By Jean Baird | May 21, 2013


I missed a very important point in my guide to administering prizes.

The Griffin Prize does not limit the numbers of books a publisher can submit. Neither do the Governor General’s Literary Awards. But the Giller does and so does The Writers’ Trust. That rule puts enormous power into the hands of publishers who are interesting in marketing their books. Don’t you think they would tend to submit the books for which they have paid the biggest advance or for which they have invested the most advertising dollars. And, who would blame them? But it takes the emphasis off literary merit and puts it onto marketing.

It means a great many worthy books never make it to the starting gate. If you are administering, find a way to remove that rule and widen the field.

Jean’s guide to readers

Be promiscuous. Read around. Don’t get trapped into reading what it is fashionable to be seen reading. Or politically correct. Or the latest buzz in the academic world. You’ll miss out.

The best way to find books:

  • Follow your nose. Find writers you like, read more of their work. Find out the writers they like, and read their books.
  • Talk to other readers. Read what they recommend.
  • Spend time browsing bookstores and libraries. Read the dust jackets. Read a few pages.
  • Don’t be fooled by what is on the tables or windows of booksellers, unless you are in an independent store. Publishers have paid to have those books prominently displayed.
  • Talk to the people who work in your local independent bookstores. Talk to your librarian. Talk to the staff at used bookstores.
  • Join a book club.
  • Read reviews. You’ll quickly learn the reviewers to trust.

Some CBC shows are of interest to readers—Writers & Company and The Next Chapter. I don’t trust much of what goes on with Canada Reads, as regular readers of these reports will already know.

If you want to know where the real stuff is happening—innovation, experimentation—don’t spend much time surveying prize lists. For the most part, they aren’t catching it. Pay attention to what the small literary presses are doing—they are still fostering innovation rather than focusing on the bottom line. You may find certain publishers or editors that are publishing work that is of interest to you. I used to buy up all the old Penguins with the green covers—old detective series.

If you are looking at prize lists, don’t dismiss the short-list, for the reasons mentioned often in this report. Luck and politics play too big a part in prizes to really be a solid basis for reputations or literary merit. Don’t be suckered.

If you are considering reading prize-winning books check to see who was on the jury that handed out the prize.

Of all the prizes, the ones that might point you toward high literary merit are Lifetime Achievement Awards.

In first year university English class our Prof encouraged us to develop our own critical skills and not to be swayed by popularity, etc. Prizes have become about consumerism. When the chair of the Booker says that booksellers will be pleased with the jury’s choices he means lots of people will buy books. Prizes are turning people into sheep, not into critical readers. So I will say to you what my first year Prof said to us—Don’t be sheep. Be goats.

Jury: James Naughtie is a well-known broadcaster. During his career, Naughtie has anchored BBC radio coverage of British and American presidential elections and has written and introduced numerous documentaries and programmes for BBC Radio and television. He has written two books on contemporary politics, The Rivals – The Story of a Political Marriage, and The Accidental American – Tony Blair and the Presidency. Lucasta Miller has worked as Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent and, more recently, as a critic for The Guardian. Her novels include The Bronte Myth (2001) and Secrets and Lives. John Mullan is Professor of English at University College, London. His books include Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature, How Novels Work, and What Matters in Jane Austen? He is also a broadcaster and journalist, writing a regular column on contemporary fiction for The Guardian. Sue Perkins is a comedian, presenter, broadcaster and scriptwriter. She regularly appears on radio and television programmes such as Newsnight Review, Have I Got News For You, Just a Minute and The News Quiz. Sue currently stars in the second series of the critically acclaimed BBC2 show, The Supersizers Go, in which she eats offal and cow brains in restrictive corsetry. (Jean: good literary critical skills, don’t you think?) Michael Prodger has been a literary journalist for many years and is a former Literary Editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

In Canada the Giller is often charged with being Toronto-centric. The Booker is all about London. Over the years, with few exceptions, all the jurors live in London.

Check out the strange stats of the Booker:


A. S. Byatt—The Children’s Book VPL

Category: overstuffed Victorian historical novel.

Byatt has based this novel on the unusual life of E. Nesbitt, author of The Railway Children. It is deeply researched and deeply layered. The novel begins in what appears to be a very safe world, reminiscent of the world of Swallows and Amazons. The adults seem to respond with patience and understanding to the concerns of children, and to those less fortunate. Slowly other things start to creep in; the tone shifts. The infamous Oscar Wilde trial is taking place. Some of the characters go to see Aschenputtel, the very unDisney German version of the Cinderella story that is full of violence and devoid of charity and forgiveness. As with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all is not as it first appears. By the way, this name-dropping of other writers and other books, plays, stories and so on is very much a part of the way Byatt stacks this novel.

