Songs for the Cold of Heart

 

For my latest “Should I Read It?” review, I talked about a novel that is buzzy in part by virtue of its obscurity.

Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart was a massive bestseller in Quebec, but its English-language translation (released in Canada in July 2018) was relatively unknown until it landed a spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist on October 1.

It’s the odd-one-out on a shortlist filled with books that are already Canadian bestsellers in the English-language market. The Giller nod has given it a huge awareness (and sales) boost.

Should you read it? Here’s my review >> audio

And how is Dupont’s tiny Quebec publisher, QC Fiction, coping with the Giller spotlight? Here’s a piece I wrote for the Globe & Mail.

The Booker Prize is over (the Canadian in the running didn’t win, but Anna Burns’ The Milkman did, and by and large people seem to be pretty chuffed about that).

The Governor General’s Literary Awards winners have been announced (all 14 of them).
Here’s my story for the Globe & Mail.

And the Writers’ Trust has handed out seven literary awards and more than $260,000 at its annual Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony.
Here’s my story for the Globe & Mail.

 

Literary award season is in full swing. Some things are turning out pretty much as people might expect. Some things are a surprising surprise. Some things (ahem, Esi Edugyan + Patrick deWitt) are destined to become the the focus even when there’s something else more interesting to talk about on a list….

My thoughts on this year’s award season so far …

In the Globe & Mail:

The Man Booker Prize shortlist could have included two Canadians this year, with Esi Edugyan and Michael Ondaatje both longlisted. In the end, only Edugyan made it (as she did for her previous novel in 2011). To the disappointment of many, neither Sally Rooney nor Nick Drnaso (who would have ben the first ever graphic novelist to be shortlisted) made the cut. I contributed the part about British people enjoying a flutter on the Booker to this Globe & Mail piece.

The most high-profile of the Writers’ Trust shortlists is for fiction, but the Trust celebrates its fiction nominees alongside authors in various genres and at all stages of their careers. When their fiction shortlist was announced, I looked at how it fit into the bigger picture of what the Writers’ Trust does to support Canadian writers.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was, for me, surprising in that it didn’t include Rawi Hage or Joshua Whitehead (so I was pleased to find them on the GG fiction shortlist two days later). Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart was probably the biggest surprise inclusion – though only because in anglo Canada people haven’t heard of it yet. The appearance of Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt, together again as in 2011, stole all the headlines (though it wasn’t the most interesting thing about the list).

The Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlists finally give the nod to Miriam Toews that many felt had been absent from other prizes thus far. Two Giller longlisted authors make the shortlist here. And small Quebec indie QC Fiction, newly in the spotlight after Monday’s Giller shortlist announcement, makes the translation shortlist.

On CBC Radio:

What’s notable about this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist and who’s on it? I popped in to to give listeners a run-down >> listen

 

Frey - Katerina

 

James Frey once wrote a memoir that turned out to be a “memoir.” It sold millions of copies and upset almost as many millions of readers (but remained a bestseller anyway). Now Frey has written a novel that is really more of a “novel.” But is it any good?

My “Should I Read It?” review for Day 6 >> listen here

The risk of the long read
(This column first appeared on open-book.ca in December 2013)

Garth Risk Hallberg (cue a thousand “Risk is my middle name” jokes) made headlines last month for getting paid a lot of money for having written a very long book. The amount of money (US $2million) and the length of book (900-odd pages) were the two key pieces of information for you to take away from each and every story written on the topic. Comparisons were made to The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, comparisons that had nothing to do with plot, setting or theme and everything to do with word count. Yes, these books are all quite long.

So when did our willingness to read a long book become so noteworthy? After it won the Man Booker Prize, I reviewed Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Day 6 on CBC radio, and the length of the book was one of the first things we discussed. I wondered why people now seem to view reading a long book as though it were an Olympic sport that should come with a medal for achievement, because really it’s only reading. Mere minutes later, apparently having forgotten everything I’d just said, I posted a picture of myself holding the book spine out, rather than face out, in a “Look how well I did, Mum,” pose of self-congratulation. To be impressed at my feat of getting through the book so fast was the most common first response from those who had heard the review. And this from book industry colleagues who all read for a living – many of them, I’m guessing, far more, and far more quickly, than I do.

In reporting on Hallberg’s book deal, The New York Times said that “the long novel is experiencing a resurgence,” which might be true, or might be just a new headline for an old story. To pick just one example: Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, received an advance in the region of a million quid, clocked in at more than 1,000 pages, and sold like Billy-o on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, in an age we might now think of as one that was more friendly to the long novel – let’s call it “the past” – Proust was forced to pay the printing costs of Swann’s Way (the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time) himself because no publisher would touch it; and Dickens’s books, though long, were presented in an episodic format that hid their ultimate length. Stephen King has always written books the size of coffee tables, of course, but perhaps the airport read is exempt from this game of who did it longest.

At this particular point in time, however, the “return” of the long novel does seem to be in step with a different form of marathon narrative consumption. When Netflix launched House of Cards in February of this year, viewing it became, for some, a feat of buttock-numbing, eyeball-popping endurance. Marathon viewing was the order of the day, and a smart piece by San Fran Lit Blogger Scott Esposito suggested an interesting interpretation of this in respect to reading habits:

“This emergent behavior [of marathon viewing] takes all we have been hearing about shortened attention spans and throws it out the window,” he wrote. “You could make quite a dent in ‘War and Peace’ in 12 hours. Anyone up for the unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’? One producer remarked that people are now watching TV the way they read a novel. A novel? I thought the novel was dead.”

So, just as many despair of society’s unwillingness to read when there’s so much good telly around, is it actually the case that the telly got so good by becoming more like the novel? Eleanor Catton cites being heavily influenced by boxed sets of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing the 832 page The Luminaries (which I did binge read, though perhaps you should take your time), and when Hallberg’s City on Fire was picked up by UK publisher Jonathan Cape last week for a comparatively paltry-seeming £200,000 (c. $347,000), acquiring editor Alex Bowler said that it was unlike any other novel and would more appropriately be compared to an HBO boxed set.

It is no accident, many feel, that the age of boxed-set TV binge watching has also been that of some of the best-scripted TV drama in a long time. Gone is the need for every episode to be self-contained or to finish with a cliff-hanger that will bring viewers back a week later. The narrative must stand up to back-to-back viewing and simultaneous, real-time social media analysis, and must have the depth to reward multiple re-viewings. To write a 900-page novel is an ambitious and impressive undertaking to be sure, but it might also be just what our TV-exercised brains are hungry for. Mr. Hallberg is asking his future readers to take their time with his book, but he may not be asking his publishers to take such a risk after all.