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Secrets of the Canadian literary cabal

Stephen HenighanStephen Henighan, known for his biting, if occasionally conspiracy-minded, commentary on the Canadian literary scene, takes aim at the Scotiabank Giller Prize in this column for Geist. Henighan calls the prize a symptom of the sickness ruining literature, saying, “Nothing signaled the collapse of the literary organism as vividly as the appearance of this glitzy chancre on the hide of our culture.” The column questions the prevalence of shortlisted books coming from publishers owned by the Bertelsmann Group, such as Knopf Canada, Random House Canada, and McClelland & Stewart (in which Bertelsmann has a 25% stake).

Henighan also makes much of Margaret Atwood’s connection to this year’s winner, Vincent Lam. Atwood helped Lam find a publisher and introduced the author at the gala. While his first observation, that “Margaret Atwood does not introduce losers,” holds some credence, he takes the point a little too far with his further comments. “By placing her authority behind Lam, she was giving the equivalent of el dedazo, the crook of the finger with which a Mexican president signals his successor.”

Quillblog’s favourite conspiratorial fact is Henighan’s observation that almost all Giller winners between 1994 and 2004 lived within a two-hour drive of Yonge and Bloor.

(Quillblog had been telepathically instructed by Margaret Atwood not to blog about this, but luckily we were able to briefly block her powerful brainwaves – emanating, of course, from the Yonge/Bloor epicentre – with our homemade tinfoil helmets.)

Exclusive: The 2006 Giller Conspiracy Runs Deep
Below is a photo of Margaret “El Dedazo” Atwood in a lineup with Giller jury member Michael “Mr. Tall” Winter. Was Vincent Lam’s Giller win arranged in the joint? Is Atwood Keyzer Soze?

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(OK, it’s just an old Anansi ad, but suspicious nonetheless.)

  • Steve Clackson

    I love how this young (hip) writer brings up W.O. Mitchell and Findley. We’ve gone nowhere in the last 25 years! No wonder Atwood is crowning princes and the masses lap it up.

  • Alex Good

    Agreed that as a rant it goes too far. Was Alice Munro’s withdrawal part of a “canny strategy” or due to the fact that she was on the jury? And I’m not sure what Henighan identifies as the “new multicultural establishment,” since it doesn’t include previous “multicultural” (which I guess means “coloured”) Giller winners. Lam isn’t an establishment, at least yet.

    And why he thinks Soucy’s book was more deserving is anybody’s guess.

  • Kassidy

    :) good!!!

  • Wendy Sturton

    As a rant it’s perfect. Southern Ontario puts me to sleep. Giller Schmiller.

  • sam leggat

    Look, if anyone has read the book, they’ll know it is a ridiculous fraud. Some of the sentences are so grotesque and amateurish they made me want to laugh, then cry, because it spelled out the futility of grinding out the writer’s life and perfecting “craft” when “craft” means nothing. If we’re honest as writers, as a nation, then we should stick Lam’s book of nonsense on the shelf and chalk it up to a very ugly episode in Canadian letters, when the ruling class showed themselves to be mad, toothless, blind, and ready for the dust heap themselves (I don’t know how Michael Winter can look at himself in the mirror). There is no other test, no other argument, only Lam’s lame and execrable sentences. No one can defend them. “Desperate stragglers . . .” right from the get go we are in the hands of a rank amateur. Period.

  • Elana Rabinovitch

    Last fall, at our request, Chapters Indigo graciously agreed to lend the Scotiabank Giller Prize books that could be used to build a literary centrepiece for each table at our annual prize event. We asked for big, fat hardcover books to achieve that effect, books that were to be covered in laminating paper and stacked like sculptures. These books were not, as has been alleged, to be part of any goody bag to be given out to guests. They were props. That guests actually made off with copies of these books is an argument for closing the bar a little earlier perhaps, but those books were most decidedly not swag. Where anyone got the impression that Canadas leading book chain and a major Canadian literary prize would think it was a good idea to give out a Stephen King novel to their guests is baffling. So in case I wasnt clear. Chapters Indigo loaned us over 200 books purely in the service of supporting and promoting Canadian literature. Their efforts should be lauded, not criticized.

    More understandable, at least for sheer entertainment value, are the ravings of Stephen Henighan. Henighans bitterness toward the Giller Prize is almost legendary. No ones quite sure why, but hopefully all the brow sweat and ink he spills writing about us will at least stimulate more conversations about and reading of Canadian literature. What’s striking is how prescient Mordecai Richler was when he stated, at the launch of The Giller Prize almost 14 years ago, that “when you give Canadians an apple, they look for the razor blade inside”.

