Guest Post by Alex Hoffman: How much do people actually like Giller Prize winners?

Alex Hoffman, who tweets as @thatguyalex and blogs at graphicnovelguy.wordpress.com, runs the Metro Toronto Book Club and is the owner of many signed books and even more opinions. With the approach of the Giller announcement this evening, he asked if he could do a guest post. The floor is his. . . 

With the imminent announcement of either 419 by Will Ferguson or Ru by Kim Thuy as the 2012 winner, I decided to ruminate on some Giller questions through a guest post here on EditorialEyes.

Do Giller Winners become popular reads?



One of the more interesting aspects of running a book club with “book people” (editors, editorial staff, production types) is how hyper-aware I have become of the various major book awards given out in Canada and beyond.

I used to trawl the Man Booker and Giller lists for book club suggestions. Now I have the long list, short list, and award nights in my calendar. I’ve gone from attending an occasional book signing to bookmarking every publisher’s event schedule and organizing my bookshelves into “signed,” “want to get signed,” and “sadly author has passed so I can’t get it signed” bookshelves. I probably go to more book signings than movies in the average year. In short, I am now in the book bubble.

What “book bubble,” you ask? The one that I suspect exists for Canadians who tweet in #canlit hashtags, the ones who schedule around the Giller prize announcement, and the ones who cannot conceive of the rest of the country ever asking the question “What’s a Giller?”

The Giller has 19 previous winners in its 18 year history (one year was a tie).

I’m considering Goodreads.com ratings in the numbers below: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace represent 63% of the total number of ratings given out by readers to all 19 former winners. In other words, if we divide the books into A Fine Balance, Alias Grace, and Everything Else:

A Fine Balance – 39,624 Ratings
17 other winners – 37,913 Ratings
Alias Grace – 25,602 Ratings

It would seem inarguable (assuming Goodreads is a reasonable representation of books read) that only two of the nineteen books have achieved a cultural significance where the odds of stopping somebody on the street and saying, “Have you read. . .” might lead to a response in the affirmative. (It is important to note that by choosing a web rating system, I am putting books like Barney’s Version, which is almost certainly read by an older audience, at a disadvantage for this post, but I don’t have access to past years’ book sales charts. Clearly Mordechai Richler is an important literary figure, I am just not sure how many books he sold.)

Does the Scotiabank Giller Prize reward great books?

The 2012 Giller nominees (image from CBC News)

Every award show has its How Green Was My Valley (the 1941 Academy Award winner that beat out both Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon in one of hindsight’s biggest award gaffes). So I decided to look at the past Giller winners and see what the public (again through Goodreads.com) thinks about the 19 books that have won. Scores are averages of

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance                                       4.31
Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version                                  4.14
Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman                        4.11
Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce                            4.03
Alice Munro, Runaway                                                        3.98
Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace                                           3.90
Richard B. Wright, Clara Callan                                         3.79
David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children         3.76
M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall         3.73
Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues                                          3.65
Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man                                 3.63
Bonnie Burnard, A Good House                                        3.53
Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost                                          3.48
M.G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets                                  3.45
Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air                                       3.42
Vincent Lam, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures              3.35
Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe                                        3.16
David Bergen, The Time in Between                                  3.08
Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists                             2.59

Depending on your cut-off point, there is a reasonable argument to be made for the category “great” to encompass books with a rating of 3.73 and higher (9/19 of the Giller winners fit this definition). If your definition of “great” is a book with a rating of 3.9 or higher, only 6 of the 19 winners makes it. Only three are really low-rated books (Hoe, Time in Between, and Sentimentalists).

In general, I think the evidence points to the Giller doing a reasonable job of rewarding fiction that readers enjoy.

If you’re wondering, and I know you are, the five 2012 nominees are currently rated between 3.57 (Whirl Away) and 3.68 (Ru).

Will you be watching?

Well, that’s what comment sections are for 🙂


You might also like:

Review of The End of your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

Review of Natural Order, by Brian Francis

Review of the National Ballet of Canada’s Alice’s Adventures
in Wonderland

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16 thoughts on “Guest Post by Alex Hoffman: How much do people actually like Giller Prize winners?

  1. This is such an interesting post. As someone else who feels very much within the “book bubble” I’ve honestly never given it much thought, because the people I talk to all know what books I’m referring to. But sometimes when I mention people like Richard B Wright or Austin Clarke I get the obligatory “Sorry…what did they write?” question before I can continue.

    I’ve always been a huge fan of the Giller prize. With few exceptions I have always loved the books that have won and most of the nominees. But I also recognize that many of these books may not appeal to the larger Canadian population (hence there slightly lower Goodreads ratings). But is that how awards should be decided? By how popular the book is or high people rate it? It’s an interesting question and one I can’t say I have an answer to.

    1. The wonderful Angie Abdou (http://www.abdou.ca/) and I were talking about the homophilia of the Twitterverse: how we surround ourselves so much with like-minded individuals who have the same interests as we do that we sometimes forget that there are other people out there! I often forget that everyone else in the world isn’t SO SUPER STOKED that the new Alice Munro is about to debut, and so on.

      Speaking of questions of popularity and how to judge awards, Goodreads is doing its reader choice voting now. Totally different feel and probably very different outcomes compared to major literary prizes. I don’t tend to like populism for the sake of itself, and this is a question the Man Bookers have been getting into recently, readability versus literary merit, however you want to define that! I don’t like the idea of a group of Learned Scholars from on high telling us what we Should acknowledge to be great fiction, but just because everyone thinks Snooki’s great doesn’t mean I want to read her book either!

      I tend to use award longlists to populate my own TBR pile, and who wins is more immaterial to me as a reader. I personally couldn’t stand Will Ferguson’s 419, but clearly other people saw it as something I didn’t!

    2. That’s the question that I think is so hard to answer…clearly 50 shades of grey is popular but (I hope) nobody would suggest giving it an award…but beyond that, I honestly don’t know…I think that if the Giller wants to something that people watch on tv then they probably have to reward books that people want to read (one of the reasons I think 419 won)…but does that dimish the award? is the goal to sell books or reward literary excellence? Are they mutually exclusive? I wish I had the answer. In an idea world, the best book would also be one people love…in the case of say “A Fine Balance” I think the Giller did a wondeful job picking an amazing read…but I am not sure that can happen year after year…

  2. Ah, stats. My friend. And my friend! Thanks Alex.

    This doesn’t surprise me one bit. Neither does Will Ferguson’s win. It’s a shame; I was rooting for Kim Thuy, and from what I’ve heard, 419 isn’t that great. I’ve read some Giller winners and some Giller shortlist-ers, and I can’t say I’ve ever been blown away. But to be fair, I set the bar really high (have you seen how small by book collection is? there isn’t much I can say for sure I’ll read again in this lifetime) and I don’t mind reading books that aren’t life-changing. 🙂

    How was the event itself? Wish I could have been there.

      1. My response was earnest, and thank you for responding! There are far too many literary awards to keep track of (I can’t even manage to keep track of the Hugo awards, despite it being my favoured genre). What are the requirements for the award? Does the author have to be Canadian born? Or write their work while a resident of Canada? I assume there’s no requirement for “Canadian content” in the work itself… but are there English and French Gillers, or only English?

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