Fall is awards season for Canadian authors. The big three literary prizes for fiction are The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
This year, several media outlets called the Giller Prize this country’s most prestigious prize. I wonder if that’s really true. Did journalists all get the same Giller-praising press release? Or is it assumed that it’s the most prestigious because it has the biggest prize pot? ($100,000 for the lucky Giller winner versus $50,000 for the Writers’ Trust and $25,000 for the GGs)
Something has definitely changed to bump the Giller’s prestige past the Governor General’s Award, a stately prize started in 1937.
The Giller was first awarded in 1994. In its early years, it often felt more like a duty than a joy to read the winners. Many of them were well known Canadian icons such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. By the time Munro won a second time, many of us wondered if there wasn’t anyone fresh on the literary scene who deserved a win.
Since that time, the winners have largely been lesser known or more adventurous choices. This year the award winners for The Governor General and the Giller were equally intriguing, and by authors, I had not yet read.
Joel Thomas Hynes won the GG for his book, We’ll All Be Burnt in our Beds Some Night. Newfoundlander Johnny Keough faces jail time for assaulting his girlfriend with a teapot. On the day of his court date, the girlfriend suddenly dies, and Johnny gets a second chance at a clean life. Rather than go straight; however, Johnny rampages through town. He finds himself on the run from St. John’s to Vancouver, toting the girlfriend’s ashes. This book is filled with darkly comic escapades, which at the same time give incredible insight into the odds stacked against youth like Johnny.
Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill was the Giller winner, and also features a single narrator battling inner demons. This time, it’s Jean Mason, who runs a bookstore. Patrons keep telling Jean that they’ve her doppelganger around town. But, have they? Bellevue Square is such a complete mash-up of Jean’s imaginings and reality, that it becomes an exciting and slightly disturbing experience of what it might be like to be delusional.
This year’s winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize is David Chariandy’s Brother, a story of Trinidadian immigrants trying to get by. Chariandy is soon to be a household name: his previous book Soucouyant was shorted listed for a GG and longlisted for the Giller. The Writers’ Trust doubled their prize winnings this year, so it seems that the big three are not yet done jostling for the title of most prestigious Canadian literary prize. Whoever is on top, it’s all a win for readers.