If the old saw is true that every dog has its day, it took storied Toronto small press Coach House Books 22 years to see one of its authors ascend the podium to claim the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest award for fiction. That happened last night, at a gala ceremony in Toronto, where Coach House author André Alexis beat out arguably the strongest field in Giller history to take the prize for his novel, Fifteen Dogs. It was the first win for Alexis, who had previously been shortlisted for the prize in 1998, for the novel Childhood (published by McClelland & Stewart). His win is particularly sweet for Coach House – one of Canada’s oldest and most important independent literary presses – coming as it does in the publisher’s fiftieth anniversary year.
Another small press, Biblioasis, had its best Giller year so far, placing two books on the shortlist: Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John, and Donald Winkler’s English-language translation of Samuel Archibald’s story collection, Arvida. HarperCollins was the lone multinational represented among the five-book slate of finalists, with Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline, and Heather O’Neill’s story collection, Daydreams of Angels. O’Neill also made Giller history as the first author to have a book shortlisted in two successive years. (Her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, found a spot on last year’s shortlist.)
A good year for small-press publishing was also a surpassingly good year for readers: for the first time in memory, the shortlist featured five strong works that stood on their merits as literature rather than the supposed worthiness of their subject matter or their authors’ putative gilded reputations. The recent momentum of Alexis’s novel notwithstanding (last week, Fifteen Dogs also took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction), this year there was no clear standout in the field of five, and it was possible to argue convincingly that any one of the nominated works would have made a legitimately strong winner.
This year’s Giller shortlist – chosen by a jury composed of Irish author John Boyne, Canadian authors Alison Pick, Cecil Foster, and Alexander MacLeod, and British author Helen Oyeyemi – was notable for alerting readers to the fact that Toronto-born Cusk is actually Canadian (most readers, myself included, assumed she was a native of the U.K.) and reminding them what an apologue is (the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the form as “a moral fable, especially one with animals as characters”). It brought welcome attention to works of short fiction – still this country’s most impressive literary genre – and translation, and highlighted books that challenged readers on the level of form and content (Martin John is a stylistically pyrotechnical work that focuses on a sexual deviant, and Outline is an episodic novel about a writer in Greece in which the central character is all but absent from her own story).
“This is most unexpected,” said Alexis upon winning the $100,000 award, which saw him joined onstage by his jubilant mother and other family members. (Alexis was not the only shortlisted author with family in attendance: Schofield walked the red carpet in the company of her teenage son.)
Of the winning book, the jury said, in part, “It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?”
In addition to the cash prize, this year’s winner also receives a two-week residency at the Leighton Artists’ Colony in Banff, Alberta, courtesy of the Banff Centre.
The other stars of last night’s gala, by all accounts, were the stylists who outfitted the nominated authors. Quoted in the Toronto Star, Samuel Archibald said he did not wear a tux to his wedding, and would likely never do so again, “unless I end up playing James Bond someday.” Schofield also had high praise for her stylist: the Star quotes the indefatigable Irish-Canadian writer as saying that her dress was nothing short of a fashion miracle. “I’ve got a body like an eight-year-old boy with boobs.”