By Jean Baird | April 14, 2013

Of the 100,000 books on sale in Canada every day, most of the top 200 adult books are American.

Of the best-selling top 100 works of adult fiction the week of December 20, 2010, 12 were Canadian.

If that is the retail environment, and for the most part we aren’t teaching Canadian literature in schools, little wonder that about half of Canadians cannot name one Canadian writer.


Werner Herzog — “I’m not out to win prizes – that’s for dogs and horses.”

From a facebook discussion:

Timothy Taylor: “The conceptual difficulty with prizes is that they put writers in competition for the same thing, which is antithetical to artistic work. Period. We’re not supposed to be competing for the same thing. We’re supposed to be following the inextinguishable light of our own creative will with a finger raised aloft to those who disagree with our genius. Having said that, prizes do exist, and have flourished in the media-sphere because we live in the same culture that celebrates Dancing With the Stars. So writers are more or less forced to live with them. Two points then. First, prizes and Jean’s ideas about education can coexist. Education is what you might call demand side, i.e. reader creation. So writers should be doing everything possible to support people like Jean in advancing this education-driven agenda. (Finding the right agency to champion the cause is tough, as she and I have often discussed.) But the second point is we could formalize and make rigorous the decision making process associated with prizes. And here I’m in favor of radical overhaul, a complete redesign of prize-jurying to minimize the decision biases that presently seem to run rampant. FWIW, having sat on the Dublin IMPAC jury, I’ve seen judging models up close that really work.”

Most jurors say the prizes that work the best follow something like the following:

-jurors submit a list, usually 10

-once the organizing body has all lists submitted, they are circulated to all jurors (in other words, no juror gets to see the others’ lists until all lists are submitted)

-jurors meet, by phone or in person, to discuss the lists and produce one shorter list. Depending on the number of jurors the shortened list can be 10 to 20 books.

-jurors take a couple of weeks to review the new list, reread material

-a second discussion occurs to attempt to create a short list, usually 3 to 6 depending on the prize

-some prizes have several conference calls to allow for lots of discussion and review

-a final meeting, or series of meetings, determines the final winner.

In my discussions with jury members those prizes that are structured so that the jury meets only once and the whole process is supposed to take place in one stage often result in decisions which the jurors are least happy with—they have felt rushed, or bamboozled. Having a break to reflect is important. If you are asked to participate as a juror in a process that is not staged, ask whether more than one meeting is possible. My understanding is that at the current time the GG juries meet on one day and are expected to do the whole process in one go. The Giller jury is a staged process, as are the Griffin, Booker and IMPAC.


Jury: Professor John Bayley, critic, writer and husband of Iris Murdoch until her death in 1999. Rabbi Julia Neuberger, writer and social reformer, a huge presence in the UK in the 80s and 90s, often outspoken. Dr. Alastair Niven, Director of Literature at the Arts Council of Great Britain, also a critic and writer. Alan Taylor, writer and journalist. James Wood, literary critic and novelist.

Romesh Gunesekera—Reef   VPL

Eleven-year old Triton leaves his alcoholic father and becomes a houseboy for Mister Salgado, a marine biologist researching the eroding reef that surrounds Sri Lanka. Triton learns to be a wonderful cook, but also follows Salgado’s every move to learn as much as he can. Eventually Salgado and Triton leave their disintegrating coral reef, their country and its old order and move to England where Triton starts a restaurant.

This novel is a variation of Remains of the Day—a complex, changing world on the cusp of war as seen from the limited viewpoint of a devoted, and maybe deluded, servant. In part Reef is a coming of age novel because of Triton’s youth. The cooking and consuming provide the opportunity to explore nurturing and the impact of consumer society, but it also shows Gunesekera at his very best. The sumptuous descriptions of food, recipes, and eating are the best writing in the novel. You can’t help think of “The Dead” when reading the Christmas dinner scene. When the narrative eye turns to politics the writing can seem forced, and heavy. With Remains of the Day the complicated intersection of identities, language and cultures happens mostly by what is not said, or reported. The same off-stage device is used in Reef, and for me that presented a problem since I do not have the wealth of knowledge about that world and culture. Which raises an interesting question, n’est pas?

