When Jack Rabinovitch asked me to help judge the Giller Prize, only one answer was conceivable. He's done something unique and admirable for Canadian writers and readers, so my regard for him made acceptance pretty well automatic. But if that decision was taken without hesitation, it nevertheless produced a certain foreboding.
In Canadian culture, the Giller Prize is no bauble. Since 1994, when Rabinovitch created this memorial to his late wife, the literary journalist Doris Giller, it's become the most celebrated arts prize in the country. Aside from the $25,000 cheque, it generates so much public attention that it draws the winner into the elite corps of Canadian writers and shines the reputation of every book on the short list.
In that context, judging demands hard work and careful thought. It could also turn out to be tedious. This year there were 78 books to consider, up from 63 last year. That reading program might induce, even in a patriot, a lifelong hatred of Canadian literature. And what about my fellow judges, Joan Clark and David Adams Richards? What if our tastes utterly differed? What if (a worst-case scenario that occurred to me in a fearful moment last spring) we each came up with an entirely different short list, no books in common? Not likely, of course, but possible. Would there be painful arguments, even public scandal?
When the entries began arriving in thick, intimidating packages, I cleaned off a shelf and installed them in alphabetical order, as you might expect the father of a librarian to do. They were high-maintenance companions, jealous guilt-inducers. They sat in a row behind me in my office, shouting for attention whenever I turned to something else. I tried not to fall behind in my reading. How many pages did I get through today? How many novels this week?
Slowly I came to love those books, and love the unpredictable, swiftly changing mental landscape that is the judge's life. I moved abruptly from life among young rebels in Calcutta to a saga of folk singers on the Canadian Prairies to an account of the Spanish Civil War. I read writers I'd loved in the past, caught up with writers I had known about but ignored, and came upon at least a dozen writers, new to me, whose acquaintance I was delighted to make.
The range of the material demonstrated that fiction as a category has become capacious enough to hold anything except writing arranged in uneven lines (that's poetry) and writing that cites actual names (that's non-fiction, though not always). Entries ranged from thick, chewy, industrial-strength novels of the multigenerational persuasion to wafer-thin, glimpse-of-life chronicles, each chapter no more than a page or two long and not obviously connected to other chapters. Those books took me places I had never been before nor expected to go. It was an experience to cherish. After a while, it began to seem odd not to be reading a brand-new Canadian novel.
Joan and David and I had to come up with our list of finalists (six, as it turned out) for announcement on Oct. 3. Then we had a month to mull over and re-read those books before deciding the winner on the day of the celebratory dinner, Nov. 6. My worries about disagreements came to nothing: We agreed much more often than not and worked our way toward decisions with mutual understanding and no rancour. At one point, in a long conference call (Joan was in Turkey, David in Ontario cottage country, I in Toronto), we reduced the list of 44 titles to 14. The number then rose again as more packages arrived. In September we had one face-to-face meeting at which we struck the short list.
All this, wondrously, remained secret. Even Rabinovitch didn't know the short list until he heard us read it out at a press conference. No one except the three of us knew, until David announced it at the end of the dinner, that Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan was the 2001 winner. The Giller thrives on a combination of secrecy and flamboyance. That helps create delicious suspense, but it makes life hard for compulsive talkers like me. In private as in public, I'm a notorious opinion-monger. Does Rabinovitch understand how much pain it causes me to read a terrific book and not talk about it?
He seems to understand everything else.
A few years ago a philanthropist who works in a different field, suffering perhaps from just a touch of jealousy, asked me: "Can you please tell me exactly what is so damned important about the Giller Prize?" The question was merely rhetorical, but later I gave it some thought.
Like any good businessman, Jack Rabinovitch is both schemer and dreamer. He never quite articulates his schemes and it takes a while to figure out his dream, but eventually everything comes clear. He seems to have grasped, early on, the rule that all philanthropists should learn but most do not: Giving away money requires just as much care, intelligence and imagination as acquiring it. Rabinovitch constructed the Giller Prize as carefully as a long-term business project, leaving no detail to chance. He carefully drew publishers, booksellers, literary journalists, socialites and authors into a complicated interlocking promotion program.
He wanted much more than a handsome prize awarded to a deserving book. He wanted a campaign to focus national attention on good writing, the kind he likes and Doris Giller liked. Did he envision the Giller Prize hitting the front pages every year, like no other prize? I think so. He wanted us to get excited each autumn about several serious books, and he wanted that excitement to spill over on to good books by other writers. When he started planning it, and told Mordecai Richler that the prize would be $25,000, Richler warned him he was getting into something big. That kind of money would alter the whole system. Was Jack ready for that? Jack was.
His dream, of course, concerns a literary community of enthusiastic readers who argue about books, grow larger in the process and discover something of themselves in the books they read. In the same way, perhaps, that Jack long ago discovered something of himself in the St. Urbain Street novels written by his boyhood friend Mordecai.