You probably know this by now, but last week, Johanna Skibsrud won the Giller Prize for her debut novel, The Sentimentalists. I don't generally follow the Giller closely, but Skibsrud happens to be a friend, so I paid attention this time around—eagerly awaiting the shortlist announcement, reading all the different responses to the nominated books and the conjecture about who would or should win, and then huddling my jittery self into a chair and live-streaming the ceremony to finally see what would happen. And while I knew it would be a huge deal when Skibsrud won, what I wasn't expecting was the way that the media covered the story. As I watched things unfold, I became dismayed, then frustrated, then straight-up angry at the way journalists, bloggers—seemingly everybody—managed to manufacture a scandal about Skibsrud, her publisher, Gaspereau Press, and the latter's decision to take a few days to think about how it would handle the so-called Giller Effect.
Gaspereau is a small press based in Kentville, Nova Scotia, that's committed to making books with an attention to detail and a focus on quality that's rare in today's publishing world. Because of the way it does things, Gaspereau doesn't crank out books the same way some other publishing houses do. After Skibsrud's Giller win, a few big publishers offered to take over from Gaspereau and print books faster, offers that Gaspereau declined. And because of that, they were vilified in the press.
Why did Gaspereau turn down the offers of help? A simple thing that apparently much of the Canlit world doesn't know how to deal with: principles. Gaspereau believes in doing things with integrity. In the value of making something by hand, thoughtfully, in a way that supports the local economy. If they were going to hand off the printing of Skibsrud's book to someone else, they wanted it to be someone who shared these values. "Every time we make a book here, we change the world a little," Andrew Steeves has written on Gaspereau's blog. "Not only because of what those books have to say, but because of what the way in which we make those books [has] to say too."
But folks just couldn't wrap their heads around that. "Pretentious. Antediluvian. Mean-spirited," spat Tasha Kheiriddin of Gaspereau in a National Post column. On the publisher's blog, a commenter named Oren wrote, "I feel horrible for Johanna that she got stuck with you as printers ... you obviously do not have the capabilities, the inclination or worse yet the mental fortitude to ensure that you take advantage of the honour bestowed her." And the Globe and Mail, in what amounted to a clearly anti-Gaspereau editorial, wrote, "Perhaps some grudging admiration is due to anyone who hews to a principle." Perhaps? I wasn't aware that being principled was a bad thing. I also wasn't aware that we have somehow become a culture that thinks it acceptable to shout down anyone who makes a conscious choice to do things in a way that falls outside of the mainstream.
What made all this criticism even more difficult to read is the way in which the flames were fanned. Less than twenty-four hours after Skibsrud won the Giller, the Globe published a story under the headline "Author's angst grows over unavailability of Giller winner."
Never mind that earlier that morning, in a television interview, Skibsrud was asked, "Is that a worry for you, that 'Oh my gosh, are enough people going to be able to read my book?'" She replied: "No, it's not a worry for me. I know that Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau had said before that we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, so I feel confident that we'll find a way to supply the books." Did the Globe really feel that they were reporting the story accurately when they wrote that headline? Or were they just trying to whip up a frenzy and sell some newspapers, facts be damned?
Which leads me to wonder how that—and by "that" I mean selling things, whether newspapers or books or television ads—has become what the Giller is about. I felt a bit strange watching the part of the ceremony in which photos of past Giller winners were flashed across the screen, accompanied by big, bold numbers that indicated how much their book sales had increased after winning the prize. Make no mistake, I fully believe that writers should be paid much more than they currently are for their work. But since when has awarding a literary prize been about sales figures, rather than celebrating literature? What we should be focusing on is the creativity, intelligence, and skill that went into the writing of these books. The end.
So let this be a plea for sanity. An encouragement that we all step back, take a deep breath, and think for a moment. Is a book made better when it wins a literary prize? I don't think so. The Sentimentalists was a magnificent novel before it showed up on the Giller long list. It will still be magnificent in a couple of days (when you'll be able to get a Douglas & McIntyre copy, the result of the publishing plan Gaspereau eventually decided on) and it will be magnificent in a few weeks or months when you find a Gaspereau-printed edition of the book, which the folks in Kentville will keep making, slowly but steadily. If you decide to wait for the Gaspereau-made version, perhaps you could pick up another Canadian book in the meantime. If this year's Giller shortlist has shown us anything, it's that there is a whole group of interesting, talented writers out there publishing their books with small presses. We don't read enough of those books. This seems like a good time to change that.
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