George Mackay Brown—Beside the Ocean of Time

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a “lazy useless” boy who lives in the fictional Orkney island of Norday with his widowed father and three sisters. He spends most of his time daydreaming, of being in the Byzantine court, or fighting in the battle of Bannockburn. He dreams he marries a seal-woman. And that essentially is it—Thorfinn retelling historical stories with himself as the star. In the real world of the novel, Thorfinn’s small island is changing and the old order of many decades is about to disappear.

In places the writing is very awkward, maybe deliberately so to reflect the youthfulness of Thorfinn. The novel is quaint, and has a certain charm. It’s a romance novel both in form and quality of writing.

He told her, in hesitant stumbling phrases—because she urged him (the telling gave him small pleasure)—how he had been since childhood in quest of the grail of poetry, like every man and woman born (but most give up the search soon, in the struggle of getting and spending). He had been fortunate—words were his business; and the hard rock of language, mined and laboured at, might break open and reveal the ore; and out of that gold every poet fashions the chalice sufficient for his offering. (The grail itself is never to be found this side of time.)

Jill Paton Walsh—Knowledge of Angels UBC

This novel is even worse than the Brown. It’s another historical romance; well, morality play more like. What gives with this jury? Walsh had established herself as a children’s writer. When she sent this adult novel to her publisher it was rejected. Then it was rejected by another 20 UK publishers. Walsh and her husband decided they’d do it themselves. A self-published book makes the Booker short-list.

Blurbs about this book say it is a mediaeval philosophical novel, and it clearly is a book with an agenda to explore an argument—is the knowledge of God innate? Sometime in the middle ages about 1450 on a fictional island in the Mediterranean, very much like Mallorca, a group of shepherds find a feral girl, about 9. Meanwhile in another part of the island some fishermen rescue a swimming man who tells them he fell off his ship, and that he is from Aclar, a place they have never heard of. Should the feral child be christened because the knowledge of God is innate? Should the stranger, Palinor, be burnt to death because he claims to be an atheist? Severo, Cardinal and Prince of the island, decides to have the child spend time in a nunnery, be tamed and learn to speak so that he can prove, or disprove, the theory. Palinor is kept under arrest until the conclusion of the experiment.

Contrived? Oh, yes. These are stock fairy tale characters, there to represent ideas. There is a wicked step-mother and a tossed aside step-daughter. A moral shepherd who rescues the feral child and frets about her soul. Walsh also provides a brilliant Christian scholar, who turns out not to be so brilliant and is unable to persuade Palinor. If you are interested in the complexities of faith just listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” and give this novel a pass.

Alan Hollinghurst—The Folding Star VPL

Guest review from Stan Persky:

Alan Hollinghurst is such a wonderfully plausible writer that at times you almost forget that The Folding Star is a sexually shocking novel about obsessive desire for a 17-year-old boy, a mid-1990s gay version of Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” that romantic paean to “Beauty that must die; / And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, / Bidding adieu…” You simply come to share the view of just about everybody else in the book, especially its adult male narrator, that 17-year-old Luc Altidore is a natural object of beauty, right up there with sunsets, mountains, and great art. Or maybe you don’t, especially if, say, you’re the mother of a 17-year-old boy – in which case perhaps you think more about the fact that sexual relations between adults in positions of responsibility and underage lads are still an indictable offense in some jurisdictions.

The lustful adult male admirer in question is Edward Manners, a somewhat adrift, early-30s, Oxford-educated, “stalled writer” (which is putting it politely, since he never produces any writing, unless you count the exquisite sentences Hollinghurst conjures up for the first-person narrative). He lands an interim job tutoring two troubled teenage boys in a charming, if dull, Flemish-speaking city that most resembles Bruges, Belgium. His late-adolescent charges are the asthmatic, pudgy, conventional Marcel, son of an art curator, and the aforementioned breathtaking Luc, who’s been expelled from secondary school following a murky but apparently scandalous evening with Norwegian sailors aboard their in-port vessel.

In the course of this tale of “a passion that had taken the fateful turn into fixation,” Hollinghurst also manages, like a medieval town juggler, to keep a lot of other sub-plots in the air. There’s the parallel fiction of an early 20th century Belgian “symbolist” painter Edgard Orst (think of someone like James Ensor), which emerges from Edward’s friendship with the art curator father of his pupil, Marcel. There are credible reports from the sexual frontlines of gay bars, cruising sites and a mail-order sex business, attended by a variety of amorous couplings. There’s the funeral of an early former boyfriend that briefly sends Edward home to England where the backstory is filled in and the then present-day AIDS crisis is alluded to. First and last, there’s the mysterious object of desire, his teenage chums, and assorted suitors. Throughout it all, Hollinghurst manages to make sedate Bruges seem quite exotic.

