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.