Talking to Elana Rabinovitch About the Giller Prize

“…offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I’ll decline…”

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), R.E.M.


I submit this interview with Elana Rabinovitch, Director at the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, to the recent public debate over the ‘Reader’s Choice Contest’ at the Giller.


The Reader’s Choice Contest, coordinated in the recent partnership with CBC Books, allows fans and regular readers to vote their favorite book onto the Giller longlist. Longlist is announced on September 6th.


The announcement that regular fans, readers, family & friends of eligible writers would be allowed to vote for their favorite book understandably touched a nerve within the writing community.


I was alerted to the issue by Steven Beattie’s excellent piece, Some Thoughts on Prestige, Public Opinion and the Giller Prize. I won’t argue any of Steven’s points here as I have made my arguments in the comment thread at the bottom of the link.


(The only public comment that I will allow parenthetically here is: can we please agree that the word ‘devalue’ has zero value in terms of meaning? It’s a buzzword and it relates to nothing.)


In my conversations and emails with writers and publishers and critics over the past week or so I have heard a number of concerns about what this sort of ‘inclusiveness’ does to the Giller Prize’s ‘legitimacy’?

My answer: it’s legitimate if you want it to be and not if you don’t. Is the Governor General’s prize legitimate even if nobody under 40 knows that it exists? Sure, I guess, to some people it’s very legitimate. Is the Writer’s Trust more legitimate because they’ve decided to throw more money at writers? Ok, why not? More money is good, right? What about the Griffin? What about the Leacock or the Pat Lowther Award?

Each one legit, each one with its difficulties and successes.

Entire critical essays can be written about these awards. Some people are thinking and writing about awards and awards culture right now, hoping to identify ways that awards can be tweaked to become more relevant, better suited to the writers and readers of this particular century.

Elana does a good job of answering questions that writers, publishers and critics asked me to put to her about the Giller and these recent changes. Her responses stand on their own.

However I would like to address one distressing point that was raised to my attention by more than a few people over the past week.

When I asked questions like, “Well, if this is such an issue of deep concern among writers then why don’t I see comments, blog posts, full page colour ads in the Globe howling in protest? Why isn’t Beattie’s comment thread stretching into the hundreds – as I had expected that it would?”

The answer, every time, was: because they “can’t”; they’re afraid of pissing off their publishers, of blacklisting themselves from longlists, shortlists, laundrylists, every kind of list that you can imagine.

Needle ripped from the turntable. What?

This is our literature? This is a culture worth supporting?

Because to me, if we hold our writers hostage with awards, if every link within the publishing chain is complicit in creating silence around these issues then we are, in a word, fucked.

If publishers and writers don’t have an open, supportive and respectful dialogue – especially about something as potentially influential to a writers’ career as a major prize – then the whole system is suspect, corrupt, one might even say ‘devalued’!

And all of this discussion around the Giller, the Reader’s Choice, whatever, is merely a pantomime, a shadowplay based on other tensions within relationships whose solutions will only come when those actors take a long look at that proverbial reality sandwich.

If it is true that writers don’t believe they’re free to publicly comment on this Giller issue (and by extension a whole lot of other issues confronting the publishing industry in this time of transition) then that is what needs work, not the Giller Prize and/or whatever Jack wants to do with his money and his prize.

And for the record: my thoughts on the Giller Prize Reader’s Choice are as follows:

Kick open the doors and let a little fresh air into the room.

Let’s raise the stakes a little bit, let’s introduce a little hustle into the awards routine, let’s give readers and fans a voice, let’s cultivate that relationship directly before industry-wide inertia concedes it to Amazon and Apple.

In a world where the Big Box Retail Dream is shriveling amid the smell of scented candles, foreclosures, display space curtailments, e-ink and tablets, writers and publishers need all the hooks that they can get into a distracted public that won’t even steal books during massive public riots on two continents.

If the voting aspect for the Giller gets people excited, gets more people talking, highlights books to the jury and to the reading public then so be it.

There’s no evidence that the Giller award system was sweet perfection up to this point and as an independently curated award they’re certainly within their rights to experiment with the process.

What’s needed isn’t email bickering or public authorial/publisher silence on the issue. What’s needed are some good ideas and some healthy conversation about how these awards can be meaningful to our literature and open to public influence.

Readers, an ongoing growth of readers over time who care about books and writing, is the goal. Slavish insistence that processes need be cloaked in silence and mystery to protect some sort of illusion of ‘legitimacy’ is not required.

In fact, it should be dispatched immediately.

I see this moment as inevitable, beneficial, one step in an evolutionary process.

It’s open to debate, it’s an opportunity to influence change, to direct the ship.

If we sit on our hands, quietly fuming about things beyond our control, living in fear of using our real voices to confront and understand the things that concern us then we have forfeited our responsibility to our own work and literature more generally.

Click the link below to listen to the BOTR interview with Elana Rabinovitch.

Note: the audio is not the greatest due to irregularities between computers and skype audio issues. I have cleaned it up as best I can and believe that it should be of enough quality for people to clearly understand our conversation. Any audio editorial suggestions are welcome!

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

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