How seriously you take The Folding Star (the title image, by the way, comes from Milton, and refers to the bright celestial object by which shepherds guide their flocks to the fold) may depend on your perspective regarding 17-year-old boys. The few experts on the subject — a handful of adult men and several million bubblegum-chewing teenage girls – are likely to be fully engrossed. Others who find teenage boys untidy, slightly smelly, and generally irritating may be less enchanted. I’m looking forward to reading the review of Hollingburst’s book (the first gay novel to gain a Booker Prize nomination) in The Mothers-of-17-Year-Old-Boys Review of Books.

Apart from being biased in favour of obscure objects of desire, what I most like about The Folding Star is the consistently great writing and Hollinghurst’s shrewdly judged observations of the self-deceptions of the heart and other muscles. From the tiny, precise details of a casual cruising scene on the book’s first page to the emotional Grand Guignol of its ambiguous ending, the author is superbly attentive throughout. Personally, I prefer Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) to this one, or his later 2004 book, The Line of Beauty, which went on to win the Booker, but that may be because the first appearance of Hollinghurst’s enormous talent really was a shock. Still, The Folding Star conveys that hand-delivered farewell kiss from the lips of Joy as memorably as might be desired.

Abdulrazak Gurnah—Paradise – purchased, and hard to find a copy. The one I did purchase was mint, never been opened or read.

This jury seems particularly hell-bent on exoticism, postcolonial stories, simplistic morality and new views of history. Yusuf, at 12, is indentured to his Uncle Aziz, a successful merchant, because his father cannot afford to pay his bills. Yusuf will work off the debt. Yusuf moves to the house of Aziz, works in the household then joins Aziz on a trade caravan. The time is early 19th century, as Europeans and Germans are starting to have a big impact in Africa. The novel exposes the destructive element of colonialism but also points to the multi-ethnic situation in Africa (tribal beliefs and systems, racism and religious intolerance, justice with and without mercy, superstitions) that predates colonialism. This world is in turmoil and is full of power struggles long before the Europeans arrived—tribal chiefs, Muslim traders, Indian shopkeepers are all vying for space and power. Almost every situation and relationship has a sinister edge.

Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, moved to the UK as a teen and now teaches university English. Paradise generally gives the sense that it is an African novel written for a European audience. This novel uses much the same approach as Reef, young innocent narrator in the changing world with travel and adventure. I didn’t find anything inventive or of particular note about the writing, which is often poetic and sometimes gets out of hand. Gurnah notes the many languages of the region and the constant need for translators. He throws in some foreign terms—Allah-wallahs, rehani, Ramadhan—but for the most part everyone speaks perfect Queen’s English. In other words, there is little attempt to capture the nuances of the local languages.

In the final scene, which seems forced, Yusuf runs after the invading Germans. Although he has just witnessed the violence and cruelty of their methods, he picks the German’s oppression over his existing entrapment with the Arabs.

James Kelman—How late it was, how late UBC WINNER

Sammy, a small time thief, gets stinking drunk, wakes in an alley, gets into an altercation with police and ends up in jail where he is beaten. When he comes to, he is completely blind. He’s released, stumbles home to discover his girlfriend is gone, then sets about figuring out what to do.

And other than getting picked up, again, by the police and drinking in pubs a couple of times, that’s about all that happens. This isn’t a novel about what happens. It is intensely about language. Written in Glaswigian, in stream of consciousness style, from inside Sammy’s head, the novel illustrates the conflict between national language and vernacular, and those instances where national language has usurped the local. The police, people in the hospital and social workers use the established language of law, government and the class that represents power. Sammy’s language is that of the working class.

Another layer of the novel reflects the impact of Thatcherism on Scotland, which further reflects the conflict between British history and Scottish history. Part mystery, part social commentary, the novel is of technical interest. But that assessment paints a rosy picture of a complicated book.


What I am missing in this Booker/prize project is discussion. Sure, sometimes George gets an earful, but he can’t respond and discuss because he hasn’t read the book. I decided to start a Booker Book Club, asked Vancouver readers of my report if they’d be interested, which they were, and for our first meeting I selected this very controversial Booker winner.

