On the Canada Council
A note from one of my Booker readers, and a prominent Canadian writer:
I think I have made my position known to you: that prizes are only as relevant as the organizations that select the jurors and the jurors that select the titles.
I worry that a bias is developing against older, more established writers, and that jurors are seeing the awards less as a measure of a work succeeding on its terms, and/or going to new heights, than a way to break new authors, whether they (or better yet: their work) deserves to be broken or not.
A response to these statements from another prominent Canadian writer:
Relevant to what? That’s the right question, not whether the process works or doesn’t work. It’s relevant to the market, which is largely made up of people who are resistant to your product. Is it relevant to cultural growth, (no because all prizes are prizes for conventional behaviour. The most experimental book that’s ever won a prize was John Berger’s “G”–and that was before market culture gained absolute control. Is it relevant to artistic merit? No, and you and your Booker research are the best witness to the fact that it isn’t. What else could it be relevant to? The relative enriching of conventional novelists and the impoverishment of unconventional novelists (and all the others who don’t win.)
Prize culture simply isn’t about artistic merit. It’s about acceptability to the marketplace. It’s about winning and about sales.
An excerpt from Daphne Marlatt’s speech on accepting the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts:
When I began writing in the 1960s, at a time when there was a push to recognize not only our national literature but a distinctively British Columbian literature, improvisation and free collective effort were understood to be a necessary part of art-making. In recent decades, the publishing industry has opted for a celebrity best-seller model that obscures the community aspect behind all writing, an aspect that poets still understand because poetry is and will always be less of a commodity than either fiction or nonfiction.
I think these comments about art, marketplace and commodity are pertinent to the following examination of the Governor General’s Awards in the Literary Arts, administered by the Canada Council.
I haven’t kept track of numbers, but over the years that I have been conducting this research I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people—writers, jurors, publicists, prize administrators, librarians, agents, publishers, etc. I took the same approach with this project as I did with the CanLit in secondary schools report. That is, try to connect with everyone who has an interest. I always assure people confidentiality to allow them to be as honest as possible.
A lot of things that people tell me are anecdotal. Sometimes the concern being expressed is distinctive to a specific jury when things were confrontational. I try to figure out why the situation happened but the individual incident isn’t what I’m after. I’m looking for larger patterns, and the implications of those patterns.
When I keep hearing the same concern over and over a red flag goes up and I try to get more information. One red flag was raised by the number of people who expressed concern, increasing in recent years, about both the makeup of GG juries and the results they produce. Again, I am not interested in pointing a finger at any specific jury or juror. That is not the point. What is the point is that people in the publishing community are concerned that less than stellar juries and poor procedures for the GG are undermining the integrity of the prize. These concerns stand in sharp contrast to the interviews I conducted around The Writers’ Trust prizes where there was only praise for the administering body.
The same questions and concerns kept being mentioned. What are the judging criteria? To what degree are the jurors being pressured to examine other criteria, or are affected by the history of the GGs: i.e. if someone has won before, shouldn’t we spread around the glory, pressures to reward rookies, all kinds of corrupting criteria based on race and ethnicity and sexual preferences, and other elements of quotaism. Not to mention who is selecting the juries.
The publishing industry really wants the GGs to mean something, to be important. There was a time when academics, librarians and researchers looked to the GGs to spot books they should take note of and careers that might be watched. Far too many people I interviewed said that “no one cares” about the GGs and the impact of the prize has dramatically declined.
Interviewed people say there are too many very junior people, virtual unknowns to the community, being selected for GG juries. They believe that a national prize should have jurors with some national recognition. This response is not specific to any one category but seems endemic to the English speaking juries (my research is only involved with the English part of the prizes, not the French prizes). That includes categories for adult literature as well as children’s literature.
Within the publishing community there is an assumption that senior writers turn down the GG gig because it is too much work. That may be partly true, but in the interviews I conducted with senior writers that didn’t seem to be the case. Some said they had been on juries “back in the 70s” or 80s but “haven’t been asked since” to sit on a GG jury. I suspect that the CC doesn’t want to be accused of being supporters of an oligarchy of the elderly. Also, the young writers, some say, are much louder about getting what they want.
The other comment from past GG jury members that occurred frequently was about being rushed to make a decision because the jury meets, selects the short list and winner all in one day. All jurors must submit a list of the books they think merit winning in advance but the actual decision takes place in one day in Ottawa with the discussion being steered by a CC representative. It should be noted that the jury members who felt rushed or pushed were unhappy with the results of the deliberation. Other jurors said one day was sufficient for the task with a good, functioning jury.
