Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Journeying the Roads Less Travelled

Unlike Canada’s two major literary awards, there’s no formula to predict the Journey Prize winner for top short story

Next to the literary glamour and fanfare of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, the Journey Prize—the country’s top award to a short story writer at the beginning of his or her career—makes a comparatively quiet fall appearance. The fourteen contenders for this year’s prize, selected and collected by Quill & Quire review editor James Grainger and author Nancy Lee and published in a handsome paperback anthology, The Journey Prize Stories, have just made their way onto bookstore shelves.

The prize takes its name from James A. Michener’s novel Journey, of which the Canadian royalties earnings are donated to make the annual award possible. And while it suffers a more modest existence in the shadows of its bigger sisters, the Journey Prize comes with a cheque for $10,000—which is nothing to sneeze at. The winner will be announced in March 2006.

Meanwhile the juries of the bigger pair of awards—the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award—have already been sequestered and reached judgement day. The grey clouds have parted, and they have sent down the magic beam to touch the chosen one. And while we, the entranced crowd, dutifully ooh and ahh each year, one wishes that one day a voice would emerge to step forward to ask of the judges, ”Would you please also shed some light on the selection criteria for your awards?”

Rachel Giese did us the honour. In her recent article, “Bookmaker’s Odds: How to Win a CanLit Award,” for the CBC website, she probed into the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award selections of the last ten years and unearthed some surprising consistencies among the winners. Among her findings we learn that two-thirds of the awards have gone to men (with the other third largely going to Alice Munro), winning novels outnumber short story collections four-to-one (with 50 percent of the latter category again being snapped up by Alice Munro), and that 70 percent featured historical settings. 70 percent were set in a small Canadian town or in the Canadian wilderness, while two-thirds of the remainder were set in foreign countries. Plots based on family relationships—and to a lesser extent on interracial relationships and conflicts—composed two-thirds of the winning books.

This year’s Giller Prize winner, David Bergen’s very fine The Time in Between, reflects not just one or two of the winning properties uncovered by Giese, but—other than the fact that he’s not Alice Munro—all of them. The book’s setting moves from the wilderness of British Columbia to Vietnam, and shifts in time between the Vietnam War and the present. The female protagonist is driven forward in search of her missing father, during which she engages in a love affair with an Asian man.

So what do we make of this? The dawn of a new literary tradition based on the skilful fusion of the well-worn elements of the past? Or simple proof that the nation’s top literary judges—while not exactly poor of imagination—may be a little, well, predictable?

The Journey Prize Stories may be pointing us down a more innovative path. This year’s shortlist of fourteen outstanding stories includes eight entries by men and six by women. All but one of the narratives are set in present-day urban North America, featuring complex realities that will be familiar to the majority of readers. Each of the stories opens a door to rich perspectives on human emotions, relationships and conflicts.

The stories cast their spells by luring the reader into the orbit of each protagonist’s world. Several of the entries deal with the complexities of relationships, the dimensions of miscommunication, or explore the conflicts related to identity, motherhood, guilt or loss. We slip into the mind of a schoolgirl dreaming her way beyond drudgery and poverty; we are made to feel the possibilities for tenderness in a teenaged girl’s relationship with her father’s mistress, or between a poetry-loving prostitute and a deaf child; we come eye-to-eye with a mentally challenged teenage boy who fails to recognize the abuse he suffers at the hands of his mother’s bridge partners; or we enter the chillingly brutal netherworld of an alcoholic caretaker in the grip of snuff movies.

In addition to this line-up of absorbing short fiction, The Journey Prize Stories includes succinct notes on what makes a good story. These help not only to explain how Grainger and Lee made their story selections, but they serve as a reliable yardstick for any reader wishing to assess the stories from his or her own reading chair. Divided into seven sections with keyword headings, these notes go beyond the usual advice served up in fiction-writing guides. That “the writer must honour emotional and psychological realism” asserts that humans are complex, deep and unpredictable and that a good writer can bring a complex character to life by having them function within realistic emotional and psychological constraints. The section “Writing is thinking on paper” appeals to the need for “artful intelligence,” meaning that writing is a form of consciousness and as such, requires both an awareness of the nuances and complexities gleaned from human interaction and the ability to incorporate them into a fictionalized reality.

As much as these notes help to assess the writing of others, they also serve as a useful resource for all who would like to try their own hand at short fiction writing. Don’t have an idea what to write about? Following each story in the collection, the writer has added a paragraph giving information about the inspiration, origin or background of their story. The link between the rudimentary, even banal, beginnings of a work and the beauty of the finished story can spark the urge to write. And finally, to make sure your nascent stories don’t languish by your printer, the volume includes an appendix which lists names, contact and submission details of the literary journals in which the contenders for the prize first appeared.

You should make sure to secure a copy of The Journey Prize Stories before the first snowfall. And remember that only one of the stories will emerge as the winner in March. Meanwhile the reader’s prize is to be permitted to travel along with the contenders on our journey towards spring.

Michael Varga is a peripatetic writer and linguist living in Montreal. An advocate of the QWF's writing workshops, he is currently dreaming up a collection of short stories.