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Jack Rabinovitch: “He believed in the books, the readers, the publishers, and literary community with a rare joy and hopefulness”

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GIller founder Jack Rabinovitch (Tom Sandler)

Giller founder Jack Rabinovitch (Tom Sandler)

Jack Rabinovitch – the Montreal-born businessman and philanthropist who died in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital on Aug. 6, at the age of 87 – changed the face of Canadian literature on account of a broken heart.

Rabinovitch, who grew up in Montreal’s Mile End, the Jewish neighbourhood made famous in the novels of Mordecai Richler, maintained a lifelong love of reading – he held an honours bachelor of arts from McGill University to prove it – but his only professional association with the written word took the form of early jobs as a reporter and a speechwriter. He excelled in business, joining Trizec, a property development company, in 1972, and working his way to vice-president. He later became president of Nodel Investments. In the late 1980s, he was instrumental in spearheading the rebuilding of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, a project that was completed in 1993.

It was Rabinovitch’s second wife, Doris Giller, who toiled in the trenches of CanLit, as the book review editor at the Montreal Gazette and an editor and book columnist at the Toronto Star. When Giller died of cancer in April of 1993, Rabinovitch was bereft.

“I was a friend of Doris Giller’s for about 10 years,” says David Staines, a former University of Ottawa professor, who had not previously met Rabinovitch. “Jack phoned me in my Ottawa office. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Jack Rabinovitch.’” Staines mentioned a letter of condolence he’d sent following Giller’s death, at which point Rabinovitch broke down in tears. “He said, ‘I’ll call later.’ And then he hung up.”

Rabinovitch wanted to discuss an idea for a literary prize to honour the memory of his late wife. He called Staines back the following week, and at a subsequent meeting with Richler at Moishes restaurant in Montreal, the three men “hatched the terms for the prize,” in Staines’s words. It was decided that the award would recognize the outstanding work of English-language fiction by a Canadian author in each year. Twenty-three years after the inaugural Giller Prize was awarded (to M.G. Vassanji) in 1994, it is internationally recognized as the premier honour for Canadian literary fiction. It is our Pulitzer, our Man Booker, our Goncourt – all thanks to Rabinovitch, who was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2009 in recognition of his achievement.

“Jack’s influence cannot be underestimated,” says Shaun Bradley, an agent with the Transatlantic Agency. “His generous prize has not only helped to bring established and aspiring Canadian writers to the public’s attention, but it has brought a little bit of Hollywood to our industry, too.” The annual black-tie event, held in Toronto and televised by the CBC across the country, offers a rare element of glitz and glamour to an industry more familiar with cost cutting and bean counting.

Rabinovitch “shone the spotlight” on Canadian writers and writing, says Staines. “The first year, there were about 240 at the dinner, and almost everyone had read all five books, and there was betting at every table.”

The swanky nature of the award ceremony is only part of Rabinovitch’s legacy, however, and not even the most significant part. The vaunted “Giller effect” – the boost in sales that accrues to the nominated books and, especially, the winning title – is real, and has had a marked impact on the careers of winning authors.

“You can feel people taking you into consideration more seriously,” says André Alexis, whose novel Fifteen Dogs was awarded the prize in 2015. “There’s a kind of change in the nature of the conversation. … It doesn’t mean that people like you; it just means that they consider you, maybe, more deeply.”

The award also makes a financial difference to those working in an industry that does not always pay large dividends. When Rabinovitch launched the prize in 1994, the purse was $25,000. Scotiabank came on as the prize’s sponsor in 2005; the author of the winning book now takes away $100,000, with $10,000 going to each of the other shortlisted writers.

“By supporting and celebrating Canadian writers, [Rabinovitch] changed my life and so many others,” says Madeleine Thien, whose novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing took home the prize in 2016. “He worked to propel Canadian fiction into the world, and in so doing, supported and sustained Canadian writers, whose lives are almost always financially precarious.”

Rabinovitch’s death was unexpected, arising out of complications from what his family called “a catastrophic fall” down a flight of stairs at his home in Toronto. Even at 87 years of age, Rabinovitch cut a sprightly figure; by all accounts he remained active and enjoyed going out to dinner with friends on a regular basis. (A perhaps ironic habit for the man whose annual catchphrase at the Giller gala involved telling the gathered crowd that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, one could buy the entire shortlist of nominated titles.)

As news spread of Rabinovitch’s death, friends, colleagues, and admirers recalled the man they knew, frequently focusing on his generosity and his humour. “He was a lovely, lovely man,” says Marc Côté, publisher of Cormorant Books, a literary press that is no stranger to Giller shortlists. “A gentleman – a word that has specific meaning, and he exemplified all its best qualities.” Rabinovitch’s daughter, Elana, who serves as executive director for the prize, wrote on Facebook, “Lost my father today. How could that be? He was eternal.”

The prize he endowed ensures that his daughter’s comment is not mere hyperbole: Rabinovitch’s legacy will persist. “He believed in the books, the readers, the publishers, and literary community with a rare joy and hopefulness,” says Thien.

“By creating such a respected award,” says Bradley, “Jack has helped to open the door for all Canadian writers.”