreisel—selected the following books as the short-list Disappearing Moon Café by Sky Lee, Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro, On Double Tracks by Leslie Hall Pinder, Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci, and Man of My Dreams by Diane Schoemperlen with the win going to Ricci. The absence of Richler’s novel is a mistake.

A S Byatt—Possession VPL WINNER

I suspect this novel was written to prove, or perhaps to be fairer to explore, a literary theory. Two young, lonely academics stumble upon work that will change the scholarship about two Victorian poets. Roland Michell works in the “Ash Factory” furthering the scholarship about Randolph Henry Ash, a respected Victorian poet who reminds me of Robert Browning. Dr. Maud Bailey labours away in the Women’s Resource Centre of Lincoln University working on Christabel LaMotte—Maud is a descendant of LaMotte. LaMotte (an Emily Dickinson type) does not have nearly the reputation of Ash but has recently become the darling of feminist scholars. It is believed that LaMotte had a fulfilled lesbian relationship with her housemate Blanche but Roland and Maud discover LaMotte had a passionate though brief affair with Ash.

The delights of the book include the send-up of all things academic, and US clichés:

“Honestly I’ve lost interest in all his footnotes and things and all those dead letters from dead people about missing trains and supporting Copyright Bills and all that stuff. Who wants to spend their life in the British Museum basement? It smells as bad as Mrs Jarvis’s flat up there, full of cat piss. Who wants to spend their life reading old menus in cat piss?”

“Nobody. They want to spend their lives in lovely hotels at international conferences…”

Complex, challenging and highly ambitious, the book considers mating rituals, feminism (both in theory and in practice), the nature of independence (actions and thought), modern versus Victorian thought, morality, and on and on. But primarily this is a book about reading, and writing. And lots of discussion about those two activities:

No, I have not told it like Gode. I have missed out patterns of her voice and have put in a note of my own, a literary note I was trying to avoid, a kind of prettiness or portentousness which makes the difference between tales of the Brothers Grimm and La Motte Fouque’s Undine.

The writing is sure and clever, but it may be too clever. I found much of the first half pretentious and contrived. The structure forces the reader to go through the same path of discovery as the sleuthing academics that results in some tedious and long-winded sections. The book discusses the “ponderous obfuscation” of C19th poetry, and then inflicts exactly this style of poetry on the reader. Pages and pages and pages of it. Byatt writes poetry (the invented poetry of Ash and LaMotte) that is every bit as overwrought as the argument insists. Great if you like that sort of thing, but so much of it.

Ellen Ash, the long-suffering virginal wife of the poet, seems by all reports (letters, Ash’s journals, etc.) to be a rather dull person. The academic who is supposed to be editing and publishing Ellen’s journals has never completed the task. She feels tricked somehow, that Ellen is deliberately withholding information in her dull journals. Byatt supplies us with about 30 pages of the journal.

Much of the book is more argument than fiction. There are many things beyond the text. But some things that should remain beyond are included—Byatt supplies a chapter of the affair between Ash and LaMotte and given the structure she herself has created (you must have supporting evidence and text) how could she know? This reversion to the omnipotent narrator, I think, is a serious lapse. I also think the grave-robbing scene with the tree-toppling storm would make Daphne du Maurier blush. As would the ultra-sentimental final chapter that brings together Ash and his daughter (and again, a lapse in the narrative structure).

Yes, the book forces the reader to participate and think, if you are paying attention (I’m guessing many readers just scanned or ignored much of the poetry and journal writings). Yes, it levels postmodernism. But there is so much literary baggage (the book could as easily be titled Obsession) that at times this reader feels she is watching the author masturbate. It’s showoffy to a fault.

1990 Hilary Mantel, from The Guardian

Not a discourteous word was exchanged between the hardworking 1990 judges – much to the disappointment of the administrator Martyn Goff, who praised us to our faces and later whined that we were boring. Denis Forman ran the meetings with smooth expertise, and largely kept his own opinions dark until he cast the final vote.

Weeks before I was appointed a judge, I’d read John McGahern’s Amongst Women and said, reaching page 20, “This will win the Booker”. So I was disappointed, but AS Byatt’s Possession was a good book and a popular choice, and the discussion was fair. The process exhausted me, and I declined to do it a second time. What I despised was the leaking by the publicity machine of trivial non-stories to the press – I felt the prize had enough status and news value without that. I also believe the judges shouldn’t review the books under consideration or talk about them in public, and in 1990 we didn’t.

I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.

For me the best of the Bookers is The Siege of Krishnapur. I read it again a few months ago and its supple humour, its insight, economy and narrative drive make it an enduring delight.


I wonder if she remembered her own sage advice, that the prize is not about literary value, when she won in 2009?


2930 words, October 20, 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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