From an interview by Owen Percy, Calgary, 2006.
I’ve always had the idea of writing a long article about all the books that won the Governor General’s Award—a paragraph for each book. And there’s an infamous list of books that should have won and didn’t. For instance, Phyllis Webb didn’t win the 1980 award for Wilson’s Bowl (Coach House), and everyone was really pissed off. So two years later, her selected poems, The Vision Tree (Talonbooks), was nominated, and it won to make up for it. That’s happened a number of times.
In spite of that, and the proliferation of writing prizes, the GGS still have more prestige and authority than other awards. When people are introducing me, or anyone who’s received a gg, they say “winner of the Governor General’s Award . . .” even if it happened thirty years ago. What’s even more boring is “nominated for” or “was on the shortlist for the such-and-such award”—I always think, Aw, c’mon! Some people even put that on their cv. “Shortlisted for the such-and-such award.” Essentially saying, “I didn’t win the award,” announcing, “loser of the . . .”
But when it comes to fiction, I’ve got more interest in the GG than I do in the Giller. I think the Giller is trying to change things now because they’re feeling a bit of heat—it has almost always been a bunch of Toronto writers and Toronto publishers getting together and giving each other an award. They would always throw in one loser, somebody from out West who had published a book of short stories, and the other four nominees would be Ontario writers, Toronto writers, published by McClelland & Stewart or HarperCollins or something like that. Recently—and I’ve seen the lists—it’s been a whole pile of novels that nobody’s ever heard of, which means they’re trying to go the other way, but everyone complains that the Giller list and the Governor General’s lists are always completely different. Usually that has happened, and I think it’s happening now. It’s not an accident. Again, I think in recent years—well, since the Giller started in 1994—it almost always goes to some famous Toronto or Ontario writer (which includes Mordecai Richler, because basically that’s the same thing). And so I think the people running the Governor General’s Awards decided to do an anti-Giller shortlist. And in order to do that, you have to be looking around at the rest of the country a little more, and you have to look at the less conventional writers. It’s been interesting. Miriam Toews, from Manitoba, won it a couple of years ago for A Complicated Kindness—really, an enjoyable book. Not an avant-garde book, but really interesting! It’s a heck of a lot more interesting than, you know, the latest book by Alice Munro or someone like that, as good as that might be.
Any award that is done by committee is suspect in one way or another. A group has four or five different ways of deciding how to choose the winner. But one thing that always can happen and sometimes does happen is that a couple of people on the award committee will say, “Oh, that person’s on the committee . . . Well, we know that he’ll want to give the award to so-and-so, and we don’t want so-and-so to get it, so we’ll leave so-and-so at the bottom of our list or we’ll leave him off our list.” That’s horrible. What I really respect more are the Alberta Literary Awards, in which, for each category, a shortlist is named by the judges, and in the end one person looks at the shortlists and decides. I guess that’s a crapshoot too in a lot of ways, but it’s not going to be crooked. And usually the judges are people who are not from that province. They’re from somewhere else.
Another factor is personal and professional connections between jury members and award nominees. I was on the GG committee when Fred Wah won the 1985 award for Waiting for Saskatchewan. He’s a good friend of mine. But also on that committee was Paulette Jiles, who lived in the same town as Fred, and Eli Mandel, who was born in the same province as Fred, so what do you do with that? Whenever I’ve sat on a committee I’ve always been scrupulously honest, which means that sometimes my friends have had to lose. After Fred’s award, the winners in the next two years I was on the committee (members serve for three years) were Al Purdy (1986) and Gwen MacEwen (1987). Neither one of them was in my, you know, gang. For both of them, it just so happened that that was the book that I thought was doing it all that year. When the Canada Council convenes the committee or the jury, they try to balance it in terms of geography, age, gender, etc. etc. They don’t try to do it in terms of what kind of writing the person does. They try to make the jury as varied as they can, and therefore somehow more objective.
As for sales of award-winning books . . . when you win the Governor General’s Award, you might get taken a little bit more seriously by people who don’t know very much about poetry or fiction. But for me, the prize had no effect on sales. None at all. And it never has had—I’ve been told that over and over again about the GGS.
Maybe it’s different for fiction. I don’t think my novel Burning Water (1980) sold many more copies right after it won, even though it had the sticker on it and all that business. But my next novel, Caprice, sold far more copies than Burning Water did. Burning Water sold a lot of copies in universities for courses and so on, but Caprice sold more overall, probably because it was the alternate choice for a book club. Of all my novels, that’s the one that has sold the most, and it never won or got a nomination for anything.
For the poetry community, I guess it’s better to have such a thing as the gg awards than not to. That is to say, imagine if they were giving out awards every year for theatre and dance and music and lifesaving, and they weren’t giving one out for writing. We would be pissed off as hell. It’s nice that once a year, people go and get dressed up and go to Government House and there’s the Head of State and guys in uniform standing at attention—and they get a really good meal!
You can think about it in two ways. You can say, “Oh well, if it’s recognized by the government, then it’s somehow in the bourgeois world and perhaps the writer is selling out.” I don’t think that’s true. If you look at the Governor General’s Awards in poetry over the years, you’ll see some winning books that were, I think, really bad poetry—some that were typical middle-class, old-fashioned who-gives-a-shit stuff—and then some that were really edgy good stuff. Like when Erin Mouré got the GG for Furious (Anansi, 1988). How many people read that book, and how many people can understand what the hell she’s doing there? It’s wonderful! Or like when bpNichol won it. So you haven’t necessarily given up your edge if you win it. Mouré certainly hasn’t—in fact, she’s gotten more difficult!