Olive Wellwood, the Nesbitt character, is an expert in British fairy lore. Her character is used to explore the theme of creative impulse and spirit, and the responsibilities of creation. Another central character is the volatile potter Fludd, who makes a mess of his life, and the lives of his children. His apprentice, the young Phillip, is better able to function with people, though he has the same poor roots as does Olive. Other characters are puppet makers, playwrights, etc. It’s the Arts and Craft movement in full swing, and Byatt captures the bohemian spirit and excess of it and the Fabians. This is a world unknowingly desperate for Coco Channel—clean lines and no frills.

Every Edwardian concern, and I do mean every, makes an appearance in this novel—suffrage, women’s education, industrial revolution, European unrest, and so on, ad nauseum. There are endless descriptions of pots and their decoration, the details of every wardrobe item of every character and mini-lectures about various Edwardian concerns.

For example: E. M. Forster grieved over the invasion of Abinger by machines and the violation of Chanctonbury Ring. Bloomsbury coexisted in Bloomsbury and in simple farmhouses on the Downs, where they had servant problems and problems with plumbing. They loved the earth, but they loved it for something irretrievably lost, as well as for its smells and scents and filth and bounce and clog and crumble. Those great masters of the description of the English earth, Richard Jefferies and later W. H. Hudson, who can describe the whole expanse of the clean air, and the currents in it, and the rabbit-nibbled, sheep-cropped grass on the Downs, the close trees in coppices, the solitary thorns shaped by the wind, the fish fanning against the current, the birds riding the thermal flow, so that we think they are our guide to the unspoiled green and pleasant land—both of these are in fact men of a Silver Age, elegiac. They spend pages listing the species of birds and mammals erased from their land by pheasant-rearing gamekeepers. The goshawk, the pole cat, the pine marten, gone, gone away. Pike decimated. Trees tidied out of their wild shapes and habits. The Golden Age was when no humans interfered with anything.

The cast of characters is just as sprawling, including cameo appearances by every famous Edwardian who actually lived. Apparently Byatt had to create an excel spreadsheet when she was writing this novel is order to keep track of everyone.

At the core of the novel is destruction—war, incest, adultery, and rape. But the most destructive act is the way Olive treats her children and uses them as fodder for the work. Moral: don’t be a child of a children’s writer.

I haven’t touched much on plot but will supply a link below to a mostly glowing review. As I’ve said before about Byatt, the detailed excess puts me off. This novel is large in its ambition and noteworthy for how far it goes to capture a time in its fullness but I found myself skimming as I headed toward page 600 and something.


J. M. Coetzee—Summertime VPL

Jean’s Booker Club

Summertime is the third book in Coetzee’s memoir trilogy. Maybe. The first two books Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life and Youth, as the titles suggest, are about the boyhood and youth of a character named John Coetzee. Aaron, who is very familiar with Coetzee’s work, says these books are fairly straight ahead narratives. Summertime begins with about a dozen pages from the Notebooks of the character John Coetzee. The next five sections are interviews that the biographer of the character John Coetzee conducts with people who knew John. The final section is undated Notebook entries. The book is not a straight ahead narrative.

Do you notice how careful I am being? To simplify things, if that is possible with this slippery book, I will refer to the author of Summertime as J. M. and the character in the book as John. A great deal of our discussion focused on how to operate this book. Not to suggest that the book is a difficult read, because the reverse is true, even in the sections where the biographer’s writing is deliberately horrible, such as “Julia.” But nothing about the book is straightforward.

Judith liked the book but said that there were parts that irritated her, such as the above-mentioned section with the despicable biographer. She then went on to tell us about her liaison with Coetzee when she was in Cape Town in 1972. We weren’t sure whether to believe her or not. Read the book, folks. Read the book.

GB asked, Who is the central character? Dennis suggested it might be John’s father, with whom he lives and who appears in all sections. In part, it is about the biographer and the nature of biography. Biographers prey on people. What can we ever know about someone we’ve never met, as the biographer has never met John?

Or is the central character John? So J. M. Coetzee creates a character named John Coetzee so J. M. can be deeply honest about the task of writing? Do we all have another self? John is awkward, socially inept and mostly boring in bed. Well, if we can believe the account of the women being interviewed. Or if we can believe the recording of the biographer who likes to embellish the things he is told in order to make them more interesting. Or if we can believe J. M., who has created the character of the biographer. But the biographer doesn’t have a clue that he is being written by Coetzee.

Phew. It’s constantly shifting ground

Okay, if we can’t determine the central character then what is the book about? We did agree that it is fiction and that in part the novel is about how we are all fictioneers, busy creating and adapting the stories of our lives. It’s also about writing and language, particularly avant-garde writing. And a major theme plays with the way we read, and our expectations as readers—symbolically the removal of John’s father’s larynx is about the removal of language.

