Some Thoughts on Prestige, Public Opinion, and the Giller Prize


Canada Reads, 2010

by Steven W. Beattie

Anyone who doubts the pernicious cultural impact of American Idol need look no farther than the CBC’s books coverage. Simon Fuller’s venture into prime-time karaoke was in effect nothing more than an update of the cheesy 1980s’ TV talent show Star Search, hosted by Ed McMahon, which pit pairs of wannabe performers against one another. Contestants faced off in a series of categories – male vocalist, female vocalist, dance, comedy, spokesmodel (!) – following which a panel of judges would score them using a rating system of one to four stars. The contestant with the highest average score won. Fuller’s big innovation with Pop Idol in Britain – and its more pervasive American counterpart – was to allow the general public to vote on the winner. (In the Star Search model, the studio audience was allowed to vote only in the event of a tie.) The audience participation aspect of American Idol, which permits audience members lounging on their sofas to directly influence the outcome, is as important as the narcissistic, “everybody is entitled to be a star” mentality the show promotes.

But what is significant about both Star Search and American Idol is that in neither case is the audience allowed to participate in the audition process. In other words, the contestants who land on the shows have already been vetted by professional judges, who can be assumed to hold them to a certain standard in their fields. (Whatever that standard may be based on: more about this in a moment.)

Flash forward to 2010, and the 10th anniversary of the literary elimination contest known as Canada Reads. To mark the anniversary, the CBC, which broadcasts the program each spring on Radio 1, decided to alter its usual format by allowing members of the general public to nominate one Canadian novel published after January 1, 2001. This novel would represent what the person nominating it considered to be an “essential” work of Canadian fiction published during the period of eligibility. The number of votes for each book were tallied, and the most popular 40 titles were fashioned into a longlist, from which the public was again invited to vote for their favourite book, this time for the purpose of culling the 40 titles to a shortlist of 10, from which the five Canada Reads celebrity panelists would chose one book to defend on air.

Leaving aside the rather nebulous definition of the word “essential” (the eventual winner, Terry Fallis’s comic novel The Best Laid Plans, was deemed more “essential” to CanLit than such novels as De Niro’s Game, Oryx & Crake, Three Day Road, Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, JPod, Good to a Fault, and A Complicated Kindness), what Canada Reads asserted was the primacy of popular opinion, where anyone with access to a computer could feel that they were influencing the outcome of the contest. (Sometimes in a manner that was less than fair: although there was an official limit of one vote per person, I heard many accounts of people voting several times from different computers.)

Now, let’s consider the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s most lucrative prize for literary fiction, which for the first time in five years has switched broadcast partners from CTV to the CBC. Along with their duties as the official broadcaster for the award ceremony itself, the Ceeb has promised that it will “be celebrating some of the best Canadian fiction of 2010 and 2011 with some great contests with fantastic prizes.” The first of these “great contests” is the so-called “Reader’s Choice Contest,” which allows members of the public to vote for the book they think deserves to be nominated for this year’s Giller. The public can consult a list of eligible books, available on the Giller website, and choose one they think should be included on the longlist for this year’s prize. (The list of eligible books is more inclusive than what publishers officially submit for consideration; publishers are restricted to three titles apiece, unless an author has previously won a Giller or a Governor General’s Literary Award, in which case they are automatically considered for this year’s prize.)

Here’s the relevant rubric from the CBC Books website:

This year you can make a difference by nominating a book for the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Explore this year’s eligible books and let us know which one you believe deserves to be considered for the $50,000 award.

CBC Books will tally your nominations. The book that garners the most nominations will be added to the official longlist, which will be announced on September 6, 2011. Submit your selection by filling out the CBC Books nomination form by midnight ET on August 28.

Here we have the same American Idol–style participatory mentality that held sway over last year’s Canada Reads proceedings infecting what is putatively this country’s most prestigious award for fiction. The difference is, whereas Canada Reads is a game, a goof, a self-conscious entertainment, the Giller is a major cultural force in this country. According to the Giller website’s homepage, the prize “awards $50,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists.” Since its inception in 1994, the Giller prize has positioned itself as the premiere arbiter of quality literary fiction in Canada. It is our Booker, our Pulitzer, our Goncourt. The website specifies that it bestows its honour on the “best” work of fiction published in this country, not the most popular.

Of course, the “best” work of fiction in any given year is a chimera: determinations of literary worth are so subjective that a final verdict is ultimately down to the sensibilities of the three people who make up the jury in each prize period. One such jury determined that Vincent Lam’s story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was superior to both the aforementioned Rawi Hage novel De Niro’s Game and Carol Windley’s story collection Home Schooling. Last year, the jury decided that Johanna Skibsrud’s flawed first novel, The Sentimentalists, was a better choice than Alexander MacLeod’s brilliant debut collection, Light Lifting. These are matters of taste that can be argued from here until doomsday.

