Thoughts on Reading as a Shadow Giller Jury Member

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s not perfect. This whole question of a literary prizelist.

A prizelist is going to reflect many different things, from the jurors’ preferences to the prize founders’ or administrators’ networks, from the cultural zeitgeist to the political climate.

It is unlikely to reflect any single reader’s taste. And yet it is, by nature, intended to be representative. If only representative of the work published in a given period of time.

Which means a lot of people are going to be annoyed that it doesn’t represent the way they think it should.

The books included are going to be “too much” of some things and “not enough” of other things. Their stories too safe and too traditional, or too alienating for readers and too experimental. Their voices too jarring and raw, or too banal and ordinary. Their pagecount too slight and insignificant, or too verbose and sloppy. Their distribution too widespread and mainstream (copies everywhere) or too barebones and indie-minded (copies nowhere).

When it comes to Canadian literary prizes, the books included might be criticized for being too Canadian (too preoccupied with matters within the borders of the land currently called Canada) or not being Canadian enough (like Thea Lim’s, this year, set in the future when borders don’t hold the same positions or significance, set south of the border which currently separates Canada from the United States).

The authors themselves might be too Canadian or not-enough, with matters of citizenship and residence the subject of complaint (say with Rachel Cusk or Eleanor Catton).

And whether too-Canadian or barely-Canadian, they’ll be expected to choose a side in the ongoing debate which has polarized the literary community here since 2016, related to a scandal in a west-coast creative writing program, in this “either-or” climate which affords no seating arrangements for “both-and” thinkers.

So, let’s assume that the Giller Prize longlist was an imperfect selection.

Then, we can just get to talking about the books which were selected for it.

I’ve read them all (links to my reviews are here) and I’ve read more than a hundred other books by Canadian writers this year beyond this.

(You can search via tag or publication date, or you can check for specific works on my Books Discussed page, where the Canadian authors are marked with red stars.)

If you’re interested in the Giller Prize, you can watch the televised event below. (My apologies to international viewers as I believe this is available only to Canadian visitors).

And there are plenty of interviews (text, audio and video) with Esi Edugyan, the winner of the Giller Prize, Eric Dupont (whose shortlisted 2012 novel, Songs for the Cold of Heart, translated by Peter McCambridge in 2018, was the Shadow Giller Jury’s chosen winner) and the other ten authors whose works were longlisted.

CBC has an excellent series with each of the longlisted authors online and here’s a quick peek at a video with the shortlisted authors as well (which I believe is available to view internationally).

We Shadow Giller jury members (Naomi and Kim and Alison and I) have no videos and interviews to share about our process.

We’re just single readers united by the ideas that reading is a good thing, that books are good things, that the kinds of people who tell stories are among our favourite kinds of people.

Here’s to good reading and good writing, the prizelist kind and the not-so-prizelist kind!

[Edited to add: Naomi has her wrap-up post up now too. With a link to the official photo evidence of the shadow jury’s calculations on Kevin’s blog. Spoiler alert: it’s not quite as high-tech as you might have thought!]



  1. annelogan17 December 6, 2018 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    I know exactly what you mean-prize lists will never make everyone happy, but what I love about them, is that they get people talking and buying books, which in the end, benefits everyone!!! Great post 🙂

    • Buried In Print December 6, 2018 at 1:12 pm - Reply

      And as much as the Giller is criticized by some for its reach, it’s that reach which results in a few Canadian writers catching the interest of some international readers, which means they’re more interested in discussing less-well-known Canadian authors/awards/books because they’ve found some good CanLit reading in the past via these high-profile nominees.

  2. LiteraryHoarders (@LiteraryHoarder) December 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Great post!! ~Penny

  3. Andrew Blackman December 5, 2018 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Wow, I never thought about all those considerations! I judged a short story contest once back in London, but it was a fairly low-profile festival so there were no political things to worry about – just reading a bunch of stories and picking the best one. And with submitted short stories, unlike published novels, nobody else has read them, so nobody else could disagree with my choices 🙂 Still, it sounds like a good opportunity to read a LOT of Canadian literature, so I hope it was worth it overall. Would you do it again?

    • Buried In Print December 5, 2018 at 3:39 pm - Reply

      There have been other years in which I’ve read some of the list, a few in which I read nearly all (just missing one, which wasn’t readily available and, then, I just lost track of the intention as weeks/months passed) but only a couple other years in which I actually read them all before the ceremony; I probably wouldn’t have finished them all this year either if I hadn’t had the shadowing in mind, so it was nice to have another reason to stick with it. And, yes, we’re doing it all again next year!

      I’m glad there’s not just a single juror for any major literary prize, but I can see where that works fine for other competitions. (I haven’t had a lot of luck with those – with one exception – but I’m glad they exist as incentives for emerging writers. When I was submitting to them regularly it was a thrill just to make a shortlist.) Did you have any arguments with yourself or did you keep yourself in line throughout?

      • Andrew Blackman December 7, 2018 at 12:14 pm - Reply

        Hey, I didn’t know you were a writer as well as a reader. I agree, those short story contests are good incentives. Some of them can have high fees and seem to be a bit of a lottery, but I think it’s fine as long as, like the real lottery, you don’t play too often. I see quite a lot of short story contests, even quite prestigious ones, with just a single judge, but book contests always seem to have a jury, which I think is a better system. Yes, I mostly managed to keep myself in line, although it was a struggle sometimes 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it enough to do it again next year!