On the night we met, before we even really introduced ourselves, a heated debate about whether “cunt” is a worse insult than “prick” raged for about 10 minutes. Yup, just like a big family dinner.

As a group we agreed, mostly, that Sammy is a resourceful, charming, earnest fuck-up and petty criminal. Then we fought about the character and characterization, and narrative voice. The novel switches from third person to first person which, argued GB, returns the novel to good old-fashioned narrative and the author’s need to create a character. That works against rather than for the technical innovation of the novel.

Rex Weyler argued what he loved about the book were those occasional moments when Sammy had brilliant insights, and as a reader you are saying to yourself, fucking right on.

In attempting to write up notes from our meeting I wasn’t sure I was capturing the discussion so I asked for comments.

George Stanley: “Unlike bourgeois realism, in which a world is created that reconciles all fates, in the Kelman novel there is no world (at least not one that anyone in the novel professes to comprehend – and Kelman doesn’t either). We perceive the city of Glasgow (entirely through the senses of touch and hearing — a great tour de force), with all its institutions: police, social services, pubs, etc., but it is not a world, only an oppressive and unresponsive jungle. This is like Kafka, Beckett, or to take a pre-realist example, Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

The Sunday Telegraph called the novel ‘uplifting’ and that is because Sammy never gives up. Like the voice in Beckett’s The Unnamable, ‘‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” If we think of Sammy as in any way typical of the outcasts of society, this might be seen as sentimental, but Kelman would probably respond that even an intelligent, resourceful person like Sammy can make no headway against the system.”

GB: “’I’ll go on’ is not an example of determination. It is made of the philosophical point that we cannot escape going on, that it is the way the universe works.”

Judith Penner: “Renee and I were more sympathetic to the character, which shouldn’t be confused with any feelings we might have towards an actual person who behaved the same way (someone I would likely run away from pretty fast). As a reader, Sammy’s decisions didn’t make me happy, because he couldn’t seem to move forward with most of the tasks of every day life (have a bath, for god’s sake), he just keeps reaffirming our view that he is a frustrating fuck-up, and yet…somehow Kelman convinced me that he was dogged enough to just get on with it as a blind man, even though his resourcefulness seems preposterous out of context. Something worked–the first person dialect maybe (which I thought I was going to hate but didn’t), the insistent rhythms, something not exactly sunny but at least persistent about this guy who always seemed to find a familiar wall to pat in order to find his way. I was able to accept him as a particular character and not just a type, even acknowledging that Kelman places him in a specific political and class context and let’s us know pretty clearly that Sammy will run in circles until he bites his own tail or gets put down. There was something both optimistic and profoundly depressing about the novel that worked for me.”

George Bowering: “I agree with Rex that there are neat moments in which we get a kind of primitive philosophical aha. As to liking the character–well, I liked Studs Lonigan more than this guy. We can feel that he is trapped by a system and put upon. But he is an asshole. I didn’t mind the sheer insistence of the monolog. It was the earnestness of the author I didn’t like. Trouble is that with the dialect is introduced an element of realism, but then the guy suddenly blinded is able to get around the city like a veteran. I don’t believe it. That wouldn’t matter if the rest of the book was grinding out the detailed scuzzy realism. I don’t know quite how numbers go. But I am sort of glad that I have read it, and glad that I don’t have to read it again. I’d venture a 2.5 out of 5 This would be in a context in which Malone Dies gets a 5.”

Other emails were exchanged. Thoughts added to, and clarifed. GB: “Judith’s comments are so darned well written and reasonable and enjoyable that I wish I agreed!” And so on.

Weeks later Rex responded: “I’ve been enjoying the conversation and insights. Mr. Kelman seems to be getting between a C and B+ for his little experiment in underclass psycho-realism. I would agree that the absence of dramatic detail in the setting is kind of disappointing, although intentional. Like a bare, stylized theatre stage.

