By now you all know that Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize last night for his novel 419. Hearty congratulations to Mr. Ferguson! And to the other nominees, Russell Wangersky, Kim Thúy, Alix Ohlin, and Nancy Richler, whose books also deserve to be celebrated. As Will toasted: “To the written word!”
Ferguson also gave a warm and touching speech of gratitude that only deepened my crush on him (Beyond Belfast is my favourite of his so far). He’s contributed to Canadiana as a humorist, travel writer, and novelist, and though he’s no stranger to accolades — he’s won thirteen awards for his previous books — it’s lovely to see him win something as significant as the Giller now.
While I would have been happy had any one of the shortlisted authors won last night, I was especially glad that 419 emerged victorious. I surprised myself by shooting my arms in the air and cheering, actually. It was not only my prediction but my choice over the others, as worthy as they are.
I can’t say that 419 is the best Canadian novel of the year, but I don’t believe that’s what the Giller designates anyway. It can’t possibly, since the three people on the jury don’t read every Canadian book published in the year, for one thing. I also don’t think the writing is as strong as some of the writing I’ve read in the other other shortlisted books. But I do believe that 419 is a timely and important novel, a significant contribution to CanLit that, in winning the Giller, is now going to reach more homes than it might otherwise have done. It’s a good thing, especially if it prevents someone from falling victim to the 419 scam.
It’s difficult to compare stories and writing. So when I think about what book I’d like to see win an award and experience the positive consequences that go along with that, I consider what the books add to CanLit. The other candidates on the shortlist add exemplary writing and storytelling, there’s no doubt. But I didn’t feel they were Giller winners. Not because their writing isn’t strong but rather because their appeal and content doesn’t have as much potential for the larger Canadian and international audience as 419, or, I think, as much potential staying power. Gary Shteyngart said, “It was like nothing else I’d read. It stayed with us like a stomach virus. It just wouldn’t leave us. So we knew it would survive the elimination process.” And it did. But while the Giller Effect exists, it’s also true that not long after a book has won, it can also be rather quickly forgotten. I don’t see this happening as swiftly for 419 as it could the other books.
419 does more than tell a good story; it captures not only human weakness, compassion, desire, grief, love, suffering, and freedom but also the current climate and tragedy of Internet scams and international conflict. It’s thoroughly researched and thus offers insight in addition to a thrilling plot. In later years, we’ll be able to look back on this book as a literary landmark of this time.
I know people have mixed feelings about 419. I know people are disappointed, that they believe it isn’t literary enough or as well-written as one book or another. The truth is, we have to consider more than personal taste here. We have to consider value.
It’s also out there, as it will always be, that the Giller is predictable, the books chosen are ho-hum or stereotypical, that the entire event is elitist. I guess I don’t agree with all of that. While I guessed 419 would win tonight, partly because of what the jury’s statement about it said, I also think it could have gone several different ways. Others agree. And on the CBC’s poll tonight, at one point, Ru and 419 were neck and neck at 27%.
Mainly, though, as I said last night during the CBC Books Giller chat online, “I know there are so many CanLit authors out there not being recognized tonight. But that we celebrate CanLit at all is so heartening.” It was wonderful to hear Will Ferguson echo those sentiments later: “I love that in Canada literature gets the red carpet treatment.” As it turns out, I do too.
Shelagh Rogers in conversation with Will Ferguson on 419. So interesting!