    Elana Rabinovitch, Scotiabank Giller Prize

  • Jack Kirchhoff

    I can’t bear to comment on the creaky old “Toronto establishment” argument presented by Stephen Henighan in his anti-Giller rant, but I would like to say that I have read Vincent Lam’s book, and those like Sam Leggat, who dismiss it as badly written, are just wrong. I don’t know if Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was the best book published in Canada last year — and isn’t that the discussion we have about every prize, every year? — but it’s plain stupid to use words like “fraud,” “grotesque” and “amateurish” to describe it. (Get a critical vocabulary, Mr. Leggat. And calm down a little.) Lam may be a doctor in his day job, but he’s no dilletante.

    Jack Kirchhoff

  • sam leggat

    Granted I’ve been known to be stupid, to borrow one of the words from your richer critical lexicon, Mr. Kirchhoff. And I’m willing to admit I’m likely stupider than you or Mr. Lam. Don’t hold it against a stupid person, then, for buying a book advertised as “astonishing” and judged to be the best book in the land, and feeling it came up short, that it did not live up to expectations. And I’m sorry if my critical lexicon is weak or incomplete, I simply use words that quickly come to mind. I’m talking then as an ordinary reader, not a critic. I’m talking as a fellow who tried to read his fellow countrymen, and many I do with great pleasure. But I saw many passages like this one in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures that made me wince (is that word okay?)

    “Seeing my own blood flow freely and thick, the texture of boiled milk, lulled me for a moment. I sat still. She pulled out the syringe
    with a quick withdrawal that was like the same pain in reverse. This
    blood wouldnt show anything. This was innocence blood, to show
    I was clean today in case I seroconverted later.” (P.183).

    Okay, so perhaps comparing blood to boiled milk is forgiveable, but is it me, or does that whole passage sound, I don’t know, off? Is amateurish too strong a word? Maybe. What word would you use to describe a passage like this, Mr Kirchhoff? Enlighten me.

    Thing is, this book has many examples of these little hiccoughs. Okay, so maybe in 21st Century they don’t matter anymore. But I merely noticed that there were many of them.

    Anyway, sorry for pricking you Mr. Kirchhoff, and anyone else. I’m merely expressing my humble and stupid opinion. You’re probably right and I’m likely wrong. Maybe in time, when I am not as stupid as I am now, I will be able to read the passage I quoted and see in it the sublime poetry the rest of y’all see.

  • Rick Blechta

    “Okay, so perhaps comparing blood to boiled milk is forgiveable, but is it me, or does that whole passage sound, I dont know, off?”

    It’s you.

  • J.P. Zingrone

    Re Elana Rabinovitch’s note:
    Now that everyone is set straight on the story of the synergistic table settings (I love that the 200 books were a “loan” from the big box), perhaps it’s time to revisit the prize name again: perchance the Chapters Indigo Scotiabank Giller Prize?
    Similar to the Stanley Cup, rings of corporate names could be added to the trophy until 40-odd years hence, obsolete/decrepit sponsors would need to be lopped off for the sake of the knick-knack. Of course, the first lopping off ceremony might also act as a photo op that would celebrate Cdn books in an ancillary sort of way . . . and 107-year-old Peggy could do the ceremonial first cut from Inuvik using the amazing, new LongKnife.

  • Juliet Waters

    Insinuations and pictures and rants and conspiracy theories are all very amusing (and I mean that). But there are a couple of disturbing facts about this year’s Giller that Elena Rabinovitch should be asked to address. Namely, not only was jury member Michael Winter listed in the acnowledgments of Vincent Lam’s book as a mentor, but Winter and Lam share the same agent…

    Does the Giller not have any ethical guildelines about conflict of interest?

  • Tanner

    Ah, yes. Stephen Henighan. The uber-lurper.

  • David Roma

    I wonder if Chapters-Indigo, after lending 200 book props as Giller glitter, returned them to the publisher’s warehouse for full credit after all, having been laminated, they were no longer in saleable condition Next year, maybe the Giller folks could pony up the cash for the erstwhile swag, or ask the publishers to donate directly, thereby relieving Chapters of the sponsorship opportunity, which was likely paid for by unsuspecting publishers Now THERE is a conspiracy for you.

  • Andrew MacPherson

    I am no fan of Indigo but I wonder if it isn’t the internet making libraries more accessible that has hurt sales of “well received collections of short stories” and other books with lower sales rather than the box stores. A person can sit in their home at their computer and place a hold for these books in about half a second. Big city libraries typically have multiple copies of these books and the wait times are minimal or non-existent. In contrast a large seller has huge line-ups at the library and the people reading the large sellers are more likely to just buy the book.

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