Reading the lists

This year I set myself the goal of reading the lists — the books on the fiction shortlists, that is, of Canada’s three big literary prizes. I’ve never done this before, not even by accident. But it seemed possible this year, because two books — Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers — appear on all three lists. In other words, in order to get through the 16 books on the shortlists of the Rogers Writers’ Trust, the Governor General’s, and the Giller prizes, I would in fact have to read only 11 books!

I also imagined that I could accomplish this before each of the prizes was announced, the better to play along with the games of guessing who might win. Hmm, not so likely, looks like. So far I’ve read nearly seven of the books, but the Rogers Trust was announced yesterday, and I’m still short two on that list, including winner Patrick deWitt’s. And the Giller gala next week bears down on me.

Prizes and their lists create excitement around books. They also create debate. John Barber asked, “Are Canadian writers ‘Canadian’ enough?” Controversy about what makes a book literature, what kind of standards that entails, surrounded this years Man Booker prize after one judge foregrounded “readability.” Jeanette Winterson weighed in with her test for literature: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?”

Not quite waterproof, in my opinion, but not a bad definition. I’ve  kept it in mind while assessing what I’ve read so far. But as Laura Miller also wrote, “the space between the poles of personal preference and the notion of objective merit is where the electricity of literary prizes is generated.”

I won’t go into detail on the seven so far;  I need to get back to the reading board! I will say though, that I’ve particularly enjoyed, by virtue of language and capacity for expansion, as well as more subjective reasons to be sure, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (on the Giller list) and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden (on the Roger’s Trust list). Ondaatje’s tale of a boy’s journey by ship is beautifully written and evocative of those spaces we inhabit between places, not just geographically but psychologically. Christie’s solid and compelling stories, mostly set in Vancouver, bring me — with understanding, not judgment — into the lives of some very interesting, often fringe, people. And for fabulous characters and dialogue, and sheer — oh, I’ll say it — readability, I recommend David Berzmozgis’ The Free World (on the GG and Giller), about a family of Jewish immigrants stuck in Rome after leaving Russia and awaiting settlement in some country in the West.

6 thoughts on “Reading the lists

  1. Fascinating, Dora. This is a great way to learn how literary tastes are being formed. I’m curious. What are the markers of whether a book is “Canadian enough” or not? I really enjoy reading about your world.

    • Oh Shirley, you’ve asked the million dollar question, re markers. I suppose Can Lit classes spend a good many hours debating that! As far as Canadian identity goes, I think we always start with the fact that we’re not American and then we flounder to articulate ourselves after that!🙂
      I’m guessing that’s a question rarely asked in reference to American writers, whether they’re American enough!
      The criteria to be listed in these prizes include being a citizen or permanent resident, so maybe it’s enough to say a book is Canadian if the author is Canadian. But not many, Barber notes, have recognizable Canadian content, such as Canadian settings, for example, or probes of our daily reality here, so that’s where the complaints come in. In my opinion, books such as Ondaatje’s or Bezmozgis’ or Clark Blaise’s Meagre Tarmac (shortlist, Rogers Writers’ Trust) about transitions and the immigrant experience, are very Canadian, no matter where they’re set, because of how our official multiculturalism shapes us. — I got a chuckle out of one of the people commenting on Barber’s piece, noting that Richard Ford’s new book is called Canada, and if that starts a trend among American writers, Canadian settings might become a “cool place” for Canadian writers! Here’s some funny bits from Ford’s book:
      http://ocanadablog.com/2011/02/10/richard-fords-amusing-description-of-canada/

  2. Great blog. This will help me pick my next books to read. BTW, I also read the criticism of the ManBooker short list, but then purchased a copy (my novel on my iPad) of “The Sense of an Ending” by winner Julian Barnes, and enjoyed it very much. Yes, it was readable, but Barnes has a way with words and constructs which expanded my own thought space.

  3. Thanks Dora for this great blog. I’ve been thinking about expanding my reading lists again and you gave me some wonderful ideas.

    I enjoy the insights you share. It almost feels like old times when we would chat outside our offices.

    Marilyn

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