ESSAY: Why the Scotiabank Giller Prize Keeps Getting Better (and What Literary Theorists Can Learn from the Sociology of Sport)

I suspect that my sense of time has been distorted somewhat by the current pandemic, because when an email arrived from the Scotiabank Giller Prize last week, announcing the five members of its 2021 jury, I was a little surprised. So soon? It seemed like the 2020 award gala had taken place only weeks ago. This last celebration made a strong impression on me (as I’ll elaborate below). Perhaps that’s why it felt more recent than it was. Pandemic or not, I reminded myself, the 27-year-old Giller is by now like an ocean liner. It has a well worked out itinerary and schedule that must be adhered to if it hopes to complete its annual journey successfully and on time.

            This year’s Giller jury has five members. Included are three distinguished Canadian authors, Megan Gail Coles, Joshua Whitehead, and Zalika Reid-Benta (serving as jury chair), a Malaysian writer, Tash Aw, and American Joshua Ferris. It’s an impressive committee for many reasons, and yes, the fact that the it now consists of five judges does matter (the judging panel was made up of three judges since the Giller’s founding in 1994, and expanded only in 2015). The result is, to put it simply, a more potent representation of Canadian fiction writing and its producers. Furthermore, the presence of foreign judges is also something positive—for the Giller and for Canadian literature. It safeguards the prestige of a Canadian literary prize which has worked long and hard to achieve national and international recognition, and it invites valuations of Canadian-made fiction that are more likely to be impartial, as well as worldly (in the best sense of the word). These aren’t just optics, it should be stated. Nor am defending the Giller Prize—or not exactly.

            Before the reader objects, pointing out my biases, my attachments, or my self-interest, let me explain that I am undeniably attached—to philosophy and the conceptual tools it makes available, to be precise. Let me say too that I’ve been preoccupied for a long time with a problem that is of consequence to all literary prizes, the large (international) and smaller (national or local) ones. What concerned me is the potential in a highly developed cultural sphere for carrying out prize-giving as a practice that genuinely supports literary accomplishment, and that is unencumbered by non-artistic considerations, particularly economic ones.

            The Giller’s announcement of its 2021 jury brought to mind Sue Carter’s interview with Lawrence Hill, who chaired the jury in 2016. Carter’s “Q&A: Lawrence Hill” deserves to be read in full, but what struck me when I first read it were Hill’s statements: “I worked very hard to devise a system…where each juror would be heard and be able to express their preferences…. The main preoccupation was fairness to the writers whose books are being submitted…. My voice isn’t any more influential than the other jurors. In fact, it might be a little less influential because I have to be so careful about making sure everyone else is heard” (Carter n.p.). Without being explicit, Hill was declaring his commitment to ensuring agency—that is, all of the participants’ ability to effect the outcome of the deliberations and the eventual selection of a winner.

            Hill’s assertion was of interest to me because for many years, as I researched and analyzed literary prizes, international ones like the Booker, and our own Giller, I was bedevilled by the problem/atic of agency. Agency has many meanings of course, both within and without academia, but my own concerns were more circumscribed. Since I was studying literary prizes in general, and a privately owned, highly promoted Canadian prize in particular, I found that I was trying to do two things at once: establish criteria for assessing institutional integrity in a specific instance (the Giller); and put the inquiry as a whole—that is, the possibility of art’s autonomy from economic exigency in the context of the literary prize and its cultural surround—onto firmer theoretical ground (I should add that it never felt firm at any point during my labours).

            The question of judges’ agency is, as I understood it, part of a broader discussion of professional autonomy among cultural workers. The discussion, or aspects of it, was started some time ago by members of the Frankfurt School (famously founded in 1923 as part of the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt). Most of them went on to make major contributions to 20th century thought by spearheading social theory/ies and critical philosophy. To be clear, cultural worker is a broad category; it spans a myriad fields, tasks, and job titles, including university instructor, book publisher, editor, museum curator, and literary judge. Of note too is that neither the gravity nor the complexity of the problem of agency waned over the past century. It has been carried, developed, scaled up, and branched out by cultural studies through the work of critical theorists, structuralists and poststructuralists (more and less Marxist), deconstructionists, feminist and race critical theorists, as well as postcolonialists, in a dizzying array of French, British, American, and Australian iterations.