Since my research does support the premise that the jury selection process is the most important part of the whole shebang, I asked the folks at the Canada Council if they would agree to an interview on the subject, which was granted. Here are some notes about what I was told by the CC:
In selecting juries, both for prizes and grants, the Canada Council has a high concern and commitment to diversity of geography, gender, literary style, age, ethnicity, etc. These considerations which, in part, are also the qualifications for jurors are outlined in detail on the CC website. The CC also wants people who have had some other jury experience and are respected by their peers. There is a high concern to avoid jurors who might have a conflict of interest with any of the nominated books. The CC finds potential jurors in a number of different ways:
- Research within the CC, speaking to other people who work in the publishing division, etc.
- Considering names put forward by others.
- Consulting with colleagues at the CC and the community at large.
- Always being on the lookout for potential jurors at festivals and other literary events.
It’s a big, big job finding GG jurors. Each year the CC must find 42 jurors in 14 categories. CC staff compiles potential lists that are in turn approved by heads of departments. And because of the rules for the GG, jurors are being asked to do more work than for some of the other major national prizes. For example, the Giller and The Writers’ Trust prizes limit the number of submissions that can be made by one publisher while the GG does not. That means a GG juror for creative non-fiction might be tasked with reading well over 200 books while a juror for the same category for The Writers’ Trust prize would be reading about 100. Because the GG does not limit publishers’ submissions, jurors are not allowed to call in books. Note to writers: if your publisher does not submit your book to the GG you are out of luck because even a well-informed juror will not be able to call it in.
My research suggests that a staged jury process produces the most favourable result—by favourable result I mean that some time after the decision, jury members are content with the choice, and the book stands up to criticism over time. This is the system used by the WT, Griffin and most major international prizes. Is the GG system of sitting down in a room and hashing it out in one day antiquated given the advances in technology that provide various ways for jurors to communicate easily and effectively over a period of time? Those interviewed jurors who were displeased with the results often cited the time rush at GG juries—there is no opportunity to walk away from the table, reflect, then resume the discussion days later with more energy and cooler heads, if that is an issue. CC staff says that more can be achieved in a face-to-face discussion.
CC staff said they had received no feedback about either the quality of the juries or the jury process. The CC is a powerful organization, and writers know that. Some writers have told me they are fearful of consequences/reprisals if they question the CC or provide negative feedback. I don’t see any way around that conundrum.
But to say there has been no feedback just doesn’t hold water. Over the past few years there has been a lot of discussion in the mainstream press and on blogs about the GGs. Christian Bok was very public about his stint as a juror, until he was removed from the jury because the CC said he had a conflict of interest. That lengthy interview was a part of this Booker report several years ago.
Kim Goldberg has also been public about her experience. With her permission, I include the following:
Canada’s Poetry GG – Afterthoughts of a Juror (or: You’ll Never Adjudicate in this Town Again)
by Kim Goldberg
June 6, 2012
Two years ago, I spent the entire spring and summer sitting in my garden reading 171 new Canadian poetry books published in 2009-2010. I was one of three jurors chosen to select the 2010 winner and shortlist for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
Being paid to read poetry for five months in a private garden surrounded by swallowtail butterflies and garter snakes sunning on rocks may seem like a dream job. But the dream faded by September in the jury room in Ottawa once I fully grokked the protocols and structure of the adjudication system itself, and the role I would be required to play in that process.
(Please note: The comments that follow are a general critique of the Canada Council’s protocols for adjudicating the Poetry GG. The problems are systemic and structural. They are not limited to one particular year.My previous experience adjudicating a major arts award had been a thoroughly positive one: a few years earlier I had been tapped to sit on a BC Arts Council jury to select the Creative Writing grants for the year. So when the Canada Council phoned in 2010 and invited me to be a juror for the Poetry GG, I didn’t hesitate.
THE BC ARTS COUNCIL MODEL
In the case of the BC Arts Council Creative Writing grants, after spending a month reading all 154 project proposals privately (each proposal included a 20-page manuscript sample), the five jurors then spent five full days together in a board room in Victoria to determine the approximately 35 grant recipients.
In the room, the Program Officer unobtrusively guided us through a well-organized protocol in which all five jurors discussed and debated each of the 154 proposals in turn over the five days, assigning (and revising) numeric values for each proposal. By the time we were done, the numeric values had generated a ranked list of all 154 proposals. The jury could rejig it to correct any obvious omissions. We’re the jury after all, and formulae shouldn’t supersede common sense. But I don’t recall much rejigging happening. The money was then awarded from the top down, until the pot was empty.