Okay, sure, as George B. said, he’s no Beckett. Fair enough. He’s also no Virginia Woolf, but I did have a few moments, similar to reading Mrs. Dalloway, when I felt that I got a ticket into someone else’s consciousness. The experience was not remotely intellectual, but visceral, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes for one lost moment in Sammy’s world, digging his annoyance with absurd society, his response to injustice, his fumbling jousts with institutional stupidity, and even his moments of plugging along in spite of all the b.s. he encountered. I won’t compare the achievement with Woolf’s, but I have some appreciation of the effort and a lot more sympathy for Sammy, the working class fuck-up, than for any of Mrs. Dalloway’s pampered crowd.

The dialogue with the doctor and disability bureaucrat were priceless literary moments; the “hoping rooms” passage was hilarious and brilliant. These were A+ moments. I’m an easy grader with genuinely creative artistic effort, since it’s rare, so I’m in the B+ crowd on this one. Call it a 4.3 out of five. I can overlook a lot of failure if the artist pushes past the edge of convention and makes an honest effort to create some original approach to the craft. If it flops, fine, but when it succeeds and I get a hit of inspired imagination, I tend to forgive all the mucking about.

I loved moments like: ‘There’s a difference between repping somebody and fucking being somebody.’”

I thought the flip-flopping between Sammy’s thoughts and author/narrator’s exposition was a stroke of genius, blurring the line between character/narrator/author. Maybe I’m being too generous here, but I thought Kelman broke some storytelling ground, not as thoroughly as Beckett, say, but creative and thoughtful.

I loved the theme of coping with life, which may represent the reality for most people. “ye plough on, ye just fucking plough on … ye just fucking push ahead, ye get fucking on with it.”

Leaving his son Peter, was a tragic moment, painful to observe: The fuck-up father unable to seize the opportunity to give his child some overdue love that he’s asking for and simultaneously help himself. Taking Peter with him would have been the best chance of success. But that scene hurt. I felt sorry for Peter, not for Sammy, who was not going to change and didn’t really deserve Peter’s help.

The end felt frustrating and a little disappointing because absolutely nothing was resolved. However, this bumbling exit fit with the whole book and the character of Sammy, so it made sense.”

The discussion on this book could have raged on, and on. So, isn’t it really interesting that it won the Booker? I doubt it would have made the first place spot with our Booker Club. As for me, I’d have given it to the Hollinghurst.

1994 James Wood, from The Guardian

After serving on the 1994 Booker prize committee, I made a pledge never to judge a big fiction prize again, and I have so far honoured it. We were a congenial group, and our chairman was not a former politician or bureaucrat but a distinguished literary critic (John Bayley); our meetings were friendly, and surely no less or more argumentative than those of other years. But the absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins. I remember that one of the judges phoned me and said, in effect: “I know that you especially like novel X, and you know that I especially like novel Y. It would be good if both those books got on to the shortlist, yes? So if you vote for my novel, I’ll vote for yours, OK?”

That is how our shortlist was patched together, and it is how our winner was chosen. It is how every shortlist is chosen, whether the premises are as explicit or not. I liked the winning book a great deal (James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late) – it was one of my choices – and would have been happy with either that book or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. But I intensely disliked the way we reached that verdict, and felt that the arbitrary, utterly political process discredited the whole project.

Since then, prizes have become a form of reviewing: it is prize-lists that select what people read, prize-lists that make literary careers. Bookshops order novels based on the prizes they have won or been shortlisted for. Nowadays, a whole month before the shortlist is announced, scores of novelists are effectively told that their books have not been the “big books” of the year, because they are not to be found on the longlist. Soon, no doubt, we will have the long-longlist, and the long-long longlist. Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means – or should mean – nothing in literary terms.

James English: “What besides a prize could focus television coverage on an ‘unreadable’ novel and its author the way the Booker Prize did on James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late in 1994?

This capacity on the part of commentators to cast the very fact of a scandal as itself a scandal—and thereby to layer scandal upon scandal, implicating all sides of a dispute—is an increasingly significant feature of the awards scene. It is apparent in such instances at the 1994 Booker Prize, when the scandal of the prize being awarded to an “unreadable,” “interminable,” and “obscene” 500-page novel of densely rendered Glaswegian dialect in which the world “fuck” reportedly appears more than 4,000 times…was bound up with the scandal of the especially fierce bickering and maneuvering of the judges, who appear to have landed on Kelman’s (altogether remarkable and important) novel not because it was anyone’s first choice but because it was used by several judges in their efforts to block the first choices of others.”

What does Kelman think? The win adversely affected his career:






  • 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: