A Literary Legacy: The Giller Prize
Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Giller Prize.
It’s been almost 15 years since the first Giller Prize, the Stanley Cup of Canadian literature, was handed out. Created by Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch, the prize is a legacy that celebrates the memory of his wife, Doris Giller, a literary journalist who passed away in 1993 after struggling with cancer. It is handed out every fall to the author of the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English that year, as selected by a panel of three jurors. Over the years, the prize has awarded more than $300,000 to Canadian writers.
After graduating from McGill University, Jack Rabinovitch started off as a reporter for the wire firm British United Press. In 1972, he joined Trizec, a real-estate development firm, and in 1986 was appointed executive vice-president. “But I really don’t like talking about me,” he says when I meet with him at his home in a serene downtown Toronto neighbourhood. And he’s not kidding. We don’t talk, for example, about the honorary doctorates he’s received from McGill and the University of Toronto, or his Order of Canada and Order of Ontario honours. “I think the most important thing is that the prize is in her [Doris’s] name and, quite candidly, I don’t need whatever kudos come to me. They’re nice to have, but I feel good about the prize, and I’m glad something was done to keep her name in the literary world.”
The literary world is where Doris made her mark. “She was a very literary person, a bibliophile,” says Jack. “She knew Ted Allan. She knew Hugh MacLennan. And Mavis Gallant. She was self-educated—she never went to university.” Like Jack, Doris was born and raised in Montreal. She spent 20 years at Montreal’s two English-language newspapers: at the Montreal Star, she was an editor, reporter and feature writer, and at the Gazette, she created and edited an extensive book-review section. In 1985, Doris and Jack moved to Toronto, where she became the assistant book editor at the Toronto Star in 1988. “She cut a pretty wide swath in the short period of time she was here in Toronto,” says Jack. “I decided a person like that should be remembered in a way consistent with the type of person she was.”
With help from authors Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler and literary academician David Staines, Jack set out to create a prize for Canadian fiction. “We decided to pattern it to some degree after the Booker, and we added a Montreal style to it,” says Jack. “We decided to call it the Giller, because the only time Doris used the name Rabinovitch was on her credit card. She was Doris Giller for ever and ever, but if she wanted to use my credit card, she had to have my name on it. That was the deal we made.”
Jack says Richler, Munro and Staines impressed upon him the fact that writers like people to buy their books; that’s the way they make a living. “So we decided to announce the award in the midst of good buying season. We also did something I didn’t realize was new at that time: the judges were transparent—prior to that, nobody knew who judges were. So everything was transparent and open.”
Jack remembers when Richler, a close friend and a judge for the first two prizes, spoke at the first press conference. “Mordecai put it in a very nice fashion. He said, ‘We don’t care if you’re red, white, green or yellow; male or female; from the East, South, North, or West. We simply want the best book.’”
The jurors make their final decision on the day of the gala. (“What happens in the jury room, I don’t know,” says Jack, “because I’ve never entered the jury room.”) The judges have one mandate: to pick the best book. What jurors may look for in a Giller nominee, Jack says, is a book that contains a voice of truth; a book that, despite being fiction, is credible and believable. And, he points out, the book doesn’t have to be Canadian in content. “Rohinton Mistry writes about India, Michael Ondaatje writes about Sri Lanka—but you’re dealing with universal feelings and emotions.”
Choosing the best book, a seemingly uncomplicated mandate, isn’t easy for the jurors. “We knew that no matter who the judges were or how gifted they were, the final selection was a bit of a crapshoot. The five books that are selected on the short list are really all competitors.” Jack brings five cheques to the gala, and at the end of the evening, hands one to the winner and tears up the other four. “So I only spend $25,000, and save $100,000!”
“Doris cut a pretty wide swath in the short period of time she was here in Toronto,” says Jack. “I decided a person like that should be remembered in a way consistent with the type of person she was.”
In the beginning, Jack told Richler that in order to get the prize off the ground, Richler would have to be a juror for the first two years. “Mordecai gulped and said, ‘How many books do I have to read?’ And I said, ‘How the heck do I know? I mean, we’re starting—how do I know?’ ” It turned out the jury had to read 85 books that year, and Richler, an infamous curmudgeon, wasn’t thrilled. “Mordecai kept mumbling and grumbling about the whole thing, but that was his nature so I never took notice of it,” says Jack. “Alice Munro, a real wonderful person—she never quibbled about it.”
Since its inception, a gala evening has accompanied the awarding of the Giller Prize. The original guest list of 250 has increased to 450, but the gala is still held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto’s Yorkville district, and because Doris loved flowers, the invitations are hand-delivered with a rose.
The media supported the prize from the beginning. “They all knew Doris and they admired her, and they liked the idea of having a party about literary people or authors. So they gave it a lot of publicity, which was in keeping with the original concept of selling books. A lot of people use the short list as their list for Christmas books,” says Jack, who once wrote to every bookstore owner and manager in Canada, asking if they would highlight the books in their stores. Past recipients of the prize include Rohinton Mistry, David Bergen, Vincent Lam, M.G. Vassanji and Michael Ondaatje.
Last year, Elizabeth Hay won for her novel Late Nights on Air. “No matter what happens in the future—say I write a book that’s a real dog—I’ll be able to think back on that night in 2007 with a great sense of pleasure,” says Hay, who made the Giller short list in 2000 for A Student of Weather and was on the jury in 2005. “I wouldn’t say that it’s changed my confidence—that comes and goes depending on how much success you’re having with your book’s progress. What it’s done is given me a sense of accomplishment.”
