The Giller Prize recently tweaked their submission rules. On its face, the revision is practical -- Canada publishes a lot of literature in a year and it's difficult for a jury to appraise all of it -- but it's hard not to see how this change could unlevel the playing field.
How many books a publisher can submit is now decided by how many times they've been involved the prize. As the major publishers have historically cleaned up at what's increasingly become Canada's most important literary award, the smaller, independent publishers will be at a statistical disadvantage.
Of course, it's not the award itself (though the Giller purse is pretty sweet) that writers and publishers care about -- it's the access to readers that the Giller provides. The emblem of a puckered rose on a prize-winning book means an assurance of readership. And in a country where it sometimes feels like there are an infinite number books vying for the attention of a finite, picky pool of readers.
In Arrival, his unpacking of the CanLit boom, U of T English prof Nick Mount offers a thorough and lively exploration of how we got all these writers competing for readers and just a few prizes now. Through the late 50s to the early 70s, conditions were just right for a cultural boom. An increase in population, a rise in literacy, economic prosperity, the death of some very wealthy men, Expo 67, and draft dodging all contributed to the the CanLit as we now know it -- to say nothing the the writers who had established the personal or community momentum needed to exploit these perfect conditions.
Mount provides a textbook's richness with a tell-all's familiarity. From the east to west coasts, he gathers and assesses the major players of those halcyon days. The small cast of characters allows his storytelling to keep conversational, never didactic -- an important tone, as a great deal of the rise of our writers had to do with a closeness to readers, with knowability and accessibility.
Mount's portraits are personal and artful, and as much as our literature's history can be painted with broad strokes, its vivacity is largely found in the small, sometimes parenthetical details of Arrival. Whether it's Pierre Berton providing a voice for the cartoon Rocket Robin Hood, Alice Munro getting denied a Canada Council grant for help with childcare, or Coach House Books maybe printing fake passports for war resistors, the minutia gets across just how small and ragtag a scene our national literature was and still very much is.
There's a rebel spirit to the early days of CanLit recounted by Mount. Of course, when rebels succeed, they become the new regime. Now, 40 years on, the scrappy go-getters profiled in Arrival are fully arrived, so to speak. They're mainstays of curriculums and ambassadors to our literature through the world. To make matters more difficult, the old guard's books kept being good. New titles from the likes of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood continued to get nominated for the few national awards that eventually both authors withdrew their books from consideration. Munro explained that she "would like to leave the field to younger writers."
Of the bevy of factors that contributed to the boom, the decidedly unsexy government support for the arts might have been the most essential. Grants provided the rocket boosters to get many authors and publishers into orbit before there was necessarily a readership. They still do. Anyone who receives it will tell you that outside support is a godsend, but that model has a lot to do with the bind we find ourselves in now, where a single award could mean the difference between fame and obscurity for authors and publishers.
"Government support for the arts exists in Canada because private support does not," Mount writes. "With a few exceptions... wealthy Canadian families have preferred to amass and bequeath private collections rather than support living artists... Even today, when tax and marketing benefits have made corporate sponsorship of the arts de rigueur, the Scotiabanks and Rogerses of the country prefer to reward art rather than invest in artists. Corporations brand the winners now, but the citizen still funds the field."
After that initial concern about a level field, the Giller longlist was announced. Four of the twelve books were by smaller, independent publishers. Of the five books that made the shortlist, one comes from a small publisher and three of the authors have previously been nominated for the award. It's a good representation of the struggle to grow something new in the shadow of the establishment.
In Arrival, Mount provides a landmark survey of where we've come from, but the notion of arrival is a little misleading. There's no finality to our literature. That can be difficult to remember sometimes. But, really, the place those founding writers and publishers arrived at was a place to start.