The entire experience was fun and, for me at least, creatively stimulating. The tone in the room was jovial (although not without debate). I made friendships that persist to this day. And, most importantly, I felt we had done the fairest and most honest job possible of selecting arts award recipients from a pool of excellent candidates.
(Sidebar: The most important thing I learned from my time on the BC Arts Council jury is that just because you don’t get a grant, doesn’t mean the jury didn’t like your project. They may have loved your project. They just loved 35 others a little bit more.)
In a single word (or five): I went away feeling clean. I cannot say the same of my experience on the Canada Council jury for the Poetry GG.
THE GOVERNER GENERAL’S POETRY AWARD MODEL
The three jurors for the Poetry GG (all poets with books of our own) are selected by the Canada Council, presumably on the basis of other juries we have served on, or awards we may have won, as well as our own publications. In my case, the Canada Council officer referenced my poetry books listed on the League of Canadian Poets website when she called to invite me onto the GG jury. I had also been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award two years earlier. And I suspect my prior service on the BC Arts Council jury was a factor.
My two fellow jurors also received a phone call “out of the blue” inviting them to sit on the Poetry GG jury. In other words, this wasn’t a gig any of us applied for.
In theory, the three jurors each had five months to read the 171 books, which were shipped to us continuously over that period of time. (We each received our own complete set of books, which were ours to keep.)
However, in actual fact, I was the only one on the final jury who had the full five months to read the books. My two colleagues were each last-minute replacements for the original jurors who withdrew late in the game. So the other two final jurors had a mere eight weeks and five weeks respectively to read and evaluate 171 books.
Conflict of Interest Rules
Due to controversies in previous years over perceived conflict of interest involving certain GG jurors and the winners, the conflict of interest rules were tightened up by the time my year came round. Among other things, a juror cannot remain on the jury if there is a book in competition that she has reviewed or blurbed, or in which she is listed in the acknowledgements as making any sort of contribution to the book (even if the contribution is unbeknownst to the juror).
However, the titles for each year’s GG competition are being submitted continuously by their publishers throughout the months that the jurors are reading. Even the Canada Council doesn’t know what the full list of books in competition will be until shortly before the three jurors fly to Ottawa for the single day of jury deliberations.
Consequently, a juror can be three or four months into her GG reading when a book lands on her doorstep that she has blurbed or is thanked in, and that’s it. She must excuse herself from the jury and walk away. And the Canada Council must scramble to find a replacement juror. At least these were the rules in 2010.
The ‘Long List’
Ten days prior to flying to Ottawa for our single day of jury deliberations, each juror is required to submit a list of up to ten titles that constitute our top picks. The Canada Council then compiles the three lists and emails the three jurors the single combined list containing all of our top picks, listed alphabetically by author.
To me, this is obviously a Long List. And as such, it is in everybody’s interest to release it publicly, and with as much fanfare as it deserves, and as much fanfare as every other literary Long List receives. Besides which, your tax dollars paid to generate this Long List. It is wrong to keep it secret. So, for all of the above reasons, after the 2010 Poetry GG Short List and winner had been officially announced by the Canada Council, I posted our jury’s Long List on Facebook.
The Canada Council was not amused. The Council claims this Long List is not a Long List but some kind of in-house work product and, as such, is covered under jury confidentiality rules. I do not anticipate further invitations for jury duty. But if I had it to do over, I would do the same (except I would post the Long List even more widely than I did).
If nothing else, our Long List revealed that there was, in fact, a much broader aesthetic sensibility among the jury than our Short List or winner would suggest. Which brings me to the nub of the problem:
Jury Deliberations – Timeframe
The three jurors meet in a Canada Council boardroom in Ottawa for a single day, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, with a one hour lunch break and a couple of shorter breaks. So, in approximately 6.5 hours of working time, we not only determine the five titles for the Short List and the one winner, we must also draft the jury statements about each book (two separate statements for the winning title) that will be widely used by media, authors and publishers. Try being scintillating, cogent and pithy – six times! – after your brains have been wrung dry of all judgment and your entrails are strewn across the board table.
We are flown to Ottawa the day before the jury meets, put up in a nearby hotel, and flown home the day after.
Obviously 6.5 hours is a ridiculously short time to make a decision on Canada’s most prestigious poetry award – and from a field of 171 candidates. It’s an insult to every author, publisher and juror participating in the GG competition.