            In other words, I had tasked myself with untangling a very large knot—the narrower dimensions of the agency that I was hoping to parse notwithstanding. Theoretically speaking, and if we take into account the historic, political, and even linguistic dimensions, the problem is vast and unwieldy. In Canada, given the intellectual, academic, and political climate, it can also be snarly. Thankfully, the latter—the graduate English Department at York University where I pursued my work—was critical and challenged me in ways that largely supported my project. What did prove to be difficult for me were the discipline-specific tools: the ones too readily available, those that were obscured by layers of theoretical go-to’s, and those that were simply absent from a tool box designed for literary studies and literary theory.

            In hindsight, it is crystal clear that some of the frameworks and ideas associated with other disciplines, especially political science (like the ones gleaned from Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Gramsci, and E. P. Thompson, to name but a few), were, and are still, indispensable for constructing a solid and generalizable philosophy that could work as a defence of literary prizes. As for the task I had naively assigned myself then—to disambiguate the problem of agency, and render it useful in the real-world context of literary prizes—for that I found myself increasingly relying on relatively recent texts with interdisciplinary approaches and purviews. These were the texts that made sense because they dealt with the subject of prizes, or less directly, with valuation, literary canons, institutional practices, popular culture, the media, and so on; and, to be more exact, they were the texts other texts pointed to.

            I leaned heavily on the very few scholars who had produced book-length studies of literary prizes. Among them, James F. English’s 2005 study, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, was my vade mecum, a blueprint for my Canadian project. In it, English readdressed the intertwining realities of economics and culture in relation to the publication, celebration, and resulting canonization of ‘prized’ contemporary fiction. He wrote: “There is no question of perfect autonomy or segregation of the various sorts of capital, such that one might occupy a zone or margin of ‘pure’ culture where money or politics or journalistic celebrity or social connections or ethnic or gender advantage mean nothing, or such that one might acquire economic capital that is free of all implication in the social, symbolic or political economies….” (p. 10) Further on in The Economy of Prestige, in a chapter aptly titled “Taste Management,” and maintaining the distinctly Bourdieusian conception of cultural work (outlined by Pierre Bourdieu in “Structures, Habitus, Practices”), English honed in on the question of judges’ motives and agency:

In observing that judges for cultural prizes are rarely paid even minimum wage for their labor, …[i]t is obviously not money that motivates people to do this kind of work but (ideally) the love of art, or (more realistically) a sense of obligation to the individuals or organizations involved,….None of these motives need exclude the others….[C]ultural efficacy [entails] the joining of ideal and material, aesthetic and economic, generous and self-profiting impulses into a single, complex (conscious/unconscious) disposition—what we can think of as the judging habitus.

            Moreover, and in terms which I took to be qualifying his previous assertion that various types of “capital” might intervene in or influence a prize jury’s deliberations, valuations that are meant to be made on ‘purely’ literary/artistic bases, English added that

[J]udges nearly always approach the task seriously and honorably, and…as an act of genuinely artistic discernment. Whatever their suspicions regarding the “corruption” or “politics” of awards in general, they believe in the legitimacy and relative purity of the cultural work they themselves and their fellow jurors have performed.[i]

            James English’s and Lawrence Hill’s observations were key, I believed: both exemplified Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as an acquired disposition—one molded by upbringing, education, and professional experience—that shapes decision-making and comportment. These and other concepts Bourdieu’s work made available, combined with my own research analysis, gave me the confidence to argue that certain broad critiques had been unjustifiably levelled at the Giller.                           Canadian critics tended to reference cultural theorists Graham Brennan and Timothy Huggan, both known for their criticism of the global publishing industry, which they saw as complicit in Euro-American cultural hegemony. I pointed out that applying these ideas to the Giller involved making sweeping assumptions. Most glaringly, what was being assumed is that the entire Giller Prize structure—with all of its different, moving parts—operates monolithically, with one overarching (or all-consuming) vision, aesthetic and intellectual inclination, and, to put it more cynically even, a single set of loyalties.[ii]