What is inarguable is that in each case, the decision as to a title’s relative worth has been made by a dedicated cadre of three people who have been chosen for their expertise in exercising critical judgment. The jury members have been charged with a task: surveying a field of literary work and determining, to the best of their abilities, which book they consider to be the strongest. It’s a flawed system, to be sure, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Allowing the general public, out of a sense of misplaced populism, to vote a book onto the longlist devalues the work that the jury does in sifting through the submitted books and coming up with a number of choices for books they feel deserve to be elevated above the rest. Should the public choose a book that the jury has already determined will make the longlist, the process is redundant. Should the public choose a different book from those the jury has determined are worthy of longlisting, there is little likelihood that title will make it to the shortlist. (It will, however, be able to claim the status of “Giller nominated” novel or story collection.) The only event in which the public could have a tangible effect on the jury’s mindset would be if they chose a book that the jury had not yet considered (because it was eligible, but not officially submitted by a publisher) and that they subsequently felt to be worthy of distinction. But the likelihood of this happening is remote, to say the least.

In any event, the public’s nominations are tainted from the outset, because members of the general public will not have read the entire slate of eligible books, which means they are unable to make an informed determination – even on a subjective level – as to which is best among them. Indeed, the general public can’t have read many of the eligible books, since a good number of them aren’t available for sale until after the August 28 closing date for the CBC’s contest. What this means is that many people will be voting for books on the basis of an affection for their authors’ previous works, which does little to advance the perception that the Giller prize is a measure of the best fiction produced in a given year. Anyone who doubts the validity of this need only take a jog over to the CBC website, where there are already numerous people advocating for the inclusion of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, on this year’s longlist. The only problem: the book is not available yet. As a result, readers such as Jen from Vancouver are reduced to saying, “I have not read The Antagonist yet but have no doubt it will be worth [sic] of nomination.”

Needless to say, an author’s previous track record has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of a new book. Although I, too, am a fan of Coady’s work, I can’t attest to the merit of The Angagonist, because, like Jen from Vancouver, I haven’t read it. This year’s Giller jury, on the other hand, has had access to the book, and is therefore in a better position to gauge its relative worth, not only on its own merits, but also in comparison to the other submitted books in this year’s field. This is precisely why a jury is charged with the responsibility of going through a group of books and choosing what it considers to be the worthiest among them. By elevating uninformed public opinion to the same level, the value of this work is diminished.

As, it would seem, is the legitimacy and prestige of the prize itself. To make such a claim is to immediately get branded an elitist, but this too misses the point. Choosing the nominees and eventual winner for the Giller prize has always been an elitist endeavour, to the extent that it has focused – rightly, in my opinion – on the strongest works of literary fiction being produced in this country. If the prize were meant as a popularity contest, why not just take the five top-ranking books on BookNet Canada’s sales rankings each year and make that the shortlist? It should go without saying that the reason for not doing this is that sales don’t equate to literary worth.

Should there be any doubt as to the elitist nature of the award, just read the comments by Elana Rabinovitch, one of the prize administrators, in the National Post. Asked about the changes to this year’s prize, Rabinovitch defended the decision to include a people’s choice aspect (which, interestingly, she claims originated entirely with the Giller administration, not with the CBC), as a way “of giving some attention to the longlist.” When asked about a tweet from the Giller Prize Twitter account, which suggested that genre fiction was not eligible for the prize, Rabinovitch responded, “it’s the literary fiction first and foremost, that’s why publishers don’t submit genre novels like detective, mysteries, novels that are in a series, and the like. They just don’t because I think it’s generally known that the award is for primarily literary fiction.”

It is also generally known that the people making the decisions about which books to honour are respected experts in the field of literature or, at minimum, well-read individuals from other walks of life who have acquired a level of discernment and taste. Unlike those who would instantly apply the kind of pejorative connotation to “elitist” that attaches to words such as “racist” or “homophobic,” I feel that there are circumstances in which expert opinion – elitist opinion, if you prefer – is not only desirable, but necessary. (Would we, for instance, trust members of the general public to perform open-heart surgery or assess the structural integrity of a high rise?) Adjudicating a literary prize of Giller’s stature – that is, a prize that has a measurable, demonstrable effect on the literary culture of this country – is one of those circumstances.

It is all well and good to say that Giller is only allowing the public to select one title for the longlist, and that the shortlist and the winner will be down to the official jury, but the legitimacy of the prize is nonetheless impacted. This is especially true given the nature of online voting contests, which, as was proved by last year’s experience with Canada Reads, has little to do with actual worth, and everything to do with who is most adept at marshalling the users of social media to vote for their book. The Giller prize has become significant in this country precisely because of the prestige that accrues to it. The choice it faces now is: does it continue to award literary merit, or does it become a popularity contest? It can’t be both.

Piece crossposted with That Shakespearean Rag