Fall is awards season in the world of Canadian literature, which means it’s also the season for debate. But with the unveiling of the Giller Prize longlist this week, the time for throwing around strong opinions—especially premature ones—is officially underway.
Some of us have already been warming up. Last month, the Globe’s Russell Smith quoted summaries of several forthcoming Canadian novels that sounded pretty much interchangeable: moody, multi-generational sagas full of stoicism, reflection, and hard-earned life lessons. Are they all set in small towns? Do you even have to ask?
From there, Smith cheekily advised all aspiring authors to “remember that it is always 1955 in CanLit. That is not to say that every prize-winning novel must be set exactly in that year, but that it helps to imagine that you are writing in that year.”
One caveat: despite his outright dismissal of these books, Smith, by his own admission, hadn’t actually read any of them.
You might remember the high-profile controversy from last year, when the Giller and CBC ran a reader’s choice contest that invited members of the public to vote one book onto the prize’s longlist—even though several of the eligible titles hadn’t been released to the public yet.
The annual season of CanLit second-guessing spoke to an urge that’s near and dear to my heart: the urge to make fun of dumb things. But then I started thinking about the best Canadian novel I’ve read this year, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky—and which, if left to some inattentive marketing person, could’ve easily been lost in a pile of books marked drab and introspective. What a mistake that would’ve been.
I hate to fly so close to a books-based cliché (something about judging, something about covers) in my very first outing here, but I do think that waiting until you’ve spent time with a piece of art to decide whether it’s any good is a virtue that’s steadily losing purchase.
The internet has conditioned us not only to rapidly consume all kinds of information, but also to come up with verdicts that are just as instantaneous. You can comment on a news story, as well as publicly “like” or “dislike” individual comments underneath said story. Any social media platform worth its salt is built around a similar (and similarly blunt) feedback tool. New shorthand usually emerges, too; for several years I’ve run a books blog on Tumblr, where the highest compliment you can give is to reblog someone else’s content with a note at the bottom reading, simply, “This.”
I’m proposing an end to both kinds of pre-emptive strike, good and bad. Let’s take a step back from those ever-tempting thumbs up/thumbs down icons, at least until we’ve had a chance to read and digest these books for ourselves. By all means, be curious. Be skeptical. Have high hopes, as well as high standards. But there’s no shame in abstaining from judgment, or in taking time to privately mull things over. In fact, it’s kind of liberating.
I suppose that’s as close to a mission statement as I can give you about what this column aims to do. While reporting on the literary scene in Edmonton and beyond, I will endeavour to keep all snippy and unsupported opinions to a minimum. Did you hear that Fifty Shades of Grey recently became the U.K.’s bestselling book of all time? Yeah, me too. But I haven’t read it, so that’s all I will say about it. (OK, except for this joke. Q: Why do book clubs like E.L. James’s books so much? A: Because they’ve already got fifty braids of grey.)
Instead, this column will be a soapbox for well-grounded enthusiasms. I’m not going to linger on bad or uninteresting books, unless there’s a very good reason to do so. Let’s stick with the good stuff. That might mean high-profile Canadian novels (including, maybe, those same titles so many are tempted to ridicule), or some of the excellent books being published under the radar, either in translation or on smaller presses. There’s a dizzying amount of great writing out there; I aim to celebrate as much of it as I can.
So let’s have fewer opinions. Let’s give the ones we do have real weight. Who knows? Maybe 1955 could teach us a thing or two.
(column originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, September 7, 2012)