By Jean Baird | April 15, 2013

In a future report I will be focusing on the BC Book Prizes. During my research I have noticed something about the BC Prizes, and literary prizes in general. Two of BC’s most acclaimed and best-selling writers, William Deverell and William Gibson, do not have the OBC. Neither has ever won a BC Book Prize. Neither has ever been nominated for a BC Book Prize. William Deverell is often a juror for a prize that he knows his books will likely never win. So, a side trip from our look at the process of prizes to look at the genre ghetto and literary elitism.

From William Deverell, reproduced here with his permission.

The late Marian Engle once confessed to me that she occasionally enjoyed the “guilty pleasure” of reading a mystery. That sums up a common notion: a properly brought up Canadian is expected to feel guilty about reading a book that claims no pretension but to entertain. (I didn’t feel guilty about reading Bear.)

This priggish attitude toward popular fiction is deeply imbedded within our cultural establishment. By establishment, I mean the literature departments of our universities, the book pages of our journals, institutions such as the Canada Council and provincial arts bodies, the CBC, and the big publishing houses.

The infection may have begun in our libraries, and it found a host in our historic inferiority complex, a belief that our culture was little, provincial, unknown. To cover up our shame, that condition has morphed into a national snobbery disorder.

An interesting take on the Victorian airs that infested our libraries early in the last century comes from David Skene-Melvin, a librarian himself, in the preface to his bibliography, Canadian Crime Fiction (1996). “Popular fiction was considered déclassé by libraries and crime fiction beyond the pale. Up through the 1940s, at least in Canada, the public library systems did not purchase popular fiction (although they acquired ‘literature.’ If you wanted to read that sort of thing, you frequented your neighbourhood private enterprise lending library, where you paid your five cents a day to take home the latest thriller or mystery or romance or western with which to entertain yourself… It was not until social pressure in the 1950s forced public libraries to realize that if they were to survive on tax support from the masses they had to cater to mass taste [and] they began to offer ‘fiction’ collections, shelved well away from the ‘literature’ sections so as not to contaminate the latter.”

That attitude carried on to seduce academic libraries and graduate English courses, where students were made to believe that Hugo and Dostoevsky, Maugham and Conrad had not written crime and spy novels. The virus still flourishes in our schools and cultural institutions; our self-appointed guardians of culture still leave genre writers off the literary tea guest lists. She writes mysteries, my dear, she’ll show up reeking of gin. Or you get: He writes thrillers? How crass. It’s so American.

Popular fiction” has become a term of vulgar connotation, but it reeks of ironic paradox: obviously we sobersided Canadians ought to be reading unpopular fiction. (As an aside, reflecting an antithetical American attitude, I once got a rejection from a publisher down there who complained a manuscript was “too literary for the genre.”)

Several years ago, I gave a workshop in popular fiction at one of B.C.’s annual Festival of the Arts (a program since abandoned, lamentably, by the provincial government) during which I was instructed by a Canada Council spokeswoman, in severe tones, that it does not support writers of crime fiction. I doubt that is a written policy, but it is certainly maintained by its system of elitist peer review.

Recently, Robert Sawyer, an internationally respected sci-fi’er and Hugo winner, was rejected by the Council’s peer assessors for residency at Yukon’s Berton House, a decision that was publicly and hurtfully leaked. Similar juries have turned down libraries seeking to host genre writers for readings.

In an email to me, Sawyer wrote that the best investment Canada Council could make “is in funding writers who actually might go on someday to pay taxes on their writing income.”

It is to Canada’s utter shame that William Gibson, with his vast trophy case of awards, has not been honoured in this country with a Giller or a G.-G. Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is acclaimed for her speculative fiction and, like the late and lamented Carol Shields, has won a crime fiction award. Both are undoubted literary icons –– and indeed Atwood remains an unapologetic reader of crime fiction — but what’s wrong with this picture? I think it’s this:

Of the six Booker Prize finalists in 2002, three were Canadian – Mistry, Shields and the winner, Yann Martel. But who would disagree that our cluster of internationally known writers has since shrunk drastically? Canadians don’t even know their own authors. A recent Harris/Decima poll found that nearly half of those surveyed, and 62 per cent of young Canadians, didn’t know the name of a single domestic author. A minuscule percentage knew only four.

