To Love, Honor and Cherish: The Scotiabank Giller Prize

In the extremely unlikely event my husband established a literary award in my honor, it would probably go to an unpublished wannabe author. Maybe the trophy would be a miniature combination stovetop/laptop, given to an unpublished writer who was a good cook. Most likely, though, it would be the Weedy Garden Award, given to a writer who managed to get nothing done, indoors or out, for an entire twelve-month period.

Fortunately, Jack Rabinovitch had more to work with than my hubby does.

Born in 1931, Rabinovitch’s wife, Doris Giller, joined the staff of the Montreal Star as a reporter and feature writer in 1963. She stayed with the paper until its demise in 1979, holding positions as Night Editor, Lifestyles Editor, and Entertainment Editor. In 1972, she served as the Star’s Israeli correspondent during the time of the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics that resulted in the deaths of eleven of Israel’s athletes and coaches.

In 1981, she joined the Montreal Gazette, where she created an extensive Book Review section. In 1985, Doris and Jack moved to Toronto, where she came on board the Star as Assistant Book Editor and launched a regular column, Reading Habits, which became a mainstay of the Star book pages.

About a year after her death from breast cancer in 1993, Jack Rabinovitch founded The Giller Prize in honor of his wife, to recognize excellence in Canadian fiction. The stated purpose was to “enhance marketing efforts in bringing these books to the attention of all Canadians.”

In addition to a bronze statue designed by the well-known artist Yehouda Chaki, winners and shortlist nominees are awarded a cash prize. This started out at $25,000, the largest purse for literature in the country at the time. Since 1994, a total sum exceeding $250,000 has been awarded to Canadian writers. More than 2.5 million Giller-nominated books were sold in the first ten years of the prize, and over $60 million in book sales have been generated.

The prize’s founder must be pleased. In a 2007 article in the National Post, Rabinovich expressed approval of the media hype surrounding the award. “The more coverage it gets, the more books are sold. That to me is the important thing. I don’t mean to sound crass or commercial, but if books are sold and read, the purpose of the prize is accomplished.”

In 2005, the Giller Prize teamed up with one of North America’s leading financial institutions to become the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The prize fund increased to more than twice the original amount, with $50,000 going to the winner and $5,000 being given to each of the four finalists.

Though the prize has been, by most accounts, a rousing success, it is not without controversy. In 2006, Geist columnist Stephen Henighan pointed out what he called a monopolistic control of the Giller prize by a triumvirate of Toronto publishers. He noted that all but one of the winners from 1994 to 2004 lived within a two-hour drive of downtown Toronto. Whether or not this imbalance is due to any sort of evil plot is open to debate. However, in recent years the Canadian publishing industry has seemed to center around that city, which might help explain the phenomenon.

The annual award is given to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection. An appointed jury first selects a shortlist, which is announced in October. In November, a ceremony is held in—you guessed it—Toronto, to award the Scotiabank Giller Prize to the winning author.

Other than books published in Toronto, what sort of titles are winning this award? The lists for 2009 have not yet been announced, but we do know the contest will be juried by Russell Banks, Victoria Glendinning and Alistair MacLeod.

In a contest juried by Margaret Atwood, Bob Rae and Colm Toibin, the 2008 prize went to Joseph Boyden for Through Black Spruce, “An arresting novel with unexpected twists and turns. It’s also an important contribution to the Native literary voice in this country,” according to reviewer and author Tomson Highway. This was chosen from a shortlist that also included Anthony DeSa’s Barnacle Love, Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, and Mary Swan’s The Boys in the Trees.

In 2007, the winner was Elizabeth Hay for her Late Nights on Air, a tale of the Canadian north set in the 1970s as told through the perspective of characters working for a Yellowknife radio station.

A complete list of winners, shortlist nominees and, for the year 2007 and thereafter when the longlist was developed, longlist nominees, is available on Wikipedia.

For Canadian publishers interested in submitting an entry for next year, the submission package is available for download on the prize’s website.

To my knowledge, neither Doris Giller nor Jack Rabinovitch ever published a novel; but despite being separated by death for more than a decade and a half, the two of them have been making a genuine impact on Canada’s living literary heritage.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize is a love story, of sorts. One that releases a new chapter every year.