By Jean Baird | May 4, 2013

The announcement of the 2011 Booker shortlist caused a media storm, UK style. Critics accused the jury of pandering to popularity rather than honouring literary excellence. Nothing new there. Then the chair of the jury made a public statement.

From The Guardian

On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.”. Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year’. That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.” And Ion Trewin, literary director of the prize, backed them up. “The publishers on this year’s shortlist are not your traditional list of literary publishers,” he said. “It feels like a significant moment.”

As it turns out, the significant moment came from elsewhere. A literary agent backed by some high profile writers in the week before the Booker winner ceremony, announced a new Literature prize.

The feeling has slowly been building over some years that there has been a sense of a drift (with the Booker) but there is no question that this year it reached some sort of a fever pitch. It’s not about attacking the Booker. It’s not about individual books. It’s more the spirit of the prize. The spirit the Booker seems to be emphasising now is a ‘good read’, kind of what book clubs are for.

The Richard and Judy Book Club and more informal book clubs are about peers recommending books to each other, which is great, but we feel prizes should be about excellence.”

This year’s panel, which includes former spymaster Dame Stella Rimington and ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin, failed to shortlist acclaimed works by Alan Hollinghurst, Sebastian Barry and Edward St Aubyn.

Backers of the Literature Prize say they hope to create an award that prioritises “artistic achievement” rather than championing the sales boost for winning authors.

David Mitchell, one of the supporting writers said, “I think unequivocally that the Literature Prize will be a good thing,” he said. “It’s undeniable that in recent years the Booker shortlist has emphasised accessibility over artistry – to follow this trend was a stated intention of this year’s judging panel.

“But Anglophone culture also needs an arena where the adjective ‘challenging’ isn’t a dirty word, and I’m supporting the Literature Prize because it promises to create such an arena.

Of course, Ion Trewin said this reaction was just sour grapes. Is Robert Harris correct that the Booker is evil and that the books are “deadening to read”?


Is Ion Trewin correct to claim the Booker sells books and connects to the public? Just how can a prize be measured?

Over the years I have been reading Bookers and researching prize and celebrity culture I have developed a scale of 5 measurements. Each of the 5 measurements would be worth 20 points.


  1. How does the prize fit the mandate of the organization?

On its website the Giller Prize gives the following history: “The Giller Prize was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller…The award recognized excellence in Canadian fiction – long format or short stories – and endowed a cash prize annually of $25,000.00, the largest purse for literature in the country.

The launch of The Giller Prize coincided with a growing recognition of Canadian authors and literature both at home and abroad. With such acclaimed writers as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mordecai Richler winning honours and accolades around the world, the popularity of Canadian literature has continued to flourish and there was a need for recognition in Canada.

The Giller Prize, along with many other awards that came before and after, is in large part responsible for this explosion of talent and exposure. More than 2.5 million Giller-nominated books were sold in the first 10 years of the prize. Over $60 million dollars in book sales to date have been generated as a direct result of the prize. The Scotiabank Giller Prize has so far endowed nearly half-a-million dollars to Canadian writers from coast to coast.”

First, the Giller Prize has honoured Doris Giller’s passion for books and made her name a legacy in Canadian literature.

Second, excellence in fiction. Every prize claims to do that, in some fashion or other, so I have made that a separate category, not part of the organization’s mandate.

Third, without directly targeting the GG awards, the mandate says Canadian writers need bigger and better recognition at home. The Giller has certainly accomplished that task, and in doing so has made the GGs pull up its socks, though not nearly enough.

Fourth, talent and exposure. Only for those lucky enough to make the short list, or win. This point is an extension of education and again I’ve made it a separate category.

Finally, sales. Richler at the press release for the prize said the objective was to sell books and have some fun. Yes, the Giller has done that.

If each of the five categories is worth a maximum of 20 points, the Giller would receive high score in this category.

  1. What is the jury selection process and the jury process?

Does the administrating body have a system in place to identify qualified jurors? Are these jurors given enough time to do the task and are they paid appropriately for doing so?