            Existing critiques too often failed to disaggregate the Giller into its various components: the writers and their fiction, the judges (a different panel every year), the administrators and corporate sponsors, and the national, historic, and political contexts wherein the Giller vies for cultural prominence. Indeed, James English’s examination of different institutional structures offered a perspective that framed prizes as living, breathing aggregates of many variables. Additionally, Bourdieu’s work suggested that a judging panel should be seen a site of contestation—not just between judges, but also between competing (or conflicting) artistic, social, and political values. In theory, the work of judging would appear to be an opportunity to serve in the interests of art/writing and the broader community of artists/authors and critics, national culture, and readers. Moreover, I reasoned that individual judges came armed with their own cultural and symbolic capital in the form of literary reputations. In this sense, the prestige they typically bring to their task empowers them to advocate for works that are postcolonial, or feminist, or representative of a full range of literary sensibilities and points of view.

            To reiterate, I had endeavoured all along to find a solid foundation, a general formula if you will, for showing that literary prizes function as valuable members of their cultural communities by rendering verdicts that genuinely reward artistic achievement. My research of the Giller’s two and half decades showed that it was changing, growing more inclusive, its long- and shortlists more diverse, with as many women as men, and that it had become more attuned to literary production across the country. Nevertheless, the Giller was only one instance of an important literary prize, and I was looking to offer arguments based on principles that were applicable to all such institutions. Among other things, I hoped to fend off criticism that jury panels continued to be subject to ‘structural’ constraints or the invariable alignment between prizes’ ‘corporate’ interests and those of powerful international publishers whose books tended to dominate shortlists.

From the very start, I was aware that what required mitigating with solid arguments is the expressed lack of faith in institutional cultural activity, based on the suspicion that it’s just another instance of the commodification of culture. Faith or lack thereof may not seem that crucial at first glance. Yet where prizes are concerned, faith either props up or serves as a frontline attack on a prizing system that, for better or worse, shapes various literatures (and, however imperfectly, literary canons). Given my concerns, it was disconcerting to see James English’s assessment of the ways that cultural prizes tend to be perceived:

We are, rather, dealing with a kind of suspension between belief and disbelief, between the impulse to see art as a kind of Ponzi scheme and the impulse to preserve it as a place for our most trusting investments. Under these circumstances, cultural prizes can be, at one and the same time, both more dubious—more of a joke—than they used to be, and more symbolically effectual, more powerfully and intimately intertwined with processes of canonization. That is the central paradox of our contemporary awards scene. (p. 216)

            Yet another difficulty arose when I discovered Sharon Norris, a scholar affiliated with the University of Glasgow. She had researched literary prizes, paying particular attention to the Booker, and “the general rise of business sponsorships of literary awards during the eighties.” Like me, she had made serious use of Bourdieu’s ideas. However, Norris emphasized different aspects of his work. In her 2006 scholarly article, “The Booker Prize: A Bourdieusian Perspective,” she invoked Bourdieu’s notion of corporate sponsorship to suggest that the Booker Prize “performs as both a site for social reproduction and symbolic violence.” Put otherwise, while conceding that the Booker McConnell Company has endeavoured to distance itself from its former guise as a colonial enterprise, Norris argued that certain conservative social values remained entrenched and operated as unspoken criteria. The regular presence of Oxbridge graduates among the judges and nominated authors was for Norris proof of social homogeneity (and of ideological hegemony). It meant that certain tastes or judgements of value prevailed, and that this should elicit a Bourdieusian scepticism regarding cultural institutions’ prerogative to make judgements about the “best novel.”[iii]

            In effect, Norris had undermined the theoretical foundation I was invested in. Agency, as she made plain, was not merely a matter of having an expert’s prerogative to make the call, or, as in this case, to select the winning book. Where the Booker Prize was concerned, she was correct: there was reason enough to wonder about the baggage some of its judges were bringing to the task entrusted to them. The problem I had to face now was that a flaw attributable to one literary prize, meant that all prizes, no matter how carefully they managed their operations (and appearances), could be assailed on the same basis.

