In an instant, Vincent Lam became a member of the Family Compact
The Giller Prize is the most conspicuous example of corporate suffocation of the public institutions that built our literary culture. True, the Giller hasn’t done as much damage as the throttling of the book market by the Chapters-Indigo chain. Until the early 1990s, a Canada-wide network of independent bookstores made it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 700 to 1000 copies, and sometimes more. Today the omnipresent outlets of Chapters-Indigo make it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 250 copies. But if Chapters-Indigo is the disease, the Giller Prize is the symptom. Nothing signalled the collapse of the literary organism as vividly as the appearance of this glitzy chancre on the hide of our culture. Year after year the vast majority of the books shortlisted for the Giller came from the triumvirate of publishers owned by the Bertelsmann Group: Knopf Canada, Doubleday Canada and Random House Canada. Like the three musketeers, this trio is in fact a quartet: Bertelsmann also owns 25 percent of McClelland & Stewart, and now manages M&S’s marketing. From 1994 to 2004, all the Giller winners, with the exception of Mordecai Richler, lived within a two-hour drive of the corner of Yonge and Bloor.
The 2005 Giller Prize was won by David Bergen, a skilful writer who conformed to type in that his winning novel, The Time In Between, was published by M&S and took place in an exotic foreign locale (Vietnam). Bergen’s earlier—and, in my view, stronger—novels, such as The Case of Lena S., were set in and around Winnipeg, where, to the horror of the Toronto media, the author still lived. “Winnipeg Schoolteacher Wins Giller Prize” read the baffled Globe and Mail headline announcing Bergen’s victory. This outrageous breach of etiquette was compounded by the fact that Bergen, a very tall Mennonite who looked like a serious fellow in photographs, did not fit the teddy bear image—think W. O. Mitchell, think Farley Mowat, think Timothy Findley, even think Richler in his final, mellower years—expected of male Canadian writers with a wide readership.
At first glance, the 2006 Giller shortlist looked like a recanting: four of the five nominated books were published by smaller presses; three of the five authors were from Montreal and a fourth was from Vancouver Island; two of the titles were translations of Quebec novels originally published in French. Numerous people asked me why Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, which many readers thought clichéd and sloppily written, was on the list when it obviously didn’t attain the literary level of the books by Gaétan Soucy and Rawi Hage. He’s published by Doubleday, I replied; they have to make one concession to the Bertelsmann Group. I should have paid more attention to the significance of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood withdrawing their 2006 titles from consideration for the Giller. This canny strategy enabled the old guard to become kingmakers.
In 2003, an almost certain victory for Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake was derailed when the Globe and Mail reported two of the jurors’ close personal ties to Atwood, drawing particular attention to the fact that Atwood’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart, had never failed to win in a year when David Staines was on the jury. The adverse publicity, rendering an Atwood triumph potentially damaging to the Giller’s credibility, led to the uncomfortable compromise of giving the Giller to M. G. Vassanji for the second time. Choosing Vassanji instead of Atwood did not dispel the growing impression that Giller night was the preserve of a small clutch of anointed insiders. Even the nearly beatified Munro faced a ripple of discontent in 2004, when she won her second Giller Prize.
Giller night 2006, which found Atwood in the audience and Munro sharing jury duties with Adrienne Clarkson and Michael Winter, displayed the Canadian establishment at its most repellent. Host Justin Trudeau and correspondent Ben Mulroney swapped complacent quips about the pleasures of being a prime minister’s son. The first four nominees were introduced by Canadian actors. As soon as Atwood stood up to introduce the fifth shortlisted author, Vincent Lam, anyone who understood power in Canadian culture knew that Lam had won. Margaret Atwood does not introduce losers. By placing her authority behind Lam, she was giving the equivalent of el dedazo, the crook of the finger with which a Mexican president signals his successor. The image was so powerful that the next day’s Globe and Mail misreported the event, stating that Lam had received his Giller Prize from Atwood when, like every previous winner, he was handed his cheque by Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the prize. But in political terms, the Globe’s initial report—later retracted—was accurate.
The peculiarly Canadian feature of Atwood’s intervention was her astonishing decision to tell in public the story of how Lam had approached her to read his manuscript while working as the ship’s doctor on an Arctic cruise on which Atwood was a passenger. The Family Compact takes for granted that advertising pre-existing links between old and new members of the establishment legitimizes the next generation in the eyes of the public. Our bourgeoisie, being weaker than that of other Western countries, must assert its cohesiveness in public. In the United States, the story of Atwood’s role in finding Lam a publisher would have remained the property of a small group of acquaintances educated at private colleges. In Great Britain, the story would have surfaced weeks later in a tabloid newspaper. Only in Canada could it have been broadcast on national television, prior to the awarding of the prize, to enable the old Wasp establishment to claim parentage over the new multicultural establishment. In an instant Vincent Lam, in contrast to previous “multicultural” Giller winners Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry and Austin Clarke—all of them relative loners, none of them born or raised in Canada, none of them able to boast an exemplary interracial marriage such as that between Lam and his Anglo-Greek-descended wife—became a member of the Family Compact and a potential teddy bear.
But the real future of Canadian writing lay on the banquet tables of the 2006 Giller dinner, where each guest was invited to take home an individually wrapped party favour provided by Chapters-Indigo. When the guests opened their favours, they found that all the packages contained the same remaindered Stephen King novel. The tragedy of Canadian culture is that power brokers such as Atwood, Clarkson and Munro do not use their influence to rebuild a less monopolistic, more effective system for selling Canadian books. Without such an effort, the current generation’s legacy will be future Canadian readers who know nothing of either Margaret Atwood or Vincent Lam but are intimately acquainted with Stephen King.