In September, novelist André Alexis withdrew from jury duty for the Governor General’s Award for fiction, after signing a declaration of conflict of interest. Catherine Bush—with whom Alexis is “involved,” according to an October 29 Quill & Quire article—had a novel eligible for the award (Claire’s Head). Though the situation was not handled as well as it might have been, I don’t think anyone would question the probity of Alexis’ decision: clearly, there was a cut-and-dried conflict of interest. The question is, would the Canada Council have done anything about the situation had Alexis not volunteered to step down?
Given the state of this year’s poetry short list, I’d have to guess that they wouldn’t. Consider the following: Two of the books, Jan Zwicky’s Robinson’s Crossing and Roo Borson’s Short Journey Upriver toward Oishida, can be traced directly, and with no great effort, to Robert Bringhurst, one of the poetry jurors. Borson thanks Bringhurst in her acknowledgements for his editorial contribution to her book—a book that eventually won the award. Bringhurst was therefore in the position of passing judgement on a collection that he had some share in creating. Similarly, Jan Zwicky dedicates one of her poems to Bringhurst. It is also worth noting that Zwicky wrote a blurb for Bringhurst’s book The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 and that Bringhurst thanks Zwicky for her editorial contribution to the poems in that book. Granted, Bringhurst is not, to the best of my knowledge, “involved” with either of these writers, as in the case of Alexis and Bush, but how can these rather strong personal and professional connections not be seen as constituting a conflict? I don’t mean to suggest that Bringhurst is insincere or cynical in championing the work of his friends, but how can a juror even feign disinterested objectivity in such a situation?
Bringhurst was not the only poetry juror this year in a compromised position. One has only to flip open Tim Bowling’s The Memory Orchard to find that it is dedicated exclusively to Russell Thornton, also a juror on this year’s poetry panel. Remarkable coincidence, what? This raises a vexed question for me, because I thought that Bowling’s book definitely merited inclusion on the list, unlike Zwicky’s and Borson’s contributions, which seemed to ride on the reputation of the authors rather than on the excellence of the writing. If Thornton had declined jury duty because his friend’s book was eligible, would his friend’s excellent book have made the list? Perhaps not, especially considering that Bowling’s last book was nominated in 2003; in other words, another jury might have left him off the list, not because his book was unworthy but in order to spread the recognition around. This year, as is the case most years, many fine books submitted for the award did not make the final cut, probably because they didn’t have a strong enough advocate. But I would argue that it’s better not to make the list at all than to have one’s inclusion tainted by questions of conflict. If one gets by with a little help from one’s friends, one still gets the $15,000, but surely the award itself is cheapened considerably. Whether or not Roo Borson deserved to win the award this year, it is now impossible to look at her win as an objective achievement.
Given how small the so-called poetry community in Canada is, how much it loves group retreats, workshops and conferences, and how many books are published each year (138 titles were submitted to the 2004 awards), it’s difficult to conceive of a jury completely free of some manner and degree of conflict. (It bears noting, too, that a conflict need not be in favour of a poet, since a history of animosity would also constitute an unreasonable prejudice.) But this is only a problem so long as juries continue to be drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of poets. Some poets, especially senior poets who have travelled the country over the years and have had a hand in teaching and editing younger generations, know so many people on the scene that it is virtually inconceivable that they could be on a jury without having a conflict of interest (or, conversely, that they could publish a book without having a friend speak well of it on a jury).
But if you can’t give the job to poets, who the hell else can you give it to, given that (as the truism goes) no one reads poetry except poets? Assuming that the elimination of the award is a foolishly idealistic notion, one option is to staff juries with university and college professors, who are somewhat less likely to know applicants personally. But considering the workload of your average prof, they are not likely to have the time or patience to sift through 140 titles, some of which no doubt demonstrate less intimacy with the English language than their undergraduates’ essays. Another option would be foreign authors with no ties to Canadian poets. But of course, you would probably have to offer such jurors a fair sum of money to make the work worth doing.
Here’s a crazy notion: open up jury duty to volunteers from the general public. Isn’t it from the citizenry that juries in the courts are formed, even if they are largely ignorant of the intricacies of law? There may not be many people who sign up, but what possible harm could come from the odd taxpaying layperson having his or her say? I somehow doubt the Canada Council could do much worse.
I’ve argued this before, in the context of the Griffin Prize, but I think it bears repeating: if publishers and editors won’t (or can’t, due to fear of funding loss) be more selective in what they publish, some onus should be placed upon them to be more selective in what they submit to awards. I think a reasonable limitation would be either one title or a quarter of the house’s list, whichever is greater. Perhaps then the prospect of jury duty would seem less onerous and more people without vested interests would participate. Publishers, of course, would not cotton to such an arrangement, as it could easily lead to conflict between editors and writers angry about not having their books submitted. To a certain extent, I think publishers like to pretend, rather disingenuously, that all the books they publish are equally wonderful, just different. Someone else’s decision to bestow laurels on one of their authors then makes it easy for them to decide which books to promote more heavily. Pre-selection by publishers would no doubt be unpleasant, but given the scale of the industry these days, it’s needed more than ever.
Barring such a radical overhaul of the process, the Canada Council should take steps to ensure that at least the most egregious conflicts of interest are obviated, since clearly not all jurors can be counted on to be as voluntarily forthright as Alexis. The Council could, for instance, conduct routine audits of juries to ensure that no significant conflicts exist—if not prior to submission of the short list (which would be a logistical nightmare), then at least once the short list has been submitted by the jury but before it is made public. If a conflict of interest is suspected or detected, measures could be taken to correct the situation, up to and including barring the guilty party from future participation in juries and from eligibility for awards, including grants. A shame to be so draconian, but if our unacknowledged legislators can’t police their own actions, they should at least be accountable to others for their misdeeds.
Another improvement would be to make the deliberations of the jury accessible to the public—especially since it is public money at stake here. As it stands, jurors are not even supposed to discuss the selection process. There is a tacit suggestion in such shadowy tactics that strange things are done and said behind closed doors, things that it would be embarrassing for the public to know—for example, that decisions might have more to do with politics, compromise and horse-trading than with artistic excellence. In the spirit of such transparency, I will be participating in a mock jury this December, along with Steven Laird, editor of the journal Lichen, and Alex Good, on Alex’s independent book news website. I solemnly declare that I have no personal connections to any of the authors on the list. Honest.
Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems from Insomniac Press. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.