Norris had invoked the bugbear of “positionality.” This was by no means a new idea; what was new and a little bit different was that it had been brought into the domain of scholarship on prizes. In the US, the composition, social-political identifications, and work-related attitudes and practices had been part of curricular debates since the 70s and 80s. Numerous scholars devoted themselves to probing “judgements of value”—specifically, the kind that determined what is published, anthologized, or read in institutions where cultural work is performed.[iv] Early on in my project, I had consulted John Frow’s 1995 book, Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, to see whether something there could theoretically bolster my faith in the agency of professional cultural workers (for Frow, the “knowledge class”).

            Frow had inquired into the institutional contexts that produce value judgements (pitting some against others), and the often unacknowledged “interests” of cultural workers who are granted authority by these institutions to “speak on behalf of others” (p. 128). The questions Frow was asking were pertinent also in the context of literary awards. Fundamentally, these were “ethical and political questions: who speaks? who speaks for whom? …who has no voice? whose claim to be powerless works as a ruse of power?” (p. 161). Frow’s analysis demonstrated the inadequacy of critiques of curricular canons and their implicit judgements of value—when they were of the anti-commercialism type or when they centered on the misrepresentation of indigenousness, or erasure of marginalized identities. It was clear that the more useful critiques burrow below the surface of the “politics of representation” to examine the inevitable power plays involved in assertions of cultural expertise and in evaluative practices. Such critiques, Sharon Norris’s included, should make us aware of the concessions that cultural workers often make to institutional and personal investments in disciplines, courses, and particular texts, as well as with the self-conscious accommodation to the realities of capitalism.

            As for Frow and the problem of agency in relation to prizes, did his poststructuralist perspective on contemporary culture offer something of theoretical utility to my project despite the difficulties he had exposed? Perhaps yes. In the book’s concluding paragraph we find this:

The question of our relation to regimes of value is not a personal but an institutional question. A key condition of any institutional politics, however, is that intellectuals do not denegate their own status as possessors of cultural capital; that they accept and struggle with the contradictions that this entails; and that their cultural politics, right across the spectrum of cultural texts, should be openly and without embarrassment presented as their politics, not someone else’s. (p. 169)

            The contentious politics provoked by clashing “regimes of value” always involve institutions (like university departments, publishing houses, galleries and museums, arts and culture sections of journals, and literary prize committees). Yet they also involve more parties or more competing “regimes” than Frow had expressly allowed into his analysis. Elsewhere in his book, Frow had referred to a social class that more than a century ago was defined as “lack[ing] the means of mental production.” The description is so general, so seemingly dated and indecorous that one would assume it is useful only in the most abstract sense. It certainly calls for dismantling, since, as with the traditional definitions of popular culture as “low,” it is fundamentally divisive. Frow had made clear that older totalizing theories of popular culture (and its consumers) fail to take account of the crucial mediating role of mass media, “which construct heterogeneous global audiences rather than class-specific audiences,” and of cultural institutions like schools and universities, “which rather than being directly tied to the reproduction of an elite, now has the more diffuse function of the differential formation of cultural capital” (pp. 86, 128). What, then, of these various now culturally competent “regimes” and their expectations with regard to institutions?

            Given Frow’s redefinitions of current audiences, what I wanted to know was this: who are today’s readers of fiction? Who can we reasonably imagine as paying attention to today’s institutional purveyors of culture? This question is meant to underscore the competence of an ever-expanding portion of the public to engage with what can roughly be described as literary culture.[v] Its bearing on the notion of agency is not tangential; on the contrary, those who have long been assumed to be “subject to” the ideas of the dominant class are now increasingly able to acquire cultural competence by attending public colleges and universities (if not private or otherwise exclusive academies), by reading prize-winning and other lauded literature purchased from book publishers. They can also discriminate enough to equate the legitimacy of these interposing agents of culture with the degree of autonomy with which they offer their services. In other words, those who do cultural work must take into account the large and growing blocks of consumers/clients/patrons (of diverse working-class, lower-middle-class, and solidly middle-class backgrounds) who expect the educational and cultural services they purchase not to reproduce uncritically the values of the dominant segments of society, but instead to challenge such values (and the structures and privileges they stand for) on intellectual and moral grounds, and with political and legal discourse backed by scholarly expertise and institutional authority.