In a previous report I looked in detail at the method The Writers’ Trust uses to select juries. It is thoughtful and thorough and also has the flexibility required for certain prizes. For the reasons examined at length in that report, WT would score high in this category.

Many in the literary community—writers, publishers, critics—have questioned the juries of the BC Book Prizes and increasingly the GG juries. Jurors need to be qualified for the task. Very junior if not virtually unknown writers have been given juror positions by the CC for GG juries. Likewise the credentials for the BC Book Prize juries have been questioned. Both organizations would score low in this category. And, I would add, the situation is exacerbated by the refusal of both administrating bodies to admit there are problems with the juries.

Celebrity in itself does not discredit the juror. Some celebrity jurors are more than qualified for a literary jury, for instance Margaret Atwood. Others are there for publicity and media buzz.

  1. Results—feedback from media, readers, reviewers—long-term reputation.

Are prizes really identifying the best books? There is a number of ways to determine the success rate of a prize.

Is the book still in print? Is it being taught in university level courses? Do public libraries retain their holdings of the book? What type of reviews did the book receive, from media and from readers?

Remember that sales or popularity do not necessarily mean the book has literary merit. Those things also don’t mean the book doesn’t have literary merit, but sales and popularity are not guaranteed indicators of literary merit. Remember The Da Vinci Code.

Do the prize juries have a habit of rewarding things other than literary merit, for example high moral status or subject matter? Do the prize juries have a habit of overlooking established writers with good books (arguing such writers don’t need any more attention) for new writers even if the books aren’t as high quality? Do the prize juries tend to favour particular sorts of writers—those from Toronto, say—or shun certain types of writing—avante-garde?

In an interview in the Edmonton Journal in the fall of 2011 Guy Vanderhaeghe discussed his response to a complete shut out of his new novel in the 2011 short-lists:

Quite frankly I didn’t expect to be on any lists,” said Vanderhaeghe, adding that he thinks the snubs of book prize season are always “a tougher bullet to bite” for a writer’s agent and editor. “But I’ve been around long enough to know that I have won prizes that I shouldn’t have — for instance my first Governor General’s Award.”

That was back in 1982 when Vanderhaeghe’s fiction debut, the story collection Man Descending, won the GG over a host of better-known writers, including one Alice Munro.

Years later, Vanderhaeghe looks back at the experience this way: “I don’t believe any writer in his young 30s was capable of writing better short stories than the woman Cynthia Ozick once called our Chekhov.”

Vanderhaeghe says Alice Munro should have won that year. When the winning writer suggests there has been a slip, it’s worth noting.

If the people behind the new Literature Prize in the UK are correct in their charges against the Booker—and I think they do have a point—the Booker during the first decade of the C21st would score low in the category. Worth noting that when the Best of Booker’s 40th anniversary list was announced there were no novels from after 1999.

  1. Education initiatives

During the 2011 World Series and the remarkable performance of Albert Pujols, the TV commentators were remarking on the extensive community programs that Pujols supports in the St. Louis area. Charles Barkley is outspoken about the roll of elite athletes; he says when you are making millions playing a sport you have a responsibility to give back to the community.

For the most part, prizes don’t create readers. As I’ve said before, prizes preach to the converted. But they take up an enormous amount of the little press and media attention that goes to books these days. I believe there is a responsibility that goes with that attention, a responsibility beyond just building your own brand.

What else does a prize do other than hand out the money and have a party? Two recent developments in the Canadian prize scene point to the potential. One is the poetry in schools initiative of the Griffin poetry prize. The other is the educational booklets being produced by The Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize for Non-Fiction. These two prizes are not just rewarding excellence but are developing the next generation of readers. A full 20 points in this category to both prizes.

  1. Elite/fair—about literature or about celebrity.

Do people associated with the prize—administrators and juries—strive to be fair in their assessment and promotion? In other words, are they about promoting good writers and good books? Or is the prize more concerned with press, lots and lots of press, with celebrity jurors, celebrity presenters, celebrity party attendees, etc.?

Does the prize conduct itself with dignity or does it thrive on gossip and leaks? Does the prize have a game element?