Jury Deliberations – Process
In theory, we had already winnowed our field of 171 titles to just 22 – the titles on our Long List That Isn’t a Long List. So we were actually selecting the five finalists and winner from a field of 22 in that 6.5-hour period. And in fact, those 22 books were the ONLY books on the table when we entered the room – all face up with their carefully designed covers and titles vying furiously for our eye. (The remaining 149 contenders were around somewhere – maybe in boxes. I don’t recall.)
We started working our way through the 22 books one by one (alphabetically by author’s last name). The Canada Council Program Officer in the room held up each book (or slid it forward on the table). We discussed it briefly and decided if we wanted to keep it on the table, in contention for the Short List, or physically set it aside.
Although it was possible to resurrect a title from the set-aside pile of Long Listees, I felt considerable unspoken pressure not to do this – not to take any step backwards – because of the intense time constraints we were working under. I can only assume my colleagues felt likewise.
It was also possible (although this never occurred to me at the time, and was certainly never mentioned) for a juror to call back a book from the pile of 149 also-rans that were moldering in boxes somewhere if she felt upon reflection that there was a better, more vigorous title among them than on the Short List being generated in the room.
Because of the time constraints, there was subtle but considerable steerage to keep moving forward, never back – to keep narrowing the field, never widening, never reconsidering…
Jury Deliberations – The Short List
Somehow by mid-afternoon we generated a Short List of five finalists. There was one book on our Short List that was sharply contested in the room. But the other four titles basically came down to being the books that no one fought too hard against. Yes, good books all. But markedly better than the 166 left behind? I can’t really say that they were.
The most heavily experimental works (many of which I loved!) were all total non-starters in the room. They simply had no hope. You pick your battles.
Consequently, the GG Short List for any given year is formed more by various jurors’ debating skills and level of obstinance and caffeination than by a measured analysis (such as the BC Arts Council system of numerical ranking). The result of such a process as the GG uses will tend to be a Short List of well-crafted, comprehensible, uncontroversial books. The one non-conforming title on our 2010 Short List got there simply because the juror arguing for it (me) wore down the juror arguing against it. And the clock was ticking.
Jury Deliberations – Picking the GG Winner
Somewhere toward the end of the day, in the process of our final deliberations to determine the GG winner from our Short List of five titles, the Program Officer told us that we must have consensus on the winner. All three jurors must be able to get behind the winning book.
And so, to cut an already very long posting short, that criterion became the primary factor in selecting Canada’s 2010 winner of the Poetry GG (and I would suspect for most other years as well). It was the one book out of the five that no one in the room had any major problem with. (Hardly the stuff blurbs are made of.)
The high-minded ideals we had entered with had been pulverized by a process that is far too rushed, and with no mechanism (or time) to backtrack, review, or deploy common sense to halt a runaway train.We ground out our requisite blurbs, walked around the corner to the nearest bar, got hammered, retired to our respective hotel rooms, and flew home the next day – our duty done.
For Future GG Juries (are you listening, Canada Council?) :
1. One day in the jury room is not enough. Fix that first!
2. The adjudication process needs to occur in stages. There needs to be a gap of time for reflection and reconsideration before the jury finalizes the Short List from which the winner will be selected. For it is at this point that jurors, if given some space to privately collect their thoughts and reflect on their five months of reading, will likely say: “Book A never even got on the table, but Book B is on the Short List? That’s crazy!” It may mean a skyped or teleconferenced jury for one or both stages.
3. Some system of numerical ranking needs to be used. A book (or an entire poetic style) that is hated by one juror can nevertheless make the Short List in a system of numerical ranking. Under the current system, entire schools/streams of Canadian poetry can be shut out of all mention in the GGs if a single juror can’t abide it.
4. Each of the three jurors should be allowed to place her top pick of all titles on the Short List. The two remaining spots on the Short List can be filled by a system of numerical ranking. This too will widen the aesthetic scope of the Short List and potentially enable experimental works to be better represented, thus creating a Short List that more accurately reflects the true diversity of current Canadian poetry and poetics.
5. Publicly release the goddam Long List! And do it with pride, honoring the authors and publishers who are on it.
6. Fix the ridiculous conflict of interest rules. You can’t have two-thirds of the jury bailing in the final weeks before adjudication. If a juror has a conflict on a particular book, then allow her to simply be silent on that title. This is the way BC Arts Council handles conflict of interest. The juror announces it in the room and does not weigh in on that candidate.
Why would anyone agree to be a juror and read 171 poetry collections in 5 weeks? That’s an average of 5 books a day. Where is the care and respect in that sort of approach? And why have a process that has the administrating body scrambling at the last minute to find jurors?
