Quill and Quire


« Back to

Academic calls Eleanor Catton’s Governor General’s win “a literary scandal”

When Eleanor Catton won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction earlier this week, she said that the winning book, an 850-page tome about the disappearance of a wealthy man during one of New Zealand’s gold rushes in the 1800s, was, to her, not a nationalistic novel. Calling The Luminaries a New Zealand novel, Catton suggested, “feels as uncomfortable to me as calling it women’s fiction.”

Thomas Hodd, an assistant professor of Canadian literature at the Université de Moncton, has equal difficulty calling Catton’s sophomore novel a work of Canadian fiction. Writing in the Toronto Star, Hodd claims that awarding the GG to Catton is a “scandal,” because the author has not resided in the country since she was six years old. The eligibility rules for the GGs stipulate only that a person must be a citizen of Canada to qualify for consideration; they say nothing about residency.

In language that is direct and, frankly, somewhat overheated, Hodd suggests that awarding the prize to someone who has lived outside Canada’s borders for all of her adult life does nothing less than threaten the foundations of our national literature:

[W]hen it comes to Canadian literature, the educational and major cultural institutions of this country simply don”˜t care if our writers live here, work here, or create here.

Don’t believe me?

How else can we explain that the majority of our provincial book awards include residency in their eligibility criterion while the Giller, the GGLAs, and the Griffin Poetry Prize do not? How else can we explain the dearth of Canadian literature taught in our schools? How else can we explain Jean Baird’s needing several years of lobbying and a large petition of signatures to get the government of British Columbia to make Canadian literature a mandatory course for students graduating from high school ““ and that the majority of our provinces are still without such legislation?

Hodd goes on to point out that Sandra Djwa, who won the GG for English-language non-fiction for her biography of P.K. Page, A Journey with No Maps, said in her acceptance speech that she had difficulty finding a publisher for the book. “I’m sure if Catton ever writes a biography of a U.S. or Australian writer,” Hodd quips, “she’ll have no trouble finding a publisher in this country.”

This is the second time in three years that a non-resident has won the English-language fiction GG: Patrick DeWitt, who lives in Portland, Oregon, took home the prize in 2011 for his second novel, The Sisters Brothers. Then again, few people complained when Mavis Gallant won the GG for Home Truths in 1981 (the same year she was invested into the Order of Canada), even though she has lived in Paris for more than 50 years. And few complained in 1995 when Carol Shields won the U.S. Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries.

It is also worth noting that Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries; beginning in 2014, that prize will be open to all works of fiction published in the U.K. regardless of where the author was born (previously, the prize was only open to authors from the U.K., the Commonwealth, and Ireland). Booker winner Julian Barnes, quoted in The Telegraph, decries that change on nationalistic grounds: “There’s a certain cultural cringe in this country to the big American books and I fear that British writers will win it much less often.” Perhaps Barnes and Hodd should get together for a cup of tea and a chat.