In my opinion, the Giller would get docked in this category for its new vote-to-get-on-the-long-list contest that started in 2011. The same would apply to Canada Reads, or as the Tyee suggested the CBC program be renamed, Canadian Writers Beg.


Jury:Kenneth Baker, Baron Baker of Dorking, is a British politician, a former Conservative MP and a Life Member of the Tory Reform Group. Philip Hensher is a columnist for The Independent, Chief Book Reviewer for The Spectator and a Granta Best of Young British novelist. Michele Roberts, writer. One of her novels was short-listed in 1992. Kate Summerscale, writer, journalist and former book editor of The Independent. Professor Rory Watson of the University of Stirling, head of Scottish Studies and general editor of Canongate Classics.

Ali Smith—Hotel World VPL

Jean’s Booker Club took on this novel, with surprising results.

There are five sections of the novel, each narrated by a different voice/character, then a short coda at the end. The first section is Sara, recently dead. The narrator is her spirit, which is separated from Sara’s body, and the body holds the memory of Sara’s life. The spirit tracks down the body to get information about the life, and how it ended. Turns out Sara, on a dare, entered the dumbwaiter at the hotel where she worked, the cables broke and she plummeted to her death. That doubling technique will be used throughout the novel.

George Stanley liked the first section, as well as the second. It was the third section where the novel faltered in his esteem. He says Smith has written 5 short stories and slapped them together. He believes the first two stories are pretty good, and the other three are not.

George Bowering disliked the novel from the get go. He saw problems of logic but also pointed out problems with the voice. Just whom is the spirit talking to, and why? Smith confuses her own voice with those of the characters, in the first section and the others.

The second section is narrated by Else, a homeless young woman who spends her days begging in front of the hotel. Else is quite smart, had a good education and is a sharp observer of the world. She creates fictions about people she sees. The section George read aloud led to a discussion about the technical finesse of the novel. There are passages, we all agreed, that indicate a writer of great skill. But most of the time the novel seems like a creative writing exercise. Rex said if he were a high school teacher and received this novel as an assignment he would highly praise and encourage the student. We all agreed it is very much the work of a writer learning the craft.

So, what’s it doing on the Booker short list? Perhaps it is a nod from the jury to a Lesbian novel. George Stanley noted that all of the stories in some way are disguised sexual fantasy, or perhaps more accurately, are just short of explicitly talking about sexual desire.

The third voice is that of Lise, the hotel desk clerk. In this section there is a significant shift to post-modern analysis, and a move toward realism. Section four is Penny, an advertising writer who is staying at the hotel and goes for a walk with Else. This section is bland—there is no sense of a real person. Then the final voice, the one that sent us all into despair, Claire. Claire is the teenage sister of Sara. It’s stream of consciousness and weak modernism. Or to quote Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

There are things about the novel we all admired. The doubling and rhymes throughout. Mostly, the lurches in time, for example:

The lobby of the branch at which Lise works smells of good carpet, distant restaurant food and stargazer lilies. In bed ill in six month’s time, Lise will be unable to recall the precise scent of the Global lobby. In two years’ time, on holiday in Canada and desperate to get out of a sudden spring snowstorm, she will shelter in the Ottawa Global and as she enters its lobby will unexpectedly remember small sensory details of her time spent working for Global, details she would never (she will think to herself afterwards, surprised) have imagined she even knew, and which remind her of a time in her old gone life before she was ill and before she got better, a time which she has almost completely forgotten she had.

This same section also illustrates awkwardness in construction that everyone in the group found tedious.

Kim Duff couldn’t make it to the group, but emailed: “I would, however, like to register that the book was annoyingly intentional and knock-you-over-the-head contrived. I’m just not sure how you can ‘get in’ to a novel like that… if I can lodge my out-of-ten from a distance… it gets a 2. And that’s being generous.”

George Bowering, 3 minus. Rex, between 4 and 5 because he likes books that try to do new things, whether they succeed or not. Renee, a grumbling 4 (“and do we ever get to read good books?”). Jean 3.5. And George Stanley 5.5.

