November 10th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews the Giller Prize show

I have not watched an awards ceremony on tv since…whenever the first time Steve Martin hosted the Oscars (ah, 2001! thanks, wikipedia). I thought it would be fun because I like Steve Martin, but I hadn’t seen any of the films, got bored almost immediately and gave up. As a child, I liked watching the Tonys, but only for the musical numbers.

Historically, I’ve taken little interest in the Giller Prize, for similar reasons—I had rarely read any of the books, no musical numbers, not even Steve Martin. But this year a number of authors I admire—and books I love—appeared on the list, and it suddenly had something to do with me.

I have to say, good as the nominees are, I have not found following the Giller run-up especially rewarding. I liked seeing This Cake Is For the Party flash randomly on the tv while I ran on the treadmill at my gym, and Steven Beattie’s five reviews are always interesting, but the Giller pledge? A seemingly drunken conversation in the Globe about how everyone under 40 is an idiot? I think a lot of stuff went on on tv, which I don’t have except randomly at the gym, which might have been more entertaining.

But I did want to watch the ceremony, so Mark (cableless) found us a home containing the three necessary elements—a functioning tv, cable, and a resident who didn’t mind watching the ceremony.

I gotta say, the CTV/Bravo folks (I didn’t know they were the same until this event) worked really hard. The show was exactly one hour, unlike the long rambling Oscars. Of course, it helps that they had only one award to give away. Mark and I briefly fantasized that perhaps there would be equivalents of the Oscars’ sound and lighting awards—stuff for book design and editorial work—but of course there wasn’t. Maybe next year.

The host—a Michael J. Fox-ish news anchor who was very charming but who made such intense constant eye contact with the camera his pupils seemed dialated—kept things moving at a good clip. Each book was introduced by a famous person who I had never seen in the flesh before, so I kept exclaiming “That’s what Anne Murray/Barbara Amiel Black/Jim Cuddy looks like?” The famous folks were non-literary except for one past winner, but all did admirable teleprompted jobs describing plot and character. Then there was a mini-movie about each author, showing them strolling around town with their partners and kids and talking about writing. Intercut with that was interviews with the judges, who described what was awesome about the book.

I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I really liked the personal stuff. Most of it had nothing to do with the books, but it was all very sweet and interesting. One relevant bit I especially liked how David Bergen’s university-student son described how he tried to challenge his dad with his philosophical readings, and that had ended up in the book. Some of it—especially the shots of each writer writing—was lame-o, but on the whole pretty tasteful.

After the little movie, the author was called to the stage. I was confused by this—were they going to give a reading?—but no, they were just given little leatherbound books with the Giller rose on them (what were they?), embraced by the presenter, and sent back to their seats. I guess it was a chance to show off their party cloths (wow, everyone looked good—how does a writer know where to buy and how to wear an evening gown? Does the Giller committee have people to help with that?)

I was surprised that there was so much talk about the books, but no readings. I had thought that’s what the authors were going up there for, or perhaps the presenters would do it, but no. Surely the books are the point of it all, and these talented folks’ actual prose would be much more interesting than the back-flap-chat summaries offered instead. I wonder why no readings…? Especially when so much time was lavished before and after commercials on showing the authors standing against a white screen, answering weird questions very badly. Almost all the clips involved them saying the questions were hard or impossible to answer, and that’s what was kept *in*. I wonder what they cut??

In truth, it wasn’t a very literary evening, even though the host kept exhorting viewers—with increasing anxiety, I felt—to read the books. It was really a sales-y style they used, mentioning the Giller effect and actually showing percentages of how much sales of past winners had increased with the win. I’m not sure what the point of that was, but if I was Linden McIntyre, I’d resent being called Mr. 710%, as he was last night. Isn’t it “The books sold so much because they’re awesome” not “The books are awesome because they sold so much”—right?

Those of us in the peanut gallery fell into decidedly non-literary behaviour, exclaiming over people’s clothing and what might be wrong with Barbara Amiel Black’s head (our hostess explained probably Botox). And then Johanna Skibsrud won, which I think was a big surprise to most, but a pleasant one. She was emotional, but still managed to give a good, clear, not-too-long speech. It was really worth the price of admission (well, we paid in Pirate cookies, but even more than that) to see Skibsrud’s sister crying with delight in the audience. That was lovely.

It was a pleasant evening and I’m glad I watched, though I don’t know that I’ll be in a desperate hurry to do so again. The emphasis on promoting Canadian authors in this show was a bit skewed—they’re only promoting five books. And the Giller pledge doesn’t make much sense and offends me in a way I can’t quite put a finger on—why do we have to promise? Can’t we put the books down if we get bored? And yes, I do think everyone should buy lots of Canadian books to keep our publishing industry going, but there was so much sales talk on this show, completely ignoring how much many people depend on the libraries systems, borrowing from friends, etc., and how that’s pretty good for the industry in its own way.

But then again, I don’t even know how to put on an evening dress, so I can’t really say.

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