            This way, we may be able to see agency or autonomy not merely as a matter of negotiations between cultural workers and the institutions they work for; cultural workers are also accountable to students, various readers, and other types of clients (as are the institutions themselves). As Foucault argued, power is a two-way exercise of force and counterforce; it works from the “bottom up” as well as from the “top down.”[vi]

            This is why cultural workers are able to exercise a greater degree of agency or autonomy than Frow was able to concede at the conclusion of his book. Frow had emphasized the need for transparency regarding personal and professional biases when cultural workers address their audiences “right across the spectrum of cultural texts.” He should not have assumed that the audience is undiscerning in the first place, or that cultural workers, at least in some sense, have to dissimulate. What went unstated in his work, and in so many of the other theoretical sources I waded through, are the crucial political concepts of accountability and legitimacy, and the idea that cultural agency is earned by way of negotiations with numerous and different regimes of value that exist outside of institutions, and have demands of their own.

The 2020 Giller gala, a wonderfully produced made-for-tv special, was in some respects exactly the kind of ‘show’ I had predicted in my own work. At the same time, I was surprised by the extent to which I enjoyed it—from Eric McCormack’s masterful hosting of the evening at the (emptied out) Vancouver Public Library, to Diana Krall’s performaces, to McCormack’s repartee with last year’s winner Ian Williams, and, finally, the touching delivery of the prize to the lovely Souvankham Thammavongsa’s home once it was announced that she had won with How to Pronounce Knife. I could go on, but it may be more fitting to sum up my impressions: it was an eminently watchable, tasteful tribute to fiction writing in Canada and our writers. More important still, the show acknowledged the vital efforts of nurses and doctors during the pandemic. I was moved by the fact that various healthcare workers read selections from the nominated books. With this, in my estimation, the Giller had turned its gala into a celebration to which any Canadian with an interest in literary fiction would feel invited.

            In my study of the Giller I had introduced with some trepidation the notion that prizes performed a public service, not unlike news channels, book publishers, and libraries. Considering that the Giller was privately owned, the televised 2020 gala, as I now saw, had come as close as a broadcast of this nature could to a public service. Nevertheless, my reservations persisted. After five years of work, I was still searching for something akin to the concept of social responsibility that I could attribute to prizes like the Giller, and make solid the case that they are a vital part of a nation’s literary culture. In the end, I found what I was looking for and more—the philosophical approaches, ideas, and, importantly, the impetus for working out the problem of agency—only not where I had expected to find them.

(to be continued)


[i]English offers these observations on pages 121-2, in the chapter “Taste Management.” Also see p. 364, f.n.1. English is referencing Bourdieu’s “Structure, Habitus, Practices” in The Logic of Practice (1994), pp. 52-79.

[ii]Huggan’s The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (2001), and Brennan’s At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (1997) should be read by anyone studying literature, but the wholesale application of their ideas today is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, misguided because it fails to take account of the changes brought about by the Internet, online publishing and social media, among other trends that democratize literary culture.

[iii] See Norris, pp. 139, 141, 145-7.

[iv]Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s cautionary remark on the situatedness of all valuation points to the challenges involved in any institutional context where discussion of aesthetic qualities, and inclusion or exclusion from a canon-like corpus takes place. See Smith’s thesis on the situatedness of all aesthetic judgement in “Contingencies of Value” (1983). Other texts dealing with this issue are Barbara Foley’s “What’s at Stake in the Culture Wars” (1995), Peter Shaw’s Recovering American Literature (1994), Peter Graff’s Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), and John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993).

[v]In “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” (1974), Habermas discussed the relationship between media and democracy. Habermas also introduced the idea of the “literary public sphere, [which was] more concerned with matters of taste and general social behaviour, although, of course, having profound political implications” (p. 141). This latter kind of “public sphere” is a notion that is even more relevant to the present discussion.

[vi]See M. Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1978). John Fiske explains the concept in Television and Culture (1987): “Resisting this ‘top down’ force is the diversity of social groups with their diversity of social interests. Their power is expressed in the resistances to homogenization…and may be summed up as the exercise of the power to be different. This power to construct meanings, pleasure, and social identities that differ from those proposed by the structure of domination is crucial, and the area within which it is exercised is that of representation” (pp. 316-17).

Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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