Ipsos Reid, in another poll, discovered that nearly a third of Canadian adults hadn’t read a book for pleasure in all of 2007. Yet, according to a federally funded study from 2008, the supply of books in the Canadian market is accelerating more rapidly than consumer demand.

The study found that title output grew 40 percent from 1998 to 2004 — to 16,776 — while publishers’ sales grew by only 11 percent. More recent figures from the Public Lending Right Commission show a parallel pattern for fiction categories. Setting aside Kidlit, an average of 850 new fiction writers, in English and French, registered with the PLR in each of the last seven years.

So as the lists of books and writers swell, sales flatline. I blame that on a push to reward insipid stuff that will never sell –– and on the failure of the Can-Lit establishment to support young writers of readable, if commercial, works. Thus new authors find themselves engaged in a cruel and unworthy competition for a declining share of readers. This in an era of disappearing book pages in our journals, publishers’ ever-thinner promotion budgets, illusory best-seller lists, and a ballooning of amateur blog-trash, while Canadians rush to the stores to buy lavishly promoted foreign blockbusters.

I’m emboldened in my views by allies unafraid to take on the hungry cyclopes guarding the lair of the literary status quo.

The New York Times recently ran Douglas Coupland’s scathing critique of Canadian literary pretentiousness: “There is a grimness about CanLit,” he wrote, in which typically authors are supported by the government “to write about small towns and/or the immigrant experience.”

Toronto novelist Stephen Marche bemoaned in a recent interview that Canada represents “the oatmeal of world literature.” It is at “the cutting edge of blandness,” he said, our fictional characters indistinguishable, innovation a dirty word.

Andrew Pyper (Lost Girls, The Trade Mission), inveighs against the tendentious insistence by Canada’s cultural mavens that those who write about crime can never be considered seriously, must face exile into a genre ghetto.

I bristle at prejudice,” he told me. “It’s a problem in Canada – a constipation about what we call literature, a teetotalling Presbyterian reflex, guard the gates against the barbarians. Someone told a lie about literature in Canada early on, someone who prefers books that are morally obvious, quiet, settled. It’s a lie that became institutionalized.”

His most recent work, The Killing Circle, does a sardonic take on what may be one of the causes of the glut of literary oatmeal: the plethora of writers’ workshops—“the true growth industry in the ink-based sector.”

Overcapacity is generally acknowledged above and below the border. Ann Beatttie, once a best-selling novelist, has complained that too many wannabes are keener on being a writer than in writing. “There are too many of us,” she wrote in the New York Times, “and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness.”

Meanwhile, The Brits knight their genre writers, the Yanks lionize them, the Canucks (or at least our persons of letters) continue to treat them like unwashed in-laws tracking mud into the parlour. So sad.

In 2010 the Miles Franklin Literary Award, a major Australian prize, was given to Peter Temple for his crime novel, Truth. Such a breakthrough has never happened with Canadian prizes, and so far not with the Booker. Historical romances do make lists, but other genres don ‘t make a showing. Why?

Some suggestions from Andrew Pyper:

What is literary fiction? Generally, we satisfy ourselves in defining the category negatively. Literary fiction is writing that doesn’t come with a pre-existing tag. Whatever isn’t YA or mystery or thriller or horror or sci-fi is literary. It’s the stuff that’s formula-free.

But there are a couple of problems here.  First, it allows the so-called literary a free pass: by simply not slapping a category on a book, it gets to be “serious” out of the gates. Second, have you read many contemporary literary novels?  They abound in formula. They often trade in trendy tropes.  They frequently rely on cliché. Literary fiction is genre fiction.