I have a minor quibble with Kim’s conclusions. The GG has a long history and that still counts for something but for the very reasons and arguments that Kim presents, it is no longer the most prestigious poetry prize in Canada. The Griffin now holds that distinction.
It must be a difficult time to be working in Ottawa if you are involved in the arts world. It seems everywhere you look our cultural institutions are being undermined and dismantled. I have been writing and editing and editing this short section about the GG prizes for months now. After much thought and reflection I am posting my findings because I agree with so many of the industry people I interviewed—I’d like the Governor General’s Awards in Literature to be the most prestigious awards in the country. But that is no longer the case in certain categories and I don’t see how the reputation can be restored when the CC is quotaing all its juries and the prize is driven by political correctness rather than the highest literary merit. Sometimes excellence requires review and feedback. Far too often the current system is a recipe for both nepotism and mediocrity.
“Under the circumstances, how could anyone even feel happy winning an award knowing the award was the result of such a crap shoot. Everyone says it’s a lottery—actually, a lottery would be better. Someone at the CC should just pick a title from a hat. I suppose it seems churlish to complain, and no writer would want to for fear of being accused of sour grapes…I remember being on a GG jury—it was definitely a compromise decision and I’m still ashamed of it.”
Jury: Hermione Lee is a biographer, an academic and a reviewer. Since 1998 she has been the Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of New College Oxford. Simon Armitage, poet and professor. Candia McWilliam is a novelist and reviewer of fiction, biography and poetry. Anthony Quinn, freelance writer and reviewer. Fiona Shaw, actress and theatre director.
Kate Grenville—The Secret River VPL
The novel is a movie-in-waiting; a deeply moving movie with breath-taking scenery and sweeping proportions. Or as the book jacket claims, “Grenville vividly creates the reality of Australian settler life, its longings, dangers and dilemmas…a groundbreaking story about identity, belonging and ownership.”
The novel has two parts; each part is focused on a river. The first is the Thames in the early 1800s, where the main character William Thornhill is born, raised and earns a living carrying rich men across the river. His seven-year apprenticeship ends with his marriage to the daughter of his master, the long-suffering Sal. Forced by tough times, Will periodically steals to keep afloat (oh, why not? I’ll let that stand) and finally is caught and condemned to death. Sal figures out the system and gets Will a pardon from execution on the condition that the family be transported to New South Wales.
We are familiar with this world from other historical novels. Grenville’s rendition is strangely safe, as though you are watching a Disney movie. It’s sanitized, romanticized and sentimental. There are some hardships but the deep love of Sal and Will will carry them through.
So off they are shipped to New South Wales where again Will turns to the water to earn a living. They struggle, they work hard and they begin to thrive. Will has been traveling a merchant route, picking up goods upriver and returning them to the settlement. On his journey he has become entranced with a piece of land. He convinces Sal to give it a try, for “five years” and then they will have their fortune and return to London. The first part of this section reminded me of Little House on the Prairie with the deep wisdom of Pa, except that in this novel it is the stoic Sal who is most often the voice of sense and reason.
Dealing with the aboriginals is the biggest challenge. With a bit of land, Will now feels he has some power, which gives him a nasty edge. Sunny Sal is willing to compromise, try to work and live together without confrontation with the aboriginals. A pivotal scene in the novel occurs after the blacks have left the area and for the first time Sal goes to the place where they have been living. She sees a life, domesticity and the structures of family and order. Will sees an intrusion on his ownership. Of course, it doesn’t end well. Will participates in the blood bath of the aboriginals but survives and becomes a wealthy and respected landowner.
If you like historical romance, you’ll probably like this novel. It is well researched, and lets you know that point. It’s mostly well written though I got annoyed with the phoney phraseology:
When he could, he worked on the lighters owned by luckier men, and had only the wind and the tide to hate. With a load of coals or timber he pulled away at the oars, reduced to an animal, head down and mind blank. He felt like a man who had lost an arm, still waving the stump around. There was a great emptiness in him, which was the space where hope had been.
That internal, reflecting voice of Will is a constant in the novel. Grenville portrays him as a deeply feeling man, forced by circumstances to take actions against his own heart and morality. She portrays him as insightful to what some people would call the human condition:
Thornhill watched him sourly, thinking his praise only angling for the plate to be passed to him again, but after a time he saw that praising the food was Smasher’s way of giving thanks for human company. My word it does a man’s heart good to have a yarn, he said. His smile was a sudden sweet thing, opening on his pinched face like a flower. In that smile was a guileless boy on whom life had now laid its mark.
