Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Number of Ovaries Represented on the Giller Long List is of Zero Importance to Anything

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It is in the nature of the contemporary publishing industry to publicly recognize preferences. This is done in massive, transnational ways (advances, bestseller lists, etc) and also in more intimate ways. In one of the most extreme examples of the latter, there is an annual tradition in this country wherein a hundred books are mailed to the home or office of three people who may or may not be complete strangers. Those three people meet up several months later, underslept and twitching from the eyestrain, and develop a communal list of their favourites from within the 100.

Sometime thereafter, that list is placed on the internet and a unique form of human insanity grabs the throats of the nation’s news media. Because at some point, the sociological reach of that three-member group grows from what would normally constitute a coffeeshop booth’s worth of opinion-sharing to a surrogate for the pulse of all Canada. Witness the stories, and the mob-speak that follows them, in both of our national newspapers. The Giller long list has ten women and only two men? Whatever could this mean? Have female writers attained equality or even superiority over their male counterparts in the public mind? Does this mean the death of the male novelist? Is there a link between testosterone and the inability to produce awardable fiction? Let’s commission studies.

And what does this new popular opinion mean in the face of last year’s list, which was dominated to a similar degree by men? Was that some sort of outlier, a year of regressive protest voting brought on by the clearly inarguable march of the authorix? Or are we really just living in an unpredictable era?

There are times when the internet falls back a bit and loses sight of the touch-and-feel realities of the rest of the world. I once spoke with a former national award judge (the GGs, I believe, who have no long list so their representative bombshell is shrunken further to only five titles) who said that in a three-jury panel, likely everybody’s favourite book will make the list. This leaves two more spaces, and it’s here that the pool of nominees depends more on who feels like arguing the most that day than on the masterful deployment of the adverb. This is because, said the juror (who I’m not withholding for journalistic reasons, I really can’t quite remember who it was. It was dark. And a bar. And somewhat late at night), it’s really very difficult to argue comparatively between works of literature. Most well-read reviewers can say with confidence whether or not they thought an individual book was any good, and give convincing evidence to support their claim, but it’s a completely new matter trying to rank two or more titles that have little to do with one another save their year and country of birth. On account of this difficulty, all there is to rely on is the vociferousness of the individual opinion. Example: “I liked Jeanette Lynes’ book?” “Oh yeah, because I liked the Michael Crummey.” “Sure, but I realllllllly like the Jeanette Lynes.” Argument over. Jeanette Lynes makes the list.

What I remember best from this juror’s lengthy speech about the decision making process was that the jury met that year on a Tuesday, and he asserted that if this meeting took place on either the Monday previous or the Wednesday following, the list would have looked markedly different. So there’s a second dimension to the national press’s immense overcoverage of the long list, that not only is it just three people’s opinion, but it’s three people’s opinion derived from an arduous system regarding a product (literature) that is almost impossible to speak about when it comes to judgements of comparative quality. Even though the jury contained three smart readers (one of which wins my personal Giller award for passive-aggressive puff piece answering) we can’t rely on these poor folks to locate the national compass. And I guess there’s only one Canadian in the jury, thus reducing the Canadians on the jury to Canadians in the world ratio to a mere 1:31,000,000. That being said, if we had to pick someone to model the wit and literary tastes of our country after, Alistair MacLeod would make my long list, no discussion necessary

I don’t want to take anything away from the listed authors. I’ve read three of these books (the Martha Bailie, Jeanette Lynes, and Anne Michaels) and liked them to varying degrees and for various reasons. There will probably be some minor spike in sales for all twelve, and that’s good news, though the real spike will come when the shortlist is announced. Like many Canadians, I will likely read the winner when it wins. But are we not going a little bit insane when the headline for the Globe coverage reads Women dominate Giller long list and some among us take it seriously? In what way will next years coverage be used to describe the socio-political state of the country? I guess that depends on whether it contains eleven men, or fourteen Torontonians. Or eight first-time novelists. Or six and one-half women named Fran. Or…

Ending in et cetera,
Jake

2 comments

Hello Bookseller,

I think so, yes. In fact, I seem to remember that very thing happening last year, with similar results. I guess it's in the nature of the newsmedia to take a pile of data (like a list of 12 names) and find the story within it, even if, tabled over a mutiyear period, the suggestion the story is making (in this case, that the GIller has become the domain of female authors) is invalid.

Thanks,
Jake

Great article. Do you think there would be similar headlines if the list was all/almost all male?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page