So why do we never see so-called genre fiction on our nation’s prize lists?  Because they aren’t considered.  I have served as a juror for major prizes a couple times, and when the boxes arrive, they almost never include books that might be marketed as mysteries or thrillers or romance (though many of the literary titles under consideration would not be at all out of place in the Harlequin catalogue).  Why?  The publishers don’t send them. They know they don’t stand a chance.

When we pretend that the finest works of Canadian literature necessarily belong to a marketing category, we do ourselves a disservice on two fronts:  we narrow the possibilities of what “counts” as literature, which dooms it to repetition, and we allow a commercial designation – the often arbitrary shelves upon which books are arranged – to do the work of real reading.  

For me, it all comes down to openness versus closure, play versus anxiety.  Which is the greater threat to our literature:  giving serious consideration to so-called genre works for our national prizes, or excluding so-called genre fiction in advance?  Put another way, would you rather a literary culture brave enough to risk letting a few interesting barbarians enter the gates, or one built upon walls of protectionism and prejudice? 

At the end of March 2011 the long list for the Man Booker International Prize was announced. Before various news outlets had the chance to circulate the list John le Carre requested his name be withdrawn. He does not allow any of his books to be submitted to prizes. The organizing body refused to withdraw his name.


Jury: Carmen Callil, publisher, writer, critic and founder of Virago Press. Jonathan Coe, novelist and writer. Ian Jack, Scottish journalist and at the time the editor of the literary journal Granta. A L Kennedy, Scottish writer and stand-up comic. A N Wilson, writer and columnist best known for biographies.

Shena Mackay—The Orchard on Fire VPL

April heads to Stonebridge, the small English village she grew up in, which sparks her memory of her childhood in the 50s and her best friend Ruby. Category: nostalgia. The child abuse, mostly ignored by the adults, cuts the nostalgia—this is not the perfect world. The novel is deeply entrenched in childhood, and its loss. But it dips too often into the sentimental and doesn’t add anything new to a much written-about topic—overlooked child abuse and the days of Keeping Secrets.

Seamus Deane—Reading in the Dark VPL

A coming of age story set in Derry full of Irish guilt and storytelling. Deane’s first, and last novel. I was curious because I knew his name as a critic. The following provides both the background and a review with which I concur. Particularly worth searching out if you are interested in Irish literature, or Joyce. It also contains a hilarious scene where a Catholic priest is explaining intercourse to a young teen.


Graham Swift—Last Orders UBC WINNER

The novel also won the James Tait Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the IMPAC. A film was made starring Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine and a host of other big names.

Four men once close to Jack Dodds, a London butcher, meet to carry out his peculiar last wish: to have his ashes scattered into the sea. For reasons best known to herself, Jack’s widow, Amy, declines to join them. On the surface the tale of a simple if increasingly bizarre day’s outing, Last Orders is Graham Swift’s most poignant exploration of the complexity and courage of ordinary lives.”

This was the second book selection for Jean’s Booker Club, quickly turning into the Bash the Booker Club.

Swift is no Faulkner, just as Kelman is no Beckett. We recognized and acknowledged the tribute/reworking of themes and styles by Faulkner and Woolf. Maybe even a nod to Laurence with all the father and son relationships, and mother and daughter relationships. But in the end we mostly agreed that the Kelman book (our club’s first discussion book) is the more noble failure because it is trying something harder, or different.

George Stanley suggested the novel reads as a storyboard for a movie, that there is no world created other than in the direct perception of the characters. Others argued that if there is a world it is one that the reader must provide.

We did as much heated debate as our first session, about 3 hours, and consumed as much Booker juice but in the end there wasn’t any support for this book as a prize-winning novel. Final assessments:

  • Mainstream novel about regular folks
  • Formulaic, nothing exceptional. No new ground being covered or even tried
  • Nothing complicated or engaging
  • Many details didn’t ring true. Highly predictable
  • Good TV but not great literature

GB hated, as he always does, the fake present tense—or “historical present” as invented by Julius Caesar in The Gallic Wars, as reported by George Stanley. We all had trouble with the first few chapters but did agree that once you got going there was something that kept you reading. We all rated the novel on a scale of 10—it received 2 to 7.5 with lots in the 5 and 6 range.