Rachel Seiffert—The Dark Room VPL

WWII and its consequences through the eyes of three children of participants. The first and smallest section is about Helmut who is born with a physical deformity. As a child he is teased and feels isolated, except for the exceptional love of his parents. His father works for a photographer and eventually Helmut, too, joins the small shop and begins to learn the trade. He is also fascinated by trains and spends a lot of time at the nearby station, recording schedules. Helmut notices that there seem to be more trains and less people in Berlin. He starts taking photographs of the crowds of people in the street, and making charts that confirm the population of Berlin is shrinking. The family members are ardent nationalists and supporters of the Fuhrer. They follow the Nazi victories on the radio and try to carry on, until their tenement is bombed one night when the parents are out. Helmut with his deformity has been unable to join up but with the imminent demise of the Reich and the much-depleted ranks he is allowed to wear a uniformed coat and help at the station. Left alone, Helmut tries to figure out how to survive in the altered world.

In this section the use of present tense is stilted and distracting. What is interesting is seeing the world through the eyes of Helmut, through his camera lens, without explanations, though the reader does know what is going on. Photography and family relations are key themes in the novel.

The next 100-page section is about Lore, the oldest child of Nazi parents with four younger siblings. The father takes the family to a farm, to wait out the war to which he returns. When it ends, the mother is sent to a camp by the Americans and Lore tries to make her way to Hamburg, to the home of her grandmother. The stark details of this section, in conjunction with the helplessness of the children and most of the adults they encounter, makes for tough reading. Help them, you want to scream. The whole nation is reeling, trying to figure out what has gone on in their midst, who to blame and who to help.

The final section tells the story of Micha, a teacher who becomes obsessed about his grandfather’s participation in WWII. Did his grandfather kill Jews? Micha leaves his pregnant partner to travel to the remote village where his grandfather was posted and interview others who were there at the time.

A few days after I started this novel the Oslo massacre occurred and the papers were full of items. Is the accused insane or can firm beliefs make sane people do insane things? Hitler gets mentioned in many of these articles. But The Dark Room is not concerned with the masterminds of war, but rather with the ordinary people who find they are capable of horrible things. Who is to blame and who is there to forgive? The love of country can prompt good men to do heinous deeds, and during war, with immunity. The novel presents all these things but provides no pat answers.

Andrew Miller—Oxygen VPL

According to The Guardian, Miller is another protégé of Malcolm Bradbury. Statistically, Bradbury protégés do well with Booker nominations and wins.

The year is 1997. Larry Valentine, previously an international tennis star, is now living in California. His family thinks he is living the American Dream, starring as Dr. Barry in a soap opera, and living with his beautiful wife and daughter. Actually, he has been fired from the show, is making money by doing porn flicks, and has developed drug and alcohol problems. His marriage is on the skids and his small daughter is in therapy for being so introverted and a kleptomaniac.

Larry’s young brother Alec still lives in England. He’s a failed academic. Alec has left the city to care for their dying mother, Alice. Alec has been hired to translate a play, Oxyene, by the famous Hungarian dissent writer, Laszlo Lazar.

Laszlo is living in Paris, and also appears to be living the good life. Gay, he is in a committed and long-term relationship with a loving boyfriend. He has fame, lots of friends and money.

But like the miners trapped down the mine in Laszlo’s play, all these characters are struggling for oxygen—the metaphor does seem a bit strained and obvious.

The two sets of characters never interact or meet one another. The only connection is the play.

The Amazon review promises a “claustrophobic tale of parallel lives, or regret and redemption.” Most reviews are breathless in praise and speak of how the novel promises choice even under difficult circumstances and “hope.”

The writing about the dying Alice is tender but I found much of the plot to be melodramatic. And cliché, including Larry snorting cocaine from the belly of teenage girls. There are long, sweeping domestic scenes and then swift and difficult-to-follow political scenes. The twist at the end hinges on finding out that the famous dissident was actually unable to act and as a result his lover died. In the end, all three of the characters seem to find the will to take action, thereby earning redemption.