        • Buried In Print December 12, 2018 at 10:23 am - Reply

          And not as though one needs another way to add books to one’s TBR, but I’ve discovered some really good short story writers in particular via investigating a judges’ style and voice. That’s a good way to think of it: playing the lottery. Which is always more fun if you occasionally win, even if it’s a small victory!

  4. lauratfrey December 5, 2018 at 9:58 am - Reply

    The books are more important than the list. Absolutely. I’m glad I read the couple that I did!

    • Buried In Print December 5, 2018 at 3:28 pm - Reply

      I’m curious: were those two books already on your TBR before the prizelist was announced? (Which ones? I know one was Dupont’s…)

  5. Lisa Hill December 4, 2018 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    I’ve been on a shadow jury, and some years are harder than others. I was ok with doing it even when my favourites didn’t win until the year a book I loathed was the choice of the rest of the jury.
    It wasn’t a case of ‘taking my bat and ball and going home’ but some of the conversation was so disagreeable that I decided I didn’t want to have my reading pleasure ever compromised in that way again, so I’ve never done a shadow jury since. So I take my hat off to anyone who’s willing to take it on.

    • Buried In Print December 5, 2018 at 3:23 pm - Reply

      That sounds problematic indeed. Do you still follow the same prize, just not with a group? Or did the process put you off not only shadow-jurying but the prize itself?
      I can see where that could happen because it comes down to the readers rather than the books, which is obviously as issue on proper juries as well as shadow juries.
      And I also feel as though the basic questions which underlie these prizelists are often unaddressed (sometimes even unacknowledged) but those ideas/prejudices weigh in all the same.
      So it’s both personal and political – as is everything. And it’s always tricky working in a group, even when there’s good leadership in place.

  6. Naomi December 4, 2018 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    And your shadow pictures are brilliant!!

    • Buried In Print December 5, 2018 at 3:16 pm - Reply

      You won’t be surprised to learn that there is an entire series of them. 🙂

  7. Naomi December 4, 2018 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    I love the ideas you throw around here. And that you come right out and say the Giller list is not perfect and never will be. But that does not mean the books on the list are not worth reading and discussing, just like a different list would also be worth reading and discussing. And many books are not going to get recognized that should, but on the other hand many good books are going to get recognized. And isn’t that better than taking it all away and having none. No books begin celebrated and discussed. Because, really, one book always leads to another, and that book on the Giller list that you’ve read might lead you to pick up another one that wasn’t on the list but that just blows your mind. And that makes it all worth it, right?
    Okay, I know I’m babbling. I’m very sleepy. I hope it’s good babbling and not awful babbling.
    Great post, Marcie!

    • Buried In Print December 5, 2018 at 3:15 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Naomi, fellow-shadower! I love complaining as much as the next person; I always vote in elections so that I can legitimately complain about the results, and I complain about the humid weather whenever it strikes (i.e. most of the summer in Ontario) so I take a break from complaining about the weather for the other three seasons to protect the quality of my summer complaints. I take complaining seriously! But I take reading (and writing) more seriously. There’s always a way to read past and beyond the limitations of any prizelist (or any other curated content), to get to the “mind blown” state you’ve described. I love the prizelists most when I haven’t heard of all the book/s on them, because that sense of a “discovery” is one of my favourite things, but I do love reading lists to start with, my own and other people’s, and I know you do too! I’m looking forward to next year’s shadow activity!

  8. Laila@BigReadingLife December 4, 2018 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    It seems to me that you Canadians take your literary prizes much more seriously than we do in America. I wish we got that excited and televised the National Book Award! (Maybe we do and I just don’t know about it.) In any case, it’s fun following along on your shadow prize journey.

    • Buried In Print December 4, 2018 at 6:53 pm - Reply

      This is also something that Canadians like to argue about, whether the Giller should be televised. Some believe that it (a privately funded literary award) has come to overshadow the longstanding arts council literary awards (and the government takes photos but doesn’t televise its ceremonies let alone have celebrities or comedians host the events). But before people complained about the Giller, they complained about the government awards! shrugs, smiling

  9. A Life in Books December 4, 2018 at 5:07 am - Reply

    I had a much easier time of it on with my own shadow judging experience this year. We were presented with the shortlist, just four titles, and of course we had a face-to-face meeting even if one of us was stranded on a train. How do you set about discussing your decision with your fellow judges? Remmeber that I STILL can’t reply to your reply!

    • Buried In Print December 4, 2018 at 11:50 am - Reply

      So I guess that means, technically, I can have the last word on every topic of conversation. grins

      It would be ideal in some ways, if we shadowers could meet in person to discuss the books and the decision, but on the other hand, the true-and-for-reals Giller Jury shifted to include international voices a few years ago so it makes sense to have the shadowers from a variety of places also. And at least we have email and other ways to chat digitally, whereas thirty years ago we would have been wrestling with long-distance telephone rates or airmail charges! 🙂

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