After the party

Perhaps not the Sean Michaels you were thinking of? (CBC -- David Donnelly)

Perhaps not the Sean Michaels you were thinking of? (CBC — David Donnelly)

Did you watch the Gillers last night? Me neither.

It’s a bit discouraging. Last year I wrote a 20,000-word essay on the Gillers that required me to read the entire long list (thirteen books). This year I was just a spectator, and without that incentive I read only one of the twelve books on the long list, and that because I had been paid to review it. (The book was Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations, by the way. It was pretty good, but didn’t make the shortlist.)

The biggest news, really the only “news” surrounding this year’s award, was extra-literary. The scheduled host, Jian Ghomeshi, had been relieved of duty (more on his downfall here), to be replaced by Rick Mercer. In addition, the prize purse had been doubled to $100,000.

I’m not impressed by the big pile of cash. It strikes me as desperation. The only thing the Giller people can do to attract attention to their award is to throw more money at it. But how many eyeballs did it buy? This has to have been one of the most under-the-radar Gillers ever. Clearly it is now a fading brand. I didn’t even recognize the names of any of the “celebrity presenters.”

Of course, Scotiabank has no end of money to put into events like this. Banks, as we all know after 2008, are the masters of our universe. Whether today’s banks are effective cultural custodians, however, is another matter. The prize money here is more than most of these authors can ever expect to make from selling their books. Is that a good thing? Meanwhile, Scotiabank announced 1,000 Canadian job cuts just last week, despite making billions in profits. The few-big-winners/lots-of-losers economy continues apace.

Congratulations to Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, who walked away with the prize. He was given the longest odds, and in a poll conducted by the Globe and Mail not one of the “experts” picked him to win (the only author on the shortlist so undistinguished). In the lead-up to last night’s gala All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews was reported to be the clear bestseller on the shortlist, with David Bezmogis’s The Betrayers in second place. I confess that before the announcement of the long list I hadn’t heard of Us Conductors, despite it being published by a major press. Indeed, the only “Sean Michaels” I knew of was a porn actor from the 1990s.

Michaels is the third debut novelist to win the award, following Vincent Lam (OK, his debut was a linked short story collection) and Johanna Skibsrud, a pair of authors who did not set the world on fire as sophomores (bonus points if you can name their follow-up efforts). This makes one wonder how accurate a predictor the Giller is of future success, or whether winning Canada’s most prestigious and richest literary prize, which began as something of a lifetime achievement award, is good for younger authors.

We’ll find out after the party.

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