A three-person literary jury dominated by two non-Canadian comic novelists made its preferences clear Monday when it announced the five finalists for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, ignoring a number of recognized heavyweights in favour of relative outsiders.
None typify the trend better than Calgary author Will Ferguson, nominated for 419, a fast-paced almost-thriller about a Canadian family's entanglement in a Nigerian Internet scam. Although sufficiently complimentary about all five of the nominated titles, this year's Giller jury was fulsome on the subject of 419, tipping it as the clear front-runner in this year's competition for the $50,000 prize.
Ferguson's novel "points in the direction of something entirely new: the Global Novel," the jury said, waxing poetic on its virtues and complimenting the author as "a master at dialogue and suspense," among other things.
Perhaps anticipating the controversy stirred by jurors of the 2011 Booker Prize, who angered the British literary establishment by declaring a bias in favour of "readability," the Giller jury included a pre-emptive defence in its citation of Ferguson's third novel. "It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category," they said, "but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius."
This year's Giller jury first raised eyebrows with its long list of semi-finalists, called "jokey" by one publisher who asked not to be named. The three-person panel includes Ireland's Roddy Doyle, best known for The Commitments and 1993 Booker Prize-winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha; and Russian-born New Yorker Gary Shteyngart, author most recently of Super Sad True Love Story and avowed Mordecai Richler fan. Toronto author and publisher Anna Porter is the lone Canadian on the jury, which typically includes a majority of offshore experts in order to forestall the perception of literary incest distorting the choice of the best Canadian book of the year.
Perhaps reflecting juror Shteyngart's equally avowed enthusiasm for the city of Montreal, no fewer than three of this year's five finalists live or have lived in that city – a clear departure from the recent award dominance of West Coast authors. In what could be a first in the 19-year history of the Giller Prize, no Torontonian made the cut.
The jury's sole point of agreement with the experts who recently selected five finalists for the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize is Inside by relative newcomer Alix Ohlin, which it called "beautifully crafted and beautifully told." Published simultaneously in the United States, where Montreal-born Ohlin lives and teaches, the novel achieved unwanted attention this summer as the subject of a notoriously scathing review in The New York Times.
On the contrary, the Giller jury opined, Inside is "full of surprises and things to admire."
Fellow Montrealer Nancy Richler (no close relation to the famous literary family) earned a place on the Giller short list with The Imposter Bride, which focuses on a Canadian family coming to grips with the legacy of the Holocaust. Richler's third novel is "a wonderfully nuanced work of fiction by a master of the craft," according to the Giller jury.
This year's short list maintains the Giller tradition of honouring the short story, making a place for Whirl Away, "a marvellous collection of stories," according to the jury, "written with great confidence and skill" by Newfoundland author Russell Wangersky.
It also includes a debut novel, Ru, by Vietnam-born Kim Thuy, which despite its author's lack of literary background has achieved widespread success since its initial publication in French three years ago. A slender, poetic account of the Thuy family's flight from their homeland and subsequent settlement in Canada, Ru has previously won five major awards, including (in the original French) the 2010 Governor-General's Literary Award for fiction.
Thuy "rewrites the traditional immigrant narrative in a completely new way, makes it whole and wondrous once more," according to the Giller jury.
Equally prominent this year are the many established novelists who failed to make the list. Previous Giller finalists and winners absent from both long and short lists this year include two-time winner M.G. Vassanji, author of The Magic of Saida ; 2006 winner Vincent Lam (The Headmaster's Wager); Annabel Lyon (The Sweet Girl); and Rawi Hage, whose Carnival is nominated for the Writer's Trust prize.
Linda Spalding's The Purchase , also nominated for a Writer's Trust prize, failed to make the Giller list, along with new novels from Shauna Singh Baldwin and Susan Swan. Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, the subject of a large and largely complimentary spread in The New Yorker by star critic James Wood, likewise failed to register on Giller radar.
A third opinion is due Tuesday when the Governor-General's award jury announces its selection of the five best Canadian works of fiction in 2012. The ultimate winner of the Giller competition will be announced at a ceremony in Toronto at the end of October, scheduled to be broadcast nationally by the CBC.