25th Trillium Award

Jury Duty, with Lynn Coady

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Lynn Coady

We're in the thick of awards season, with the Scotiabank Giller Prize awarded, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Award to be revealed this week and the winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards to be crowned later this month. It's easy to forget that the winners' books once lay somewhere in the middle of a towering pile in a few select rooms across the country, to be read along with hundreds of others by the underappreciated — and oft-criticized — readers who agreed to serve on the jury.

We'd all love to have been flies on the wall during jury deliberations for the most celebrated literary awards. (Isn't Philip Larkin rumoured to have nearly defenestrated himself during one such discussion?) While Open Book hasn't unearthed any such dramatic tales of dissention, we do have dispatch from the front lines thanks to Lynn Coady, who served on the jury for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Award this year. Lynn shares the good, bad and the ugly of saturation in one year of Can. Lit, including the loneliness of the literary award juror and her number one writing rule. The winner of the award will be announced on Wednesday, November 7.

Open Book:

What was your initial response when you were asked to be on the jury for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize?

Lynn Coady:

I remembered back to a few years ago when I agreed to be a juror for the GG prize — boxes and boxes of books piled all over my small Vancouver apartment. And I remembered telling people at one point that the enormous burden of reading for the jury had made me start to feel like I hated books and hated authors and I wanted both to disappear from planet Earth.

But then I also remembered how smug I felt afterwards — I had read every work of fiction published in Canada in an entire year! I could speak with total authority on a year’s worth of Canadian lit. Some people were snarking about Margaret Atwood’s ubiquity on the shortlists that year, and I was able to say to them: Look — read everything published in Canada in a year and then you tell me whether or not Margaret Atwood knows how to put a story together better than 99 percent of the writers out there.

So I let that remembered feeling of self-satisfaction carry me into this year’s jury, fool that I was.


How many books did you read?


I deliberately did not pay attention to the number while I was doing the reading, tried to block it from my awareness, but I think they told me afterwards it was 116.


What was your strategy?


I just opened a box and dove in. Time was of the essence, so I didn’t make huge notes unless I thought a book was a serious contender, because I knew there would likely be a big discussion on it.


What was the most difficult aspect of jury duty?


Well, that would have to be the obligation to read books I would otherwise have no natural inclination to spend any time with. Never have I been so forcefully reminded that reading is meant to be a leisure activity — literature is never supposed to be taken while holding one’s nose, like medicine. But it was important to keep the influencing power of subjectivity in the forefront of my mind at all times — I needed to have clear, objective criteria for what made a book "good" or "bad" and acknowledge to myself that my own personal tastes didn’t necessarily always line up with that criteria.

It was also kind of sad whenever I realized that I liked a given book more than my fellow jurists. That’s a lonely feeling.


Did you learn anything from this experience that you'll apply to your own writing, writing DOs or writing DON'Ts?


It reaffirmed a lot of rules I already try to follow. I think I tweeted at one point: Something very interesting HAS TO HAPPEN WITHIN THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Within the first three, if at all possible. You can’t imagine how many authors begin with someone washing the dishes, or going for a walk while remembering stuff from the past. It drives me crazy when someone begins a story with a character remembering something. Why bother setting the opening scene in the present tense if the character is just going to start remembering a scene from the past? Definitely a lot of pet peeves emerged. Something Michael Winter said once kept coming to mind: “Never write about a guy alone in a room thinking about stuff.”


Did you notice any common themes or settings that seem to be preoccupying Canadian fiction writers at the moment?


Canadian writers are a pretty wide-ranging crew in terms of their subject matter, but they do like to set books in the fairly-distant past more often than not.


Do you think that awards nominations serve writers and readers well, or do you feel that they focus the attention on too selective a group of books?


I think literary awards are a wonderful thing, but they can only do so much when it comes to serving writers, publishers and the reading public. Right now we’ve placed too great a burden on their shoulders — our cultural media has been decimated over the past 20 years. If you get rid of competitions like the Giller and Canada Reads, you look around and discover that there’s barely a pubic conversation happening around Canadian literature anymore. That didn’t used to be the case — we had fewer competitions but a much more robust discussion happening.


What was the first book — of your own choosing — that you read when you'd completed your list of required reading?


I had been right in the middle of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country when my jury reading began, and I went immediately back to it.

Lynn Coady is a novelist, editor and journalist, originally from Cape Breton Island, NS, now living in Edmonton, Alberta. She is working on a new collection of short stories called Hellgoing, to be published in 2013 with House of Anansi Press. Her most recent novel, The Antagonist (House of Anansi Press) was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in the USA in 2013. She is also Senior Editor and co-founder of the magazine Eighteen Bridges.

For more on Lynn, visit her website at lynncoady.com and follow her on Twitter @Lynn_Coady.

Lynn Coady was Open Book's Writer in Residence for October 2007. Visit her WIR page to read her blog.

Buy Lynn's book at your local independent bookstore or online at House of Anansi Press, Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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