Its time to make the Giller Prize a little more Canadian

This year's Giller gala, the annual event where Canadas literati and glitterati fete great books, was mostly a muted affair.It.


This year’s Giller gala, the annual event where Canadas literati and glitterati fete great books, was mostly a muted affair.

It was obvious that in the wake of prize founder Jack Rabinovitchs death last summer, no one wanted to be seen to be having too good a time. Ceremony host Mary Walsh was seriously defanged compared with her gig hosting the Toronto Film Critics gala in January (she was outrageously incendiary) laden this time with a leaden format and TV cameras broadcasting in prime time.

But as guests snacked on pre-dinner shrimp, lamb chops, mini grilled cheese and other delectables, there was rumour of a possible rebellion amongst the otherwise well-behaved crowd.

The issues are twofold: one is the foreign-based jury members, and the other more vexing to most is the weak criteria prize originators have established, allowing writers who were born in Canada but who havent spent that much time here, to be eligible.

Short lister Ed OLoughlin (Minds Of Winter), was born here but was raised in Dublin and now lives there with his family. And Rachel Cusk (Transit) was born in Canada but spent much of her early childhood in Los Angeles. She moved to the United Kingdom in 1974 and appears to be there for good.

In my cocktail conversations, Cusk was getting more heat, probably because her superb novel had a good chance of winning. Shes created a unique form in which her protagonist seems to disappear and the result, in both Outline (shortlisted in 2015) and in this years Transit, is truly mesmerizing. But at least two people said they intended to walk out of the room if she won.

To be fair to both OLoughlin and Cusk, their novels do have Canadian content OLoughlin more so as his book is Arctic-themed. Cusk references Toronto more or less in passing. And the authors can hardly be blamed if their books met the Giller criteria. To be eligible, a book must be a first-edition novel or short story collection written by a Canadian citizen or permanent resident and published in Canada.

In the end, the prize went to Michael Redhills Bellevue Square, and except for the fact that Redhill is white and male, there was nothing controversial about his triumph.

But now that weve passed through the transition year after Rabinovitchs death, it might be time for the Giller gang to look at what makes a book eligible.

The UKs Booker Prize doesnt have this problem. Confident in its standing as the worlds most important English-language literary award, organizers have gone in the other direction, expanding the criteria in 2014 to embrace any English-language piece of fiction, including those published in the U.S.

Americas National Book Award, makes demands similar to that of the Giller. The author must be an American and have published the book in the States.

Intriguingly, Australias Miles Franklin Prize does none of the above. The books must be published in Australia but the stated eligibility factors make no mention of the authors citizenship.

The book must only be of a high literary merit and heres the thing must be of the present Australian life in any of its phases.

The focus is on the stories themselves and how they reflect on the country. So a tale set on Mars has no chance, unless its allegorical properties are obvious. Many authors shortlisted for the Giller have written works set elsewhere and with hardly a reference to Canada. Were the Giller to adopt similar guidelines, recent winners such as Esi Edugyans Half-Blood Blues and Sean Michaelss Us Conductors wouldnt qualify.

So, given that the Giller is clear that it wants to honour a Canadian, what makes an author Canadian, other than their passport?

Should a writer be disqualified if theyve lived out of the country for over five years? Where would that have left someone like Mavis Gallant, the celebrated Montreal-born short story writer who spent much of her life in Paris?

Maybe there should be a prerequisite that the author have published at least one book while living in Canada? That would make them the literary equivalents of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, whove lived in Los Angeles for decades.

Personally, I have less difficulty with the criteria than I do with the Gillers warm welcome to jury members from the U.S. and UK. Why do we need them? Are we not capable of judging Canadas best books ourselves? We paid the price for inviting a British writer onto the jury when 2009 member Victoria Glendinning cast aspersions on CanLit in a takedown published in the Financial Times. She suggested, to paraphrase her, that mediocrity ruled our literary landscape.

Im sure this years foreign contingent, consisting of British author Richard Beard and the American Nathan Englander were more respectful, but you get the feeling prize officials either want celebrity sizzle on board sad in itself or worse, dont trust Canadians to judge their own.

Yes, were a small country and chances are a juror will personally know at least some of the authors whose books are presented to them, but the jury process can adapt to those problems.

The Giller team ought to give it a chance.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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