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Former Giller judge Gary Shteyngart claims Canadian writers don’t take risks

Since opening its doors to international jurors, the Scotiabank Giller Prize has found itself the subject of some controversy. British writer and critic Victoria Glendinning, who served on the jury in 2009, caused a stir when she claimed that many Canadian writers occupy a “muddy middle ground” and spend much of their time “brooding on Muskoka chairs.” Worse, Glendinning went after the sacred cow of CanLit: the government grants system. “It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council,” Glendinning wrote.

Now a second erstwhile Giller juror, this one a Yank, has made similar comments. The Toronto Star points to an interview 2012 Giller juror Gary Shteyngart gave to, in which he claims that Canada’s system of government grants results in a literary culture that takes no risks.

Here’s the relevant section from the (much broader-ranging) Vulture interview (which also included author Chang-rae Lee):

NY: What do you think, then — should [literature] be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be –

NY: No, you’re not.

The response to Shteyngart’s remarks was predictably swift and heated. The Star quotes Dorris Heffron, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, who calls Shteyngart’s comments “ignorant,” and highlights the CBC Television adaptation of Terry Fallis’s Best Laid Plans as evidence that Canadian writing is not “boring or lousy.”

Heffron also points to the fact that Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize, something Lynn Coady, winner of the 2013 Giller, echoes. “Guys [we are] the nation of Alice Munro. Let’s thicken our skins,” Coady says. Elsewhere, Coady addresses, in typically direct and acerbic fashion, the notion that all Canadian writers get grants: “Mr. Shteyngart has no idea of the beer-sodden hours that have been whiled away here in Canada by writers bemoaning the inscrutable tastes of our funding bodies.”

For his part, Shteyngart seems to be retreating from his initial comments, joking in a tweet to The Globe and Mail that he was “in a drunken stupor” when he made them.

  • Ursula Omicron

    It isn’t grants, it’s the earnest determination of Canadian writers to be morally good and plain-spoken and boring. Alice Munro’s peculiar genius freed her to express what she wanted about people. Now, peculiar genius is frowned upon as being pretentious. It’s no wonder we have a dictatorial Conservative Prime Minister and an insane dictatorial conservative mayor of our largest city. We let it happen. The Giller Prize honours mediocrity. I hate Canada.

  • ScrapPaper

    What ignorant asses these judges and critics are. It’s not writers who aren’t taking “risks,” it’s Canadian publishers who, with very few exceptions, won’t publish books that push the envelope. Canadian publishers are hopelessly conservative, so it’s no wonder that few innovative or “risky” books get published in Canada, driving some Canadian writers to look outside their own country for publishers.

    As for all writers getting grants, hogwash: the stats are there to show that only a small percentage of writers who apply for grants receive them.

  • Poetaster

    Yes. As examples, look at two of the “books” signed recently by the deep
    thinkers at Random Penguin of Canuckistan (both dutifully reported in
    Q&Q as if they matter): memoirs by the formerly overwhelmed CBC
    English programming girlfriend K-Stew and E-talk’s scintillating
    schmoozebabbler of the pumps ‘n’ baby bumps crowd, laineygossip.
    Mainstream publishers are beyond pathetic — in Canada, the US, and
    elsewhere. It’s just a little bit sadder here, because we’re such small

  • Adam Pottle

    The people to blame are those who regulate exposure: prize juries, publishers, festival committees, radio programs, television programs, and reviewers. These groups consistently select the same sort of safe, conservative literature that Irving Layton roared against: “fluent articulateness without individuality and style / cleverness that falls always short of insight or intuition.”

    That said, Canada does have writers who take risks; they just aren’t consistently nominated for prizes, or invited to speak on radio, or reviewed in prominent publications (you listening, Q&Q?). There’s hardly a backbone amidst these regulators. An individual may find merit in a particularly risky book, but the other jury/committee members will think it’s too risky: “What’s the backlash if this person won the award, or if he/she is published, or if he/she is allowed to speak in front of an audience?” And so the majority will win, and that book will drift away from the public eye.

    As a nation, we’ve become too politically correct for our own good, too afraid to piss people off. As a writer of risky literature (my novel Mantis Dreams came out in November), I’ve personally experienced this wishy-washy attitude. As a writer, I personally hope that Munro and Atwood and Ondaatje and co. will soon fade away so a different aesthetic can burst forth. We’ve been clinging to them for too long.

  • Greg Ioannou

    Maybe some of the problem here is the judges. Two years ago we nominated Tom Darby’s ambitious quest novel Disorderly Notions ( Last year we nominated Cathi Bond’s gritty Night Town ( BOth are ground-breaking, adventurous — and great reads. Neither received government funding. They are two of the best novels I’ve ever read, but neither made the short list (perhaps because they weren’t published by one of the big publishers?).

  • Egg Man

    PARt OF the problem too is that gary schneygart is a wise ass russian jewish noN-jew who grew up thinking he is king of the world he needs to come down a notch from his high horse and relate better to his adopted continent otherwise he should go back to russia

  • Adam Pottle

    Often the books that are nominated for the big prizes (Giller, GG) come from big publishers: Random House/Penguin, HarperCollins, Anansi, M&S. Once in a while, a book from a smaller press will squeak through (Gaspereau Press’ The Sentimentalists) but it doesn’t occur often enough.

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