What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day: "The Sentimentalists" and the Giller Prize

In honor (honour?) of Canada Day, I decided to finish reading The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, the novel selected by this year's panel of  judges as the winner of the very lucrative Scotiabank Giller Prize (C$50,000), and it made me ponder the role that subjectivity -- and perhaps even outside pressure -- play in selecting the winners of literary prizes of this kind. Skibsrud's novel originally was published by a tiny press and had an initial print run of only 800 copies; when it won, Gaspereau had to cut a deal with a larger house to get it into the hands of suddenly-eager book buyers. It's interesting to ponder that only a few years ago, there was a bit of a firestorm about the fact that the Giller seemed to go primarily to Ontario-based writers published by affiliates of publishing giant Bertelsmann AG, and this certainly is about as far as this year's three judges could have gone in the opposite direction!

Here I find myself in a bind. I'm a fan of Michael Enright -- after all, it was a letter he kindly wrote me back when I was 15 and sent an unsolicited "article" to Maclean's magazine (Canada's Time and Newsweek rolled up in one) that convinced me that I could one day become a journalist. (He complimented my writing style...) But I have to say I think that the panel of judges headed by Enright did badly this time around; the Giller is supposed to go to Canada's best novel of the year, not its most promising young writer. And that is what I think Johanna Skibsrud could be -- arguably, at least. What isn't up for debate, in  my book, is that this is a choppy narrative, one that is oblique and far too opaque to follow with much enjoyment. The writing is often beautifully elegant, but just as frequently that same elegance became cryptic and impenetrable. By the time I put The Sentimentalists down after finishing it, I was bemused. True, at its heart there is a potentially interesting story of a young woman forging (sort of) fresh ties with her father in his final years, a process that culminates in a story he tells her about an episode during his tour of duty in Vietnam. But it's like trying to get hold of smoke -- when you try to see if it has substance, it vanishes. So with this book: as I stopped to think about it, I just felt ripped off. Well, not literally -- I borrowed it from the library, so the only "cost" to me was the time it took to read -- but emotionally. I had wanted this to be much better than it was because it follows two stellar Giller winners that I simply couldn't put down, one of which is already on my favorite books list for this year; the other is on the same list for last year.

The 2009 Giller winner was The Bishop's Man, a deeply moving and deeply felt story of Duncan MacAskill, the "fixer" for an East Coast Canadian Catholic bishop, whose job it is to descend on parishes whose priests have been accused of sexual misconduct and remove them from their jobs, covering up after them. The narrator has to come to grips with the damage not only these priests have done but that he has done to individuals, families and communities in a painful and raw novel that addresses these scandals far better than any non-fiction account I've encountered. I knew Linden Macintyre, the author, was a witty and insightful journalist, but had no idea he could write prose like this. 4.6 stars; highly recommended: it's now available in hardcover in the United States and will be published in paperback late this year. (I do suggest reading Macintyre's first book; while not necessary, some of the characters and settings are introduced in The Long Stretch, which is almost as good.)

If that's a novel that truly deserved to win the Giller, that is even more true of Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden, which earned the honor in 2008 and which is one of a handful of books to which I'd unhesitatingly give a full five stars. At first, I found it hard to believe this could beat the author's previous book, the very, very good Three Day Road, but it did: as with Macintyre's debut effort, that novel lays the groundwork, in setting and plot, for the "winning" novel, but both can easily be read on a standalone basis. Through Black Spruce is a pitch-perfect novel, one that alternates between the narrative of Will Bird, a former bush pilot now lying in a coma in a hospital in Moose Factory, in northern Ontario where the easiest method of transportation is snowmobile, and his niece Annie, who has returned to be at his bedside. Gradually, Boyden's two major characters reveal their secrets, and the different perils that this placed them in: Will has fallen afoul of the Netmaker family, another Cree clan in the community, while Annie has been hunting in vain for her sister, Suzanne, who fled with one of the Netmakers and was last seen building a modeling career in New York. Whether writing about the club scene in Manhattan or Will's effort to take to the wild expanses of northern Ontario to live as his forebears did, Boyden is pitch-perfect. I can't urge you to read this book too enthusiastically.

I'm glad I still have Boyden's short story collection, Born With a Tooth, to read. I only wish that I'd chosen to spent my Canada Day with it than with Skibsrud's sadly flimsy novel.


  1. Good stuff, Suzanne. Sad that the Giller didn't nail it this year. Really like Linden Macintyre and must move the Boyden up the tbr pile.

  2. Happy Canada day!

    I do wonder about the objectivity of all the major prizes, especially the Booker. The Bishop's Man sounds like a great read, it's gone on my wishlist.

  3. Oh some interesting scoops here. I'm following you. Shah from wordsinsync.blogspot.com X

  4. Having just finished a wonderful novel centering on the effects of a priest accused of child molestation (Faith by Jennifer Haigh), I am particularly interested in The Bishop's Man. It also fits in with my goal of reading more literary prize winners this year. Thanks for highlighting it :)

  5. I'll take a look the Jennifer Haigh title, BookGirl. I think this is a hard topic to write about in a way that is both interesting to the reader and goes beyond the "oh, isn't this dreadful, let's all bemoan it" factor. So if someone can pull off a great novel in this context, I'm all the more impressed.
    I must say, though, that I'm becoming more and more skeptical about the caliber of prize winners. I'm now reading an Orange Prize shortlisted novel by Rosie Alison ("The Very Thought of You") from 2010, and while the writing is reasonably good, it's really just a romantic novel whose plot could have come from a Barbara Taylor Bradford. This came within shooting distance of a major literary award??? It's not actively bad, but it's just a few notches above banal, IMO...