I wasn’t persuaded by Laszlo. I sent one passage where the character is reflecting on his homosexuality to several of my gay friends. Here is one reply:

I’m glad I never read Oxygen. This passage is stilted. The “reflection” on being gay or homosexual is self-contradictory: “he had been appalled at some of the things he had seen, men using each other much as dogs use table legs, a corrupt and worthless version of the Dionysian” followed shortly by “There had in his life been certain people, beginning with Peter, whom he had needed, and who happened to be men” — so “using” someone and “needing” them are not synonymous? Hmm. And the “happened to be men” — is the character deluding himself? (“I went to kiss her and felt pectorals instead of breasts, then I checked below and — woops! — a penis! Then I realized the heavy beard of the person I was kissing — he happened to be a man! Oh, fuck. Juvenile and thought out poorly.

I don’t even like the idea of men using each other as dogs use table legs; really — most, if not all, men like to put their penises in things, not rub them against things. A hand job means holding the penis, not just rubbing one side of it.

Yes, “stilted.” That’s the word I was groping for.

David Mitchell—number9dream VPL

What a ride. Eiji Miyake is from a small village but has gone to Tokyo at the age of 20 to look for his father whom he has never known or even met. Actually, he doesn’t know who his father is. As you’d expect, it is also about the search for meaning in an ever-changing universe, except the universe that Mitchell creates is more ever-changing than any I’ve encountered, in life or fiction. One critic described the novel as “Blade Runner meets Jack Kerouac.” That’s too tame, I’d say.

Miyake has imagination to spare. A real life incident can spark a daydream/fantasy, and the reader is taken along. Miyake imagines himself inside computer games, fighting the bad guy with sci-fi weapons. He imagines solving crimes, doing crimes and taking out criminals.

But it’s the creative use of language that really gets me. I was trying to figure out how to talk about Mitchell’s language when I stumbled across this bit of criticism: “It seems that reckless creativity is essential to his literary instincts. He is fascinated by the creative forces infusing even the most mundane circumstances, and he writes in order to share their turbulent energy, not to control it, but to ride with it and see where it will take him…[he regards the writer] as witness to the vitality of creation—a thrilling, terrifying, liberating vitality felt especially in the babble of words energized by rhythmic voice and metaphoric urgency.”

That wasn’t written about Mitchell. It is from the entry about George Bowering in the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada edited by Bill New (I came across it while reviewing the Encyclopedia’s entry on awards and prizes. It’s a goldmine of information about CanLit). But it sure fits number9dream.

I had to put the book aside for a couple of days and when I went back to it, after another 75 pages I realized I was lost. The novel has so many worlds and layers that the short lapse with it had broken my roller coaster ride. And it was overdue at the library. Some day I will go back to this novel, not to see if the novel gets out of the control of the novelist—George wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I tried to get away with that argument. And not to find out if Miyake finds his father—when I stopped at page 232 he had not. But rather to get back on for the ride. Hee haw.


Ian McEwan—Atonement iBook

There are 3 movements to this book. In the first, the tone and writing fits the tradition of Virginia Woolf—“the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen.” The Tallis family has a life of privilege. Briony is 13, an aspiring writer with an overwrought imagination. Mostly she writes stories but in honour of the return of her beloved older brother Leon she has written a play to be performed by her cousins who have come to stay to avoid the messy divorce of their parents—twin boys and the uppity Lola, 15. Leon arrives home with his friend the industrialist, Paul Marshall. The older sister Cecilia is home from school and trying to figure out the odd feelings she is having for Robbie Turner, the son of their char woman who has been supported by Mr. Tallis throughout his education, almost as a surrogate son. Emily, the mother is sickly and often in bed, listening to the sounds of the house. It’s all atmosphere and little action.