Skip the book. Watch the movie.

Oh, and GB says, “Fuck Caesar.”

Someone made an interesting observation—that we are starting to get a sense of each other’s approaches. In other words, it takes a while to develop a group dynamic—yet another reason for a staged jury process rather than a one-time meeting.

Plus, it’s interesting to learn the response of other seasoned readers. I learn from these discussions, and they enhance my response to the books.

Added comments via email:

I understand being against certain things in life, politics & even letters – say: fascism, racism, plagiarism – but I’m not sure why one would take up a position against a particular tense.

Okay, the historical present in certain hands appears presumptuous, annoying, and pompous, maybe most of the time, and in those cases does feel like fake present, but do all uses of the historical present yield inferior writing?

We use it in book reviews – In “Summer Solstice” Bowering juxtaposes – or jokes – A man walks into a bar – etc., but I suppose that’s not literature.

However, Mr. Dickens uses – I mean used – the historical present in certain contexts perhaps to set a scene out from the background of the story, and he pulls pulled it off reasonably well.

Like any device, it is butchered most of the time, which reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon’s law that “90% of everything is crap.”  In any case, this tensism leaves me slightly uncomfortable.

On the other hand, yeah, fuck Julius Caesar.

Margaret Atwood—Alias Grace personal library

Alias Grace, Atwood’s ninth novel, became a bestseller in North America, Europe, and in other countries around the world. The book helped win Atwood several literary prizes, including the Premio Mondello, Salon Magazine’s best fiction of 1997, the Norwegian Order of Literary Merit, the Giller Prize, and the Canadian Booksellers Association’s Author of the Year award.”

Atwood returns to her interest in 18th century Ontario and the times of Susanna Moodie. The novel patches together various theories about the real life murderess, Grace Marks. One of Atwood’s best novels and when compared to Last Orders, she was robbed of the Booker for 1996.

Rohinton Mistry—A Fine Balance VPL

This novel put Mistry on the superstar list. Winner of the Giller, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the Los Angeles Time Book Prize for Fiction, The Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker, IMPAC and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. But all of those pale when stacked up against being selected as an official selection of Oprah’s Book Club.

On Oprah’s Book Club website there are questions, for those people who use this novel for their book clubs:

1. How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?

2. Describe the character development in A Fine Balance. How does Rohinton Mistry use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?

3. In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.

4. What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?

5. In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with A Fine Balance. What grade would you give this novel?

6. If you enjoyed this book, what other books would you recommend to fellow readers?

These questions say a lot about Oprah’s approach to books, and the type of books that get selected.

I’ve learned another literary term—NRI, non-resident Indian. Mistry’s challengers charge him with being a NRI. Does anyone complain that Joyce was an expat?

Category: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night writing approach. More is better. Way more therefore is way better.


His style is precise, deceptively simple. It’s writing in which the author doesn’t seem to want to call attention to the writing itself,” says editor Ellen Seligman. “The writing is there to serve the story and the characters, so it always reflects those two things.”

Keep those comments in mind as you read this excerpt:

The truck growled into the city after midnight along the airport road. Sleeping shanty towns pullulated on both sides of the highway, ready to spread onto the asphalt artery. Only the threat of the many-wheeled juggernauts thundering up and down restrained that tattered lives behind the verges. Headlights picked out late-shift workers, tired ghosts tracing a careful path between the traffic and the open sewer.

The novel throbs with excess. Mistry outdoes Shields in the minutia category, and that’s no small accomplishment. Like the Atwood novel, Mistry uses quilting and quilting motif. But unlike Atwood, there is no subtly—Mistry rubs our nose in every theme, metaphor and image. Many people disagree with my reading because this novel is hugely popular. Other than all the excess, including a level of coincidence that would make Dickens blush, what bothered me the most is the aestheticization of poverty and suffering.

