When More is Less
Off to Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel to see who wins the Scotiabank Giller Prize tonight.
But with mixed feelings. Why? I hate to be a spoiler but I think the doubling of the booty to a hundred grand is too much. Not that a writer cannot use $100 000, as has been pointed out by a host of recent pieces in the Canadian media taking their cue from Australian Man Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan’s declaration that he almost went to work in the mines because he was earning so little (he was speaking literally) and yet another dire report from the Writers Union citing Canadian authors’ paltry earnings.
“So what’s new?” said the youngster at my breakfast table. And she wants to be a writer, too.
No, a hundred grand is too much because, if indeed the Giller is “about the writers,” then I believe there are other, better ways to spend that money – the creation, say, of a second Giller category or even a few of them for best first novel, best short stories, best Canadian non-fiction, why not. There are existing prizes for these categories, but if there’s one fact not to be disputed it’s the Giller’s ability to make a splash.
That’s been true since the start, twenty years ago now, and anyone who remembers the topography of the Canadian literary scene of the time will understand the Giller’s mischievous and purposeful rebuke of the Governor-General’s Literary Awards that tended towards the stodgy and the politically correct. The gala evening at which the prize was given out, held at the Four Seasons on the second Tuesday in November then, was, in its first decade, a swell evening and a hoot.
The evening was swell and a hoot, not least, because the guest list was lively and refreshing and included numerous journalists and writers who were effectively the “gatekeepers” of the day and who took to the bar with alacrity. And there was a genuine tension in the room because the prize had not yet been decided or the winner informed and the losers not invited as was, and still is, the case with the GGs. The shortlist was argued and discussed, and the winner celebrated. There was no question that the community of writers as a whole, benefitted.
But the Internet has drastically changed the context in which not just the Giller, but all prizes operate. The gatekeepers are no longer few, quite so judicious, and tending to different opinions and subjects. The infinite capacity of the internet to act as a forum for myriad conversations – and for the web to be a digital bookstore catering to all tastes – did not come to pass. Instead, the overwhelmingly forceful combination of the nearly infinite platforms of the internet – blogs, conventional media, dedicated websites and tweeters, et cetera – with our very human propensity to want to discuss shared experience (think the weather) means that an inordinate amount of attention is foisted upon one social phenomenon, one movie, one crisis, one book.
The disproportion of the attention accorded the one among the many beggars the imagination. The ‘long tail’ that was meant to have been the salvation of the web is so short it might as well not exist. All our attention is consumed by the seemingly unparalleled urgency of whatever web-based conversation is preoccupying us in the moment. So Israel’s pummeling of Gaza occupies social media (until Robin Williams commits suicide), or the murder of a soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial by a deranged gunman who then storms the House of Commons dominates our web talk until such time as we are discussing nothing but Jian Ghomeshi. The tsunami of our public attention is foisted upon a single subject with unprecedented intensity – and, in the literary world, upon the bestseller.
There’ll be a winner tonight. But there might have been two.