I didn’t buy it. The novel is so clearly a work of the 21st century, with our sensibilities and colonial guilt. Grenville is projecting those things onto Thornhill. Remember at the end of Bonnie and Clyde when they are finally shot, and you feel badly, even though the two bank robbers have spent the whole movie killing other people? The same emotional manipulation is happening in this novel. Thornhill participates in a massacre but the novel suggests he was just as much a victim. Fudging the perspective doesn’t help.
Grenville set out to write a non-fiction work on the colonization of Australia based on the history of her great grandfather but then the research turned to fiction. Grenville won the Orange Prize in 2001. The Secret River was short-listed or won almost every Australian prize going.
M J Hyland—Carry Me Down VPL
Another disturbed and disturbing first person narrator. 11-year-old John Egan thinks he is a human lie detector. He is obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records and dreams of going to Niagara Falls to visit the museum there. Mostly he’s an unreliable narrator. It took me a while to twig that some of the things that John says are happening probably are only taking place in his overly active imagination. He may walk into the room where his Gramma is sleeping but is she nude on the bed except for her underpants?
John may be only 11 but he has the body of a grown man, and this is a point of unexplained tension in his family. At one point the mother arranges for John to have a chat with the school principal. The mother seems to have an awareness that John is struggling with his growing sexuality. But she also molly-coddles John and treats him as if he were a much younger boy. She takes him into her bed, under the covers, to hold and comfort him. Or does she?
One scene, as reported by a confused and distressed John, suggests that John might be having homosexual awakenings.
On the front cover of the copy from the library J. M. Coetzee is quoted, “This is writing of the highest order.” Now, I find that curious. As noted above, the writing is the first-person narration of an 11-year-old. For sure one accomplishment of the novel is that the viewpoint is persuasive, mostly (there were a few places where I faltered—for instance, would an 11-year-old say he was “agitated”?) But is that writing of the highest order? The simplicity of the language does create a sense of urgency, and also a sense of menace. Is the reader being taken inside the mind of a psychopath? Does that develop at age 11? There isn’t much about John that is childlike.
At the beginning of the novel John is living with his paternal grandmother, with his mother and father. The grandmother has a falling out with her long-unemployed son and kicks the family out. They end up in a tenement, the father takes to drinking and spending time with the prostitutes upstairs. John figures this out, tells his mother, who then kicks out the father. The mother falls into an emotional and physical despair and John feels the weariness of an old man. In an attempt to bring his mother back to herself he almost smothers her to death.
Then the professionals are brought in. Social workers and analysts. We see all the adult characters through the eyes of John, but they seem inept, at best. And the plot moves toward pulp fiction—the mother forgives the father; the grandmother forgives her son; the family go back to live with the grandmother and the father gets a job. The mother decides to forget that her son has tried to murder her. So there is something of a Hollywood ending with a restored family and perfect parents.
Well, watch out, because the reader who has been paying attention recognizes that the mother is pregnant. There is a baby on the way and I for one doubt that John will react kindly not to be the centre of attention any longer.
This is Hyland’s second novel. The first, How the Light Gets In, was a “sleeper hit” and you’ve got to wonder if that acclaim is what landed this second novel on the Booker shortlist.
Edward St. Aubyn—Mother’s Milk VPL
The novel is a snapshot of the Melrose family—father Patrick, mother Mary and their two sons Robert and Thomas. Each section is in the third person but with shifting perspectives. The first section, August 2000, has the five-year-old Robert remembering his birth:
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother’s abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead. Maybe the idea was to destroy his nostalgia for the old world.
It doesn’t matter that a five-year-old wouldn’t have such perspective and vocabulary—that’s not the point. It’s a remarkable opening to a novel very much focused on what John Mullan in The Guardian calls the “sustenance—and the poison—of a mother’s influence.”
The second section, August 2001, is Patrick’s. He feels abandoned by his wife, who has thrown all her energy into their second child, Thomas. Thomas has replaced Patrick in the matrimonial bed and consumes all of Mary’s waking time. Patrick takes to the bottle, then takes a mistress. The following section, another year and another August, gives voice to Mary and Thomas. But a plot synopsis doesn’t capture the intensity of the novel, its hard-edged humour or what St. Aubyn calls “sardonic ambiguity.”