Colin noted that the book is a massive portrait; a huge novel about masculinity that is archly cynical. What it means to be male and the world’s expectations of men. The novel also explores what it means to be provincial, and of mixed race. And it’s certainly very much about South Africa.

We couldn’t agree about the ending, which is ambiguous. Does the novel end with cruelty or survival?

Dennis didn’t agree. He said the novel is about a dysfunctional family. It’s a “cheap Cuban cigar.”

Aaron believes that in 50 years the trilogy of which Summertime is the third book will be thought of as Coetzee’s masterpiece.

But what if, asked Colin, there is a sequel. Colin suggested the groundwork has been laid in Summertime for a novel about adults and children. And abuse.

Our concluding voting:

Dennis, 4. Colin, 8.5. Judith, 8. Charlie, 8.3. Deb, 7. Aaron, 8. GB, 7.75. Jean, 8.25

Did our discussion enhance our understanding and appreciation for the novel? You bet it did.

In the email discussion that followed our meeting Colin clarified, “I said that the novel was a massive portrait of masculinity, and that the “failed” male/masculinity portrayed is analogous to the Boer, and to the Boer state, a rigid, repressed, potentially brutal masculinist state. The novel seems to me to be a way of trying to comprehend why the Boer state was the way it was, and why it was so paralyzingly unable to change

The male in this novel cannot help to conceive life, and his death seems to resonate with the death of the Boer state.

I wondered, and wonder, if there is a deeper reason for all of this.”

Pauline: “Yes to all of the comments: I found the layering and interweaving of different narratives made for pretty interesting reading, especially when I’d suddenly remember that this was Coetzee writing his own bio. His familiar theme of the ineffectual intellectual (male) in the midst of political and social change took on more resonance. I got a bit tired of the “biographer” at the end, though, so I’d give it a 7.5.”

Renee: “I like this interpretation, Colin, since Coetzee seems always to be grappling with his responsibility as a male and as a white citizen in a racist State. In Summertime he expresses a deep admission of guilt and culpability, a profound fallibility. As well he is reckoning with how personal and political history is recorded and revised. The impossibility of ‘getting it right’ on either level. I’d give it an 8.”

Colin: “I found myself thinking of the males in all colonial enclaves/nations. They were in those places to push aside the previous populations, extrude minerals, grow food and harvest trees for the mother countries. I’m not sure the Boers had a mother (country) after a while. Which may be significant.

Of course these men were also grown to be harvested and shaped into armies, in the ongoing expectation in the home countries of wars of expansion and acquisition. They were a crop.”

Judith: “Nobody took that story about me and Coetzee seriously, did they? I never did, not even in 1972. And was it Cape Town?”

A few weeks later, from Judith: ““I agree with Colin but I think what we missed in our discussion was the importance of the women in the book, not just their characters as presented through the biographer’s manipulations of the interviews, but as Coetzee, who has framed the notebooks and the “biography” within a larger, I would say, documentary style fiction, places them.

It seems to me that Coetzee was unable to continue the trilogy as he began it with Boyhood and Youth, as fictionalized memoir, because the character has not been able to reach maturity (and neither has his country).  Maturity is impossible in this context, so how can there be Adulthood as a third volume? What is exasperating to us is the character John’s clumsiness and self-consciousness as he attempts to understand and reach for something bigger in his own life, and to address the Boer legacy that clings to him. The women in the book are somewhat disdainful of him, he has a place temporarily in their lives, but he is not loved. He is not a romantic hero. Even his cousin Margo’s appreciation of him finds it limit in exasperated affection, deep love somehow defeated by what she sees as his ineffectualness. He has ideals, but he can’t seem to live properly.

I liked the fact that the character John has these dreams.

Coetzee seems to suggest, by leaving the question at the end, that the choice is between two different kinds of masculinity (or humanity?), one that is dogged and dutiful, if not loving, but that cannot break out of that, and one that that may not be fully evolved but is trying. I liked that John is trying, in his clumsy, boyish, sometimes intelligent, sometimes naive way, for a deeper, more connected way to be, even as he fails. Coetzee doesn’t let us stay with a romantic vision.

I decided to read Diary of a Bad Year after our meeting, a $6.99 remainder I’ve had for a few years but forgot about. Right away I disliked the way Coetzee set up the young woman character. I didn’t find her first person thoughts believable, in the way that I do believe the women in Summertime, despite the biographer’s manipulations. But is that Coetzee tricking me into seeing the women as somehow more authentic, because even in their anger they seem more straightforward? As I kept reading Coetzee subverted that notion, batting this way, then that…. Characters as deadly ping pong or something.”

Adam Foulds—The Quickening Maze

Foulds was the new-comer and underdog for the 2009 Booker, up against many seasoned writers. His first novel was published in 2007. His book-length narrative poem The Broken Word won the Costa Poetry prize. In 2008 he was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

The writing style of the novel seemed what you’d expect from a young writer, still learning the craft. There were far too many similes and sentence fragments for my liking.