I suggest this novel’s popularity is due to its topic and its high degree of sentimentality. It’s easy to find reviews gushing about this novel, but I am more in agreement with the following, from The Boston Review:

The five main characters of A Fine Balance, converging in a crowded apartment in a nameless Indian city, face a variety of horrors—a lingering, repressive caste system, the corrupt and callous government of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the heartlessness of unchecked capitalism, and an environment that is both unhealthy and demoralizing. Their struggles hold our attention through the first half of the novel, where Mistry succeeds in balancing his desire to create a moving tragedy with his strong impulse toward political and social commentary. A penchant for heavy-handed sentimentality, though, eventually overwhelms the attempt at tragedy, while social insight gives way to a predictable survey of the evils threatening India. A Fine Balance is finally neither poignant nor pointed enough to fulfill Mistry’s ambitions or the reader’s expectations.

Beryl Bainbridge—Every Man for Himself

After the excess of Mistry, the first 30 pages of this novel sparkled. Where Mistry would provide a 3-page description of a character’s appearance, with Bainbridge we get “Though not vain, I’m aware my outward appearance raises expectations.”

It’s the story of the sinking of the Titanic, through the eyes of the adopted nephew of J Pierpont Morgan, a passenger on the fated maiden voyage. Now here’s an example of the difference between Mistry and Bainbridge. With Mistry I know every detail of the lives of the characters—who begot and raised them, how and where they shit, what they eat, how many wrinkles they have and how they were acquired. Some would argue that such details add to the grit of the novel. Morgan, the main character in the Bainbridge novel has some mysterious birth. His mother is oriental and his father is related to J P Morgan. After I finished the novel I searched out the mystery. In real life, George Dennison Morgan married a Geisha. And not just any Geisha—he married the famous O-Yuki, the inspiration for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Bainbridge trusts me to find out—she doesn’t need to rub my nose in her exhaustive research.

Morgan is a member of the privileged upper class of his time. As we know, the Titanic’s passengers included the Astors and Strauses. Again, Bainbridge doesn’t draw out details on these people.

Here is an excerpt from a review from Reed Business Information: “In a few deft strokes Bainbridge shows the gulf between the steerage passengers and the “nobs” while communicating the alternating servility and resentment of the crew. The book is nearly over before disaster strikes, but once again, the unnerving details seem just right: the careless self-confidence at the beginning, the gallantry quickly eroding to panic. Bainbridge’s swift, economical novels tell us more about an era and the ways in which its people inhabit it than volumes of social history.”

If you liked James Cameron’s movie Titanic, if Celine Dion gives you goose bumps, then read the Rohinton Mistry book. If you prefer not to be led by the nose, but to be engaged in a novel, and you don’t want to be lulled into not thinking, then read Bainbridge.

1996 Jonathan Coe, from The Guardian

How very arbitrary it seems, in retrospect. There was nothing wrong with our shortlist, and nothing wrong with our winner (Last Orders, by Graham Swift), but at 12 years’ distance, it feels as though we could easily have chosen another six novels altogether. Our discussions were lengthy – and amicable, for the most part (until the final session, when tempers started to fray) – but what strikes me now about the whole process was how entirely subjective it was. Anyone who sets great store by the choices of Booker prize panels should remember this: the process consists of nothing more rigorous than five people sitting in a room together for a few hours, swapping personal opinions. And as far as I remember, not a single judge (including me) ever changed his or her mind, or shifted his or her position, in response to an argument put forward by a colleague. In the midst of it all, the novel which I now remember as being the finest of all – Asylum, by Patrick McGrath – slipped through our net, and failed to make the shortlist by a whisker. If it had reached the shortlist, such is the randomness of the final selection process, it might easily have won the prize itself.


More from Jean Baird:

  • 2011

    Jean Baird reviews her favourite Booker novels and reports on the 2011 prize. Read more… 

  • 2010

    Jean Baird offers some advice about writing a prize-winning book and reports on the 2010 Booker Prize. Read more… 

  • 2008

    Jean Baird offers some advice to literary prize administrators and reports on the 2008 Booker Prize. Read more…