Francis Wyndham: I think Mother’s Milk is St. Aubyn’s finest achievement to date. As before, the wit of his sophisticated characters and the unconscious humor of some of the others combine to create a shimmer of potential amusement over everything he tells us, even though the content may be almost unbearably painful. Again, his prose, in itself so pellucid and controlled, somehow manages to convey the chaos of emotion, the confusion of heightened sensation, and the daunting contradictions of intellectual endeavor with a force and subtlety that have an exhilarating, almost therapeutic effect on his readers. An undercurrent of human sympathy, present but not obvious in the earlier work, seems now nearer the surface. While the trilogy had at its center such lurid and particular themes as child rape and drug addiction, Mother’s Milk addresses with equal penetration a more general range of concerns: being a spouse, being a parent, being a child, being born, and wanting to die.
In August 2003 the family vacations in the USA. In previous summers they have gone to the French home of Patrick’s mother, but she has bequeathed it to a shaman. One of the underlying themes of the novel is the sense of entitlement of the affluent, the vulgarity of that position and how the rich control by disinheriting their children. The USA trip gives St. Aubyn the opportunity to point his pen at that culture and at the same time show up the arrogance of the Brits. On the plane as they are leaving for the USA, Patrick spots a family of large people trying to squish into their seats:
‘Get in there, Linda,” said the enormous father of the family.
“Dad!” said Linda, whose size spoke for itself.
That certainly seemed typical of something he had seen before in London’s tourist spots: a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hard won fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own air-bag systems in a dangerous world…
Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father’s relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle.
Patrick drinks his way through the USA, imposing on, and then getting kicked out by various relatives. After downing vast amounts of Maker’s Mark he heads to The Better Latte Than Never coffee shop to get coffee:
Old enough to remember the arrival of “Have a nice day,” Patrick could only look with alarm on the hyperinflation of “Have a great one.” Where would this Weimar of bullying cheerfulness end? “You have a profound and meaningful day now,” he simpered under his breath as he tottered across the room with his giant mug. “Have a blissful one,” he snapped as he sat at a table…
The novel is acerbic satire of the best order. This novel is the fourth in the Patrick Melrose series.
Sarah Waters—The Night Watch VPL
Regular readers will remember that I wasn’t enthralled with Waters’s earlier short listed novel, Fingersmith. Turns out I liked it more than this offering. If Fingersmith is “lesbian Victorian romp” then this novel is WWII lesbian romp. Except there is less romping.
I was about 1/3 into the novel when George and I headed off to the Galiano Writers’ Festival. I was carrying around the book in case there were gaps, and I had time to read. Several people approached me and asked how I liked the book, which was a bit awkward since it turned out they had read the novel and “loved” it. Waters has a large fan base who love her characters. According to online reviews, this novel annoyed some of those fans who wish Waters would stick with the Victorian shtick.
The novel focuses on four characters “three women and a young man with a past—drawn with absolute truth and intimacy” says the book blurb. Who writes these things? The first section is 1947, the second 1944 and the final and shortest is 1941. So you can see the plot device, showing the consequences of the actions then backtracking to reveal what really happened.
I found the novel to be overburdened with description and details, about everything. Each time a character shows up we are given a complete description of clothing. Same for changing scenery. And most of it doesn’t matter to the plot:
They had brought china cups to drink from. The beer foamed madly to the curving porcelain lips. Beneath the froth it was chill, bitter, marvelous. Helen closed her eyes, savouring the heat of the sun on her face; liking the reckless, holidayish feeling of drinking beer in so public a place. But she hid the bottles, too, in a fold of the canvas bag.
Okay, this section is telling about the character of Helen and produces atmosphere. But that’s where I had my major problem. With all the atmosphere and details, the characters get lost. And in a novel about characters, that seems to me to be a problem.
There is lots and lots of dialogue, which often is an indicator of a less literary work. And considering the time in which the novel occurs I found too much authorial manipulation. All the characters are gay. Where is the rest of the world?
On page 247 I gave up. If you like detailed historical novels you will probably like this one—it is very much in that tradition.
Kiran Desai—The Inheritance of Loss WINNER
A review in the New York Times claims that this novel explores, “with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980’s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.” Here is the complete and highly favourable review:
For my part it was all I could do to finish the novel, often cursing my You Must Read All of the Winning Book Rule. It is the “intimacy” to which the review refers, partly, that bothered me. Like many of the novels by NRI (non-resident Indians) there is, for my critical tastes, an over abundance of adjectives. And sentimentality:
Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.
Many details just don’t make sense. A son goes to New York City and works, illegally in a series of underpaid Joe-jobs, in various ethnic restaurants. He lives in squalid apartments with refugees/immigrants from other third world countries, dreaming of a green card. But when he does leave, a few years later, he suddenly has a huge amount of savings and is able to purchase televisions, electronics, watches, calculators, and on and on. It would require another fortune to ship this stuff.
