On Monday evening Canadian book lovers gathered to find out the results of the Giller Prize, the largest literary prize in Canada. Previous winners and the rest of Canada’s “literati” gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel, and “Giller Light” parties were held from coast to coast to watch the livestream of the ceremony.
Due to the recent allegations against Jian Ghomeshi, Rick Mercer, of The Rick Mercer Report, was the last minute host for the evening. And he was a good substitute, providing some much needed humour throughout and encouraging us all to “think of Carol Off” (host of As It Happens) when we think of the CBC.
This was a remarkable year for the Giller. When the longlist was announced back in September, it was also announced that the prize money would be increased. Significantly increased. Not only would each finalist receive $10,000, the winner would win $100,000 – double the amount of last year’s prize.
I attended the Giller Light party in Toronto and before the final announcement, I talked to a number of book lovers and industry professionals about which book/author they thought was going to take home the prize. There were a lot of different opinions about all of the titles, but it seemed like Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows and David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers were the clear front runners with Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night a fan favourite and close third.
So it was definitely a surprise when music blogger and debut author Sean Michaels was announced as the winner.
Michaels has quite the impressive resume. He is the founder of the website Said the Gramophone and has contributed to The Guardian, McSweeney’s, The Globe & Mail, and Pitchfork. But Us Conductors, published by Random House Canada, is his debut novel. Simply put, it is a love story about Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the creator of the theremin and Clara Rockmore, the instrument’s most famous player.
The real gem of the evening, however, was Michaels’ acceptance speech. It started with a bizarre, puzzling line:
“I feel like a whale who has found a whole city in his mouth.”
He later explained what he meant by this on Q:
“To really feel singled out, I felt ballooned into this big creature, this big unyielding creature lumbering in front of cameras, in front of all these people, like a whale… And there’s this treasure in front of you. It was just suddenly there and it’s not just the money, it’s all the investment, belief and trust of all these people who chose to make this happen and so it really feels like there’s a city, both my friends and loved ones and everyone cheering. To be honest, it was a bit of a dream image.”
And while that statement may have got people’s attention, it was the end of the speech that really stood out:
“There are people in our little corner of culture who behave monstrously. We have to reckon that and change it. Each of us does. We must believe women and the men, too…We must tell stories and buy every book…let’s go forth and undo harm. Let’s go forth and do.”
There were a lot of established, heavy hitters in the short list this year so it was refreshing to see the Giller Prize recognizing new talent. Though he may not have been the expected choice, I think Michaels’ win will ultimately end up encouraging new and young writers. And I also think that even though publishing is going through a rough time right now, between scandals and cutbacks, the excitement surrounding the Giller Prize shows us Canadian literature is still valued.
You can watch his full speech below: