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Scotiabank Giller Prize jury delivers surprising longlist

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoAnakana Schofield’s stylistically audacious second novel and Patrick deWitt’s mordantly funny revisioning of a European fable are among 12 books that have made the first cut for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Marquee names – including Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, Nino Ricci, and Lawrence Hill – are absent. In their place, this year’s jury has chosen three first novels, three story collections (one of them in translation), and the second book in a five-volume cycle that aims to reappropriate forgotten literary forms.

The longlist in full:

The big winner here, among publishers, is Biblioasis, with three titles represented. The press has been longlisted before, but never quite so robustly, and always for story collections – Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere in 2014; Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac in 2011, and Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting in 2010. Light Lifting went on to make the shortlist that year; MacLeod is on the jury for this year’s prize.

Martin-John-Anakana-SchofieldSchofield’s nomination is a bit of a coup for the Windsor, Ontario, press: not only is it the first time they have had a work of long-form fiction appear on a Giller list, they managed it with a novel that is highly stylized, narrated from the disturbed, fractured perspective of a sexual deviant. The book is a bold departure from Schofield’s debut, 2012’s Amazon.ca First Novel Award winner, Malarky.

But then, much about this year’s frankly unexpected longlist feels like a departure from past years. HarperCollins has the second-largest number of nominations, with two, one of them by a writer many people – myself included – will not even have realized is Canadian by birth (Cusk, who makes her home in the U.K., was born in Toronto). Other than M&S, tied with HarperCollins at two nominations, none of the Penguin Random House imprints received more than a single nod this year (though if you add them all up, the country’s biggest multinational publishing house did just fine, thank you very much).

It isn’t a good year to be a regional publisher, though Gault and Endicott both reside on the prairies; Hawley, Christie, and Schofield are on the west coast; Archibald and O’Neill are in Quebec; Cusk is in London; and deWitt lives in Portland, Oregon. Alexis, Christie, deWitt, Endicott, and O’Neill have been nominated for the prize in previous years; the others are all making their debut appearances this year.

For the first time, the Giller jury comprises five members rather than the standard three; this aligns the prize more closely with its aspirational benchmark, the Man Booker Prize, which also features a five-person jury. Irish author John Boyne is this year’s jury chair, and the panel is filled out with British novelist Helen Oyeyemi and Canadian writers MacLeod, Cecil Foster, and Alison Pick.

Undermajordomo-Minor-Patrick-deWittConspiracy theorists will be quick to suggest that MacLeod’s association with the prize and with Biblioasis was instrumental in that publisher’s strong showing on the longlist, but this is rubbish. The other jurors also have publishers; it would be as easy – and as foolish – to suggest that Foster, who is published by HarperCollins, was responsible for placing those two titles on the list. In any event, each juror is only one voice out of five, making it difficult for any single person to ride roughshod over the group.

What is much more likely is that this year’s longlist is the happy result of a jury composed of a diverse range of writers. Boyne and Oyeyemi are not Canadian, and therefore not subject to the kind of provincialism that too often infects the Canadian literary scene. As writers, they are distinct in their sensibilities and approaches, as are the three Canadians from one another, and from their international counterparts. This is a well-rounded jury that, not surprisingly, has come up with a well-rounded, interesting longlist of titles.

I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the most interesting lists in the prize’s history. What these books share in common, for the most part, is a focus on really strong writing – something that frequently goes missing among juries more concerned with selecting books that provide moral improvement or some kind of politically sanctioned message. Unlike in previous years, the jury has not left itself much room to cobble together anything resembling a traditional or hidebound shortlist from this group of titles. And it is just as likely that a jury capable of creating this longlist will throw the rulebook right out the window when the shortlist is announced in Toronto on Oct. 5.

This article is cross-posted at That Shakespearean Rag.