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Former Giller judge Gary Shteyngart claims Canadian writers don’t take risks

Since opening its doors to international jurors, the Scotiabank Giller Prize has found itself the subject of some controversy. British writer and critic Victoria Glendinning, who served on the jury in 2009, caused a stir when she claimed that many Canadian writers occupy a “muddy middle ground” and spend much of their time “brooding on Muskoka chairs.” Worse, Glendinning went after the sacred cow of CanLit: the government grants system. “It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council,” Glendinning wrote.

Now a second erstwhile Giller juror, this one a Yank, has made similar comments. The Toronto Star points to an interview 2012 Giller juror Gary Shteyngart gave to Vulture.com, in which he claims that Canada’s system of government grants results in a literary culture that takes no risks.

Here’s the relevant section from the (much broader-ranging) Vulture interview (which also included author Chang-rae Lee):

NY: What do you think, then “” should [literature] be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be ““

NY: No, you’re not.

The response to Shteyngart’s remarks was predictably swift and heated. The Star quotes Dorris Heffron, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, who calls Shteyngart’s comments “ignorant,” and highlights the CBC Television adaptation of Terry Fallis’s Best Laid Plans as evidence that Canadian writing is not “boring or lousy.”

Heffron also points to the fact that Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize, something Lynn Coady, winner of the 2013 Giller, echoes. “Guys [we are] the nation of Alice Munro. Let’s thicken our skins,” Coady says. Elsewhere, Coady addresses, in typically direct and acerbic fashion, the notion that all Canadian writers get grants: “Mr. Shteyngart has no idea of the beer-sodden hours that have been whiled away here in Canada by writers bemoaning the inscrutable tastes of our funding bodies.”

For his part, Shteyngart seems to be retreating from his initial comments, joking in a tweet to The Globe and Mail that he was “in a drunken stupor” when he made them.