Winning has also affected Hay in the practical sense. “This year has been very good for me financially,” she says. “The book has sold tremendously well, and that’s largely because of winning the Giller Prize.” I ask if she’s treated herself with her winnings, and she laughs. She has just slipped on her first (ever) cashmere sweater. “It feels lovely! It came in the mail today. Now it’s true I ordered it from L.L. Bean—I will never change so drastically that I won’t pay attention to the cost of things. As my husband said to me, ‘You know, somebody who just has a regular job would probably make what you’ve made this year every single year.’ So I’m aware of—I haven’t lost sight of—the reality of being a writer.”
This year, the Giller long list (which includes 10 to 15 titles) will be released sometime in September, with the short list of five books coming out on October 7. The winner will be announced on November 11 at the black-tie bash in Toronto.
Seamus O’Regan of CTV’s Canada AM will host the Giller gala again this year, for the third time since CTV began broadcasting the event in 2005. He smiles when asked about Jack. “You have a wonderful man with a great history and a genuine reader’s love of books, who wants to celebrate the global success of Canadian literature,” says O’Regan. “Jack is a sentimental guy. He’s not in it for himself. And you have this love story—it’s so romantic and pure. The highlight of the evening is when Jack talks—he has a gracious, touching way. And to him, the party is as important as anything. The martinis and wine are flowing all night. The job of the network is to capture everything in the room and play it for the rest of the country.”
And capture it they have. “Just to give you a highlight,” says Jack, “when Vincent Lam won the prize two years ago, two things happened. CTV handled it at that time, and they hit over half a million viewers—they had 530,000 people watching a literary show! And he [Lam] sold 230,000 books. So the idea of popularizing it and opening it up to more people has worked very, very well.”
Jurors look for a book that contains a voice of truth; a book that, despite being fiction, is credible and believable. But ultimately, the judges have one mandate: to pick the best book.
Someone who knows the book industry inside out, as well as the effect of the Giller Prize, is Douglas Gibson, of publisher McClelland & Stewart. His career as an editor and publisher has just passed the 40-year mark, and he’s handled such celebrated authors as James Houston, W.O. Mitchell, Pierre Trudeau, and Alistair McLeod.
Gibson is ebullient about the effects of the prize. “It has brought great attention to fiction in general, which is its greatest achievement,” he says. “It’s different than the Governor General’s Awards, because there is just one prize given out, so it’s easier for everyone to focus on the winner. Not to diminish the effect of the GGs, but it [the Giller] has a huge impact on sales because it’s a televised event, and it’s more media-friendly.”’
Beyond the mandate to pick the best book, a second guideline—that the jury must select only one book—was implemented after a tie was declared in 2000 between David Adams Richards, for his book Mercy Among the Children, and Michael Ondaatje for Anil’s Ghost. “Credit must go to Rabinovitch for going first class all the way that year,” says Gibson. “A lesser man would have split the prize.”
Jack shrugs off the suggestion that handing out two cheques that year, each for the full prize amount, was a generous act. “What was I going to do? Say, ‘One second—I’ve got to go write two new cheques’? It would have just been the wrong thing to do. So I take the old expression, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound.’ ”
Concerned about the longevity of the prize, Jack met with Rick Waugh, the president of Scotiabank, who in 2005 agreed to co-sponsor the prize for 10 years. “I feel good about having an association now with Scotiabank, so it [the prize] has legs for a long time,” Jack says. And this year, the 15th anniversary of the prize, the purse has been increased by $20,000; each of the four shortlisted authors will receive $5,000, and the winner will receive $50,000.
He may dislike talking about himself, but Jack is happy to share stories about Doris. “Over the years, I always said something about Doris at each gala. One of the favourite stories I remember telling is that we were in Calgary in 1988 for the Winter Olympics, and we went to the ABC studios. Doris decided she wanted a pin that an electrician had on his hat. She walked over to him in her forthright manner, and with her green eyes blinking said, ‘Can I have your pin?’ He said, ‘Sorry, lady, no.’ She walked away, and then looked at me and said, ‘Ten years ago, I would have got the pin and the hat!’ That’s the kind of person she was. She could be self-deprecating and funny and insightful, all at the same time.”
Jack doesn’t manage the Giller Prize duties alone; daughter Elana handles PR, and daughters Daphna and Noni also help out. “The only things I get involved in are the menu and the seating arrangements,” says Jack. “We try to sit people who like each other next to each other, because—I don’t know whether you know the Canadian literary scene, but it can be very strange.”
Which isn’t unexpected, given the vibrant personalities of Canada’s literary set. “Mavis Gallant, a terrific lady and a wonderful person, was a judge one year,” says Jack, recalling one of his favourite gala moments. “She was seated at a table I thought was terrific. She asked me to come over, and when I did she said, ‘Jack, unless you change that amplifier, I’m going to go home.’ So I looked at her and said, ‘Bon voyage.’ She looked at me and started to laugh, and said, ‘How could you say that?’ And I said, ‘Mavis, I lived with a lady for 30 years who tested me every month. If in 30 years she didn’t succeed, you think you’re going to succeed in one day?’ And then we had a good laugh.”
On November 11, when jurors Margaret Atwood, Bob Rae, and Colm Tóibín hand down their decision and the winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize is named, bibliophiles across the country will be glued to their televisions. Jack will be there and, as usual, he will tell a story about Doris. “Somebody—one of her friends at one of the parties—said, ‘Doris is mad, she’d want to be at one of these types of parties. And if she was, she’d make some kind of caustic comment.’” Jack laughs. “She was right,” he says. “That was Doris.”
Photography Direction: Sandra Zarkovic.
Grooming: Lindsay Dumas for judyinc.com.