Dripping coolly onto her sandaled feet, the untidy bunch of rose-bay willow-herb and irises brought her to a better state of mind. The vase she was looking for was on an American cherry-wood table by the French windows which were slightly ajar. Their south-east aspect had permitted parallelograms of morning sunlight to advance across the powder-blue carpet. Her breathing slowed and her desire for a cigarette deepened, but still she hesitated by the door, momentarily held by the perfection of the scene—by the three faded Chesterfields grouped around the almost new Gothic fireplace in which stood a display of wintry sedge, but the unplayed, untuned harpsichord and the unused rosewood music stand, by the heavy velvet curtains, loosely restrained by an orange and blue tasseled rope, framing a partial view of cloudless sky and the yellow and grey mottled terrace where chamomile and feverfew grew between the paving cracks.”

This isn’t the style we know of McEwan. This is an old style English novel. What is he up to? Slowly the idyllic façade distorts. It turns out the Tallis family is not rooted in established money—they have acquired ancestral photos to give the appearance. The often-absent Mr. Tallis is a philanderer. But still, it’s mostly atmosphere and inaction. Then the mooning Robbie decides to declare his love for Cecelia in a letter. He makes many drafts and in frustration writes a salacious remark at the bottom of one. Finally he succeeds in getting the right tone, puts the letter in an envelope, which he hands over to Briony to deliver. You guessed—it’s the wrong letter. Yes, very Freudian. Briony reads the letter which convinces her that Robbie is a sexual monster. Now we’ve moved into a Lawrence novel. By the end of the first section a crime has been committed, and the reader is reminded of Forster.

The rest of the novel as one reviewer remarked is “reaction, ripple, repair.” Robbie goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, then joins the military. Cecelia becomes estranged from her family who don’t believe in Robbie’s innocence. Briony, also estranged from family, joins up to be a nurse rather than go to university, trying to find atonement by nursing soldiers who are back from the war.

The novel is also an examination of the act of creation, and the difference between art and lies. “How can a novelist achieve atonement when with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” It is Briony who talks about Virginia Woolf, since her first story submitted for publication is compared to Woolf. And she does become a famous novelist.

This novel is complex, without easy answers or morals. I would pick this novel above the Carey. But if the jury had put the Bainbridge on the shortlist I’m guessing I might have gone for that one.


Peter Carey—The True History of the Kelly Gang VPL WINNER

The premise of the novel is that Ned Kelly is writing a journal to his daughter. Kelly grew up on the wrong side of the law, with a fighting Irish mother and a cross-dressing father who did time on Van Diemen’s land. It’s a tale that shows the hardship and challenges that faced outsiders at that time and place, with the odds and the police staked against them.

I read it a few years ago and liked it, though as I’ve said before I think Bowering’s Shoot does a better job of debunking the Romantic Gunslinger myth, and is better written. And it’s the writing of the Kelly book that did me in this time. Around page 100 the vernacular of Ned became really tiresome, and sometimes unconvincing. I’m not slamming the novel, not at all. But the writing wasn’t enough to keep me going on a novel I’d already read. And great novels should be able to do that, shouldn’t they?

2001 Philip Hensher, from The Guardian

It’s an unusual experience, reading for the Booker. For once in your life you take a synchronic slice through the English-language novel, and see exactly what’s interesting in it at that moment. I was lucky in having an excellent chairman in Kenneth Baker, unprejudiced, interested and diligent, and fellow judges who really knew about the novel – Kate Summerscale was particularly good to argue with. I think we made a good choice with Peter Carey’s substantial True History of the Kelly Gang, but the whole shortlist was, in my view, exceptional. I regretted that media excitement over Beryl Bainbridge actually damaged her chances with According to Queeney. We realised that if we shortlisted her, she had to win. There was no point in blotting out the winner’s publicity with a storm of “Beryl Bridesmaid Again” headlines. I wanted to do more for Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good, and it was a relief that the Whitbread rewarded Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, which we could easily have shortlisted. It was a good-humoured, interesting experience, but what I got most out of it was being introduced to new novelists – Zvi Jagendorf, Ciaran Carson, Jamie O’Neill – however far they got in the judging process.

The best novel to have been given the prize is, I think, Naipaul’s In a Free State in 1971.

The 2001 jury was very vocal about “reconnecting with the reading public.” Now I’m back to where I started with the “readability” promoted by the 2011 jury. That attitude seems to dominate this decade of the Bookers.



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…