Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture. University of Toronto Press
This is a thoughtful, engaging book. It’s also fun. Here’s what Roberts says about the rivalry between the Governor General’s Literary Awards and the Giller: “Public denunciations by jurors of the rival shortlist have emphasized the differences between the prizes: witness 1998, for example, when Giller juror David Staines dismissed the Governor General’s shortlist as ‘embarrassing—again,’ to which Governor General’s Award juror Susan Swan responded, ‘To allow a tweedy Poo-Bah like David Staines to define the country’s literary tastes would keep us in the wooden tracks of nineteenth-century traditional realism forever.’”
It’s also in this context that Roberts quotes Paul Gessell’s observation that, unlike the Giller, the Governor General’s awards have often included “emerging authors who experiment and live beyond the shadow of the CN Tower,” although it remains unstated whether it is the resulting literature or the living beyond the shadow of the CN Tower that is seen as experimental.
Of course, the heart of Roberts’ book is about not just awards and prizes, but identity and belonging in (to borrow Guillermo Verdecchia’s memorable phrase) this big “Noah’s ark of a nation.” It’s also about the celebration of a nation’s literature and about how international recognition of individual writers can be conscripted for the purpose of nation building, especially at a time when Canadian authors are looking outward rather than inward.
This maturity of yet another generation of immigrant authors (have we ever had any other kind?) is apparent in Roberts’ choice of subjects: Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry, and Yann Martel. As Roberts reminds us, these four writers “offer very different case studies of celebrated belongings constructed out of international recognition.” And, one might add, out of international inceptions—Ondaatje’s Sri Lanka, Shields’ United States, Mistry’s India, and a handful of countries associated with the academic and diplomatic itinerancy of Martel’s early upbringing. The result, says Roberts, is that “if Canadian culture circulates globally through these celebrated writers, it does so in conjunction with their critiques of the nation and its discrepant invitations.”
Roberts’ final chapter also discusses Martel’s What is Stephen Harper Reading, a book that chronicles the author’s “one-sided correspondence with Canada’s prime minister” and in which Martel “champions the support of the arts and the welfare state.” Annoyed that Mr. Harper hasn’t, in Mr. Martel’s opinion, shown sufficient interest in the arts, Martel took it upon himself to mail a book to the prime minister every two weeks for “as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada.” Martel’s patience lasted only about two years. The hook for publishing his letters as a book was that Martel was shocked that Mr. Harper never once took the time to reply personally to Martel’s thoughtful but unsolicited gesture.
Upon learning of Martel’s project, I undertook a similar experiment. About a year ago, I sent an unsolicited book and accompanying letter to Mr. Martel who, I suspect, is slightly less busy than the Prime Minister. I’m still waiting for my reply.