On November 7th, the 2006 Giller Prize went to Toronto MD-author Vincent Lam for his book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, published by Doubleday Canada. In this column of six years ago from “Saturday Night,” Frank Moher took on the big-publisher, Torontocentric award. The juries and short-lists for the Giller have improved since those days, though it has yet to go to a publisher not based in Toronto, or an author west of Winnipeg. Strange. Must be the water.
According to literary legend, invitations to the Giller awards dinner are delivered by limousine and accompanied by a red rose. I can’t personally confirm this, though, as I’ve never received one; they don’t deliver a lot of those lovely, vaguely Trudeauesque invitations out here in B.C. Nor do they in Alberta, or Saskatchewan, or Nova Scotia, or Nunavut. Those places don’t count for much in the Giller scheme of things.
Just about no place other than Ontario does, even though the Giller Prize, which will be given out in a ceremony on November 2 in Toronto, is now routinely referred to as “Canada’s pre-eminent literary award.” Its pre-eminence has something to do with its $25,000 cash value — ten grand more than the governor general is able to scrape up for her own, distinctly dowdier effort. But the Giller is also our alpha trinket because the Canadian literary establishment needs it to be. Their control of the publishing landscape has been threatened lately, so if Jack Rabinovitch hadn’t invented a new award, somebody else would have had to.
The Giller’s provenance is genuinely touching and, I think, uncynical. Mr. Rabinovitch, a Toronto real-estate magnate, established it in 1994 to honour the memory of his late wife, Doris Giller, a literary journalist at The Toronto Star and Montreal’s The Gazette. Naturally, this seemed like a wonderful thing at the time; who could complain if somebody wanted to give away money for the best Canadian novel or book of short stories that year? As the Governor General’s Award, the Bookers, the Pulitzers, the Hoohaws, and the International Laundrywomen’s Best Second Novel award have demonstrated, you just can’t have enough of these things.
The warning alarms began to sound, however, when the jury for the first Giller Prize was announced: Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, and David Staines. This smelled of something — specifically, the days when Upper and Lower Canada got together to chart the course for everyone else. And, indeed, while the inaugural short list was decent — Bonnie Burnard’s Casino and Other Stories, Eliza Clark’s What You Need, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets, and Steve Weiner’s The Museum of Love — it also firmly established the tone for what was to come: a preponderance of Ontario-based authors, and domination by Toronto-based publishers.
About the same time, something curious happened to the Governor General’s Award: it became genuinely national. Between 1984 and 1992, Ontario authors had taken the English-language fiction prize all but once, but, beginning in 1993, it was won by western Canadian writers four years in a row. (This might not seem “genuinely national” to anyone in Atlantic or northern Canada, but at least it represented some consistent recognition of writing outside the Southern Ontario vortex.) As well, the GGs could increasingly be relied upon to present a short list that included such writers as Carol Windley and Archie Crail. In other words, writers from the regions who published with small presses. In other words, writers the Toronto salon class knew nothing about.
This wouldn’t do. You’d think there was a country out there or something.
Am I suggesting that Margaret Atwood called a few of her pals together in some backroom in Yorkville so they could elect Jack Rabinovitch as their puppet philanthropist? Of course not. They wouldn’t need to hold a meeting. Anyone who’s worked in Toronto knows how the place operates: a book launch here, a PEN fundraiser there, and the universe continues to unfold as, all those years ago, Jack McClelland decided it should.
As I say, I expect Mr. Rabinovitch’s motives were pure. I am suggesting, though, that discomfiture at the prospect of losing its suzerainty — at precisely the moment that the GGs were becoming more national in scope — is the reason that CanLit Central has embraced the Gillers so fervently, and seen to it that they have become the nation’s “pre-eminent literary award.”
Not that any jury has ever been so silly as to produce a list composed entirely of central Canadian authors — one or two bones are thrown to writers elsewhere: this year, for example, Calgary’s Fred Stenson and Vancouver’s Eden Robinson get to come out to play. The regional quota is also often filled out with picks from the subcategory of “Atlantic Canadian Writers Who Have Moved to Toronto.” At the present rate of growth — David Adams Richards is the latest addition — this category may soon need an award of its own.
But what is clear from scanning the lists is that the Giller Prize has become the kept woman of the Toronto publishing industry. This year, some 27 publishers from across the country submitted books for consideration. Four made it to the short list, three of those from Toronto. In the preceding two years, precisely zero non-Toronto publishers reached the finals. From this we can conclude one of two things: either the small presses around the nation, which publish the majority of authors living outside Ontario, are cesspools of humbug and mediocrity, or the judges for the Giller have “internalized,” as psychologists like to say, the notion that only that which has passed through the cultural eye of Toronto is worthy of being deemed Canadian. Or good. Which, given that the judges tend themselves to be Toronto-published authors, is not hard to imagine. Then there’s the fact that in the six years it has been handed out, the Giller has gone to Ontario writers every year but one. The exception occurred when it was given to that noted Québécois author, Mordecai Richler.
The fix for this is pretty straightforward. Mr. Rabinovitch (may I call you Jack?): get yourself some administrators and judges without ties to, and a stake in, the old order. (And no, Alberto Manguel doesn’t count just because he happened to live in Calgary for a few years.) Lift your sights beyond your own city. As a cultural angel, there’s grander real estate out there for you to survey. Make the Giller as big an award, in every sense, as I expect you meant it to be. And consider sending out some of those invitations by FedEx.
– Frank Moher