I read in an interview that Desai was pushed to take this novel to publication. She was then faced with plowing through 8 years of notes and hundreds of pages. That might explain my difficultly (and indifference) to the characters in the various plots—the editing has not been thoroughly refined. In sections that should produce tension there is only mishmash and plodding. I think this win might be a case of topic trumping talent. Not that Desai doesn’t show ability and promise but this novel is not an international award winner. It is too often overwritten and cloying. Here is a review that takes the time to muster an argument and raise some concerns. If you take the time to read it, also read the comments:
Desai is the daughter of novelist Anita Desai. This is her second novel.
Hisham Matar—In The Country of Men VPL
You can’t help wondering how much of this novel is autobiographical. Matar was born in the USA to Libyan parents. His father worked for the Libyan delegation to the UN. The family moved to Tripoli when Matar was two and he lived there until he was nine, when the family fled to Cairo, escaping the terror that resulted in the 1979 September revolution of Qaddafi.
Nine-year old Suleiman narrates the novel in first person. Suleiman’s father is a businessman who travels and is away a lot. Often in the absence of her husband Suleiman’s mother gets “ill.” It is clear to the reader that she is drunk. During these drunken times it is her habit to talk to Suleiman about her past, much of which focuses on how her family married her off at 14 to a man she’d never met and didn’t love. The father believes in democracy and is involved with people who do not want to see Qaddafi in power. He is arrested, badly beaten, and then dumped because the mother has intervened with powerful people to save his life. Fearing for the safety of their son, the parents ship him off to Cairo to live with a trusted and beloved friend who has already been forced to flee.
The novel has been much praised for showing the suffering of everyday people during political unrest. The novel does force considerations of patriotism and nationalism, and their costs.
I had problems with the young narrator’s voice. Often it’s not convincing—the perspective is too mature. Here is an instance after the father has been beaten:
‘He made me cover the mirrors. He doesn’t want to see himself. He doesn’t want Slooma to see him either,’ she said, running her fingers through my hair as if she and I had discussed all of this before, shared all the details and retold them to one another so many times neither of us could truly say who had first told the story to the other.
The narrator is not a boy. In the last handful of pages, as the narrator quickly tells what happened to him from the age of 9 and his exile to his current age of 24, there is a new narrative voice, that of the 24-year-old Suleiman. It’s the best part of the book. Why not use that voice throughout, establish at the beginning that it is the older voice looking back? The contradictions between the language being used and the age of the boy narrator are distracting.
The characters are pretty flat. In part that, again, may be the result of the young narrator. His mother begins as a subservient and unhappy wife, drowning her sorrow in booze. After her husband is beaten they appear to be a solid, committed couple. How did that transformation take place? How can she so easily shut off the alcohol?
At times the writing is highly sentimental and flowery:
The clouds were cotton, the blue tremendous, the world below the page of atlas alive with worm-like cars, silent windows reflecting the light. Libya was coastline, on one side the relentless yellow desert stretching into Africa, on the other the foam-sprinkled and curling royal blue of my childhood-Mediterranean.
Again, not the voice of a 9 year-old child.
I didn’t learn much about Libyan politics. This story could have taken place in any country suffering under harsh political policies, and perhaps that is the point—the tension and confusion of a 9-year-old.
This is the first novel by Hishma Matar. It was much hyped before publication, resulting in a bidding war and foreign rights being sold in 14 countries before the manuscript was even delivered. Little wonder, with such financial investment, that the publisher submitted the novel to the Bookers.
Anthony Quinn—from The Guardian
I enjoyed every moment of the 2006 Booker until the very last minutes of our final meeting in the Guildhall. That was when I realised that the novel which I had set my heart on would not be the winner. On anecdotal evidence from friends who had judged the prize in previous years, I gathered that there was usually someone on the jury who would be a complete pest and make the whole process as awkward as possible. Not this time: our chairman, Hermione Lee, set a tone of almost heartless conviviality that Candia McWilliam, Fiona Shaw and Simon Armitage consistently upheld. Indeed, we had been so likeminded in the final reckoning of our shortlist that I must have blanked the ominous build-up of support for Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and assumed that everyone would come round to what was clearly the best book, Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. When I was outvoted 4-1 I was surprised, and appalled. Six months of reading and re-reading – only to be thwarted at the last! I asked for a recount, which at least got a laugh. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I felt sick to my stomach. I was pleased for Kiran Desai, who’d spent eight years writing it. But we chose the wrong book.
I think Quinn is correct—the wrong book won in 2006. An example of a jury favouring a topic from a very new writer over the accomplished work of a senior writer.