Hannah turned and saw her sister’s face in the window. She wouldn’t come out, Hannah knew. She didn’t like extraordinary people. She like ordinary people and was preparing for her wedding, after which she could live almost entirely among them. She retreated out of sight like a fish from the surface of a pond, leaving the glass dark.

The novel takes its plot from a time when the now-regaled environmental poet John Clare was in the innovative mental institute of Matthew Allen. Dr. Allen invented a disastrous wood carving machine, convinced Alfred Tennyson (whose brother was also in the institute) to invest, which bankrupted the Tennyson family. Structurally, the novel takes us into the heads of various characters, including the mad and delusional John Clare and other patients. Brave, I suppose, trying to explain the thinking of a madman. It was not convincing for me.

In part the novel is about poetry and poets, “Poetry will survive. Civilization has never been without it.” I never really got any sense of the characters of the poets.

Readers didn’t respond all that favourably, but reviewers sure did:

Andrew Motion review




Sarah Waters—The Little Stranger

Regular readers will know that the previous two short-listed novels by Waters didn’t smite me. In this book, Waters has put aside the lesbian theme. The Little Stranger is a gothic romance ghost story set in post WWII England.

Dr. Faraday is called to the local manor to treat a young servant girl. He had been to Hundreds Hall as a child; his mother was on staff. Decades later the house is much changed, “the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules,” says the jacket blurb.

For the first 120 pages the novel is a straight-ahead narrative about changing traditions and the clash of old and new, upper class and lower class. Around page 120 a “bad thing” is introduced and from that point the novel turns toward the occult.

The doctor narrates the story in first person. He’s a bit of a dolt and an unreliable narrator. His voice is that of calm reason and a bland bachelor.

I wasn’t persuaded by all the plot twists, and non-explanations of psychic events but the novel is a rip-roaring good read, if you like that sort of story. Does Waters bring anything new or fresh to the gothic romance story? No, I don’t think so.

In the odd twists that happen in the prize world here is a glowing review of the novel by Hilary Mantel who beat out Waters to win the Booker for this year:


Simon Mawer—The Glass Room

Another house. This one isn’t an aging English manor house but rather a brand new ultra-modern piece of artwork in a provincial Czech town—it is a vision of and a symbol for the future.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer commission the “brilliant” architect Rainer von Abt to build them a family home. The result is hailed as a modernist masterpiece. But there is an undertone to the success of the house and the domestic bliss of the young family. Liesel is Aryan but Viktor is a Jew, and the Nazi movement in Germany is unsettling, and threatening. Plus Viktor has strayed from the marriage bed.

The glass room of the title is the house that Rainer designs, a house that actually does exist, as do many of the characters. Hedy Lamarr makes a visit to the house, as do real life merchants and industrialists of the time, the tense days before WWII.

The real story of the house is deeply compelling. As in the novel, it was abandoned by the owners, who fled the country before German occupation. Then it was used by all manner of organizations and governments, including a dance studio and a children’s rehab gym, until finally in 2010 a vast amount of money was committed and the building was fully restored. reopening March 2012


In the novel there are too many unlikely plot twists for my liking and the frequent and often sentimental rhapsodies about the room and the space became irritating.

Her words are a shock to Liesel, and yet not a surprise. It is as though the Glass Room has prepared her for this, its spirit of transparency percolating the human beings who stand within it, rendering them as translucent as the glass itself.

Hilary Mantel—Wolf Hall WINNER

Karen Kain once said that when she was dancing Carmen if she missed one day of practice she lost the whole role and had to start from scratch. That’s how I felt reading Wolf Hall. I felt I was lost at least once per page. Part of the challenge is the narrative style. The novel is not first-person but the story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell—much of it from inside his head. The reader figures out that every time the narrator says “he” the pronoun refers to Cromwell, unless you are directed otherwise.


Many reviews have raved about the language but I often stumbled over that aspect as well. Far too often Mantel relies on short, breathless sentences to supply whacks of information.

He turns a page. Grace, silent and small, turns the page with him. The office is Prime. The picture is the Nativity: a tiny white Jesus lies in the folds of his mother’s cloak. The office is Sext: the Magi proffer jeweled cups; behind them is a city on a hill, a city in Italy, with its bell tower, its view of rising ground and its misty line of trees. The office is None: Joseph carries a basket of doves to the temple…

I found that I was avoiding reading—never a good sign. I sought out reviews to discuss what I was missing and to be spurred to continue



I made it to page 155. Then broke my rule for the first time during this project—I didn’t finish the prize-winning book and returned it to the library.

The Coetzee book is a remarkable work but it would not have been a popular winner.



  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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