Talking about the Top 10 lists: Douglas Gibson


CBC Books asked a few publishing insiders -- booksellers, authors and editors -- to reflect on and respond to the Canada Reads: Turf Wars Top 10 lists. Up first is Douglas Gibson, the esteemed editor-turned-author.

Clearly, the voters in all of the regions wrestled with the problem of narrowing down worthy novels -- old and new -- to just 10 titles. The "old and new " choice problem was treated very differently in different regions.

In Ontario, for example, they wheeled out the old big guns, heavyweights that would blast their way through almost any competition anywhere: Alias Grace, Away, The English Patient, Fifth Business. Then, by way of balance, they went for very recent books by Cathy Marie Buchanan, Alison Pick, Barbara Gowdy and Rabindranath Maharaj. The only books from what you might call the middle distance are Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan (2001) and Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly (2005).

In Quebec they had the additional problem of accommodating books originally composed in French. Here they chose three translated books, by Kim Thuy (very new, as Giller Prize fans know) Dany Laferrière (from the middle distance) and Gabrielle Roy (very old). As for the original English titles, they range widely, to include Louise Penny's popular mystery (The Beautiful Mystery) and Felicia Mihali's very new love story set in Afghanistan, The Darling of Kandahar, which was launched this spring by the brand-new publisher, Linda Leith Publishing. It has been noted that Alex Ohlin (Inside) no longer lives "inside" Quebec, and Miguel Syjuco and the well-known Rawi Hage were chosen to make up the list...before the voters presumably shook themselves and said, "Oh, yeah, old books, too," and nominated Solomon Gursky Was Here and Two Solitudes. This last choice, I think, is a case of political correctness, since while it is arguably Hugh MacLennan's most "Quebec" novel (and gave us all an important Canadian phrase), most would argue that his finest novel is The Watch That Ends the Night.

Political correctness seems to have -- how do we put this -- played a role in the B.C. and Yukon region, which is spectacularly inclusive in its choices. Tick the boxes as you mention my friend Angie Abdou, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Ivan E. Coyote, Gurjinder Basram, Annabel Lyon (attracting the Greek ethnic vote with her novel about Aristotle?), Richard Wagamese, Eden Robinson (who has the most infectious laugh in Canada, beating out even Shelagh Rogers), Joy Kogawa, the just-published Billie Livingston and ("Oh, yes, better get in another classic besides Obasan") Ethel Wilson and her Swamp Angel.

The most interesting choices come from the regions with very specific and very different parts, the Prairies and North, and the Atlantic region. It's easy to imagine the horse-trading that went on there. In the East, Newfoundland won, with five contenders (Kathleen Winter, Jessica Grant, Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey and Nicole Lundrigan). New Brunswick has three...David Adams Richards, Don Hannah and Riel Nason...and Nova Scotia has a lonely fellow named MacLeod with a novel named No Great Mischief. You can imagine the joy and relief with which the voters leapt on Anne of Green Gables, as a solution to the "old" problem, and as a way of getting P.E. I. on their map.

The same inside-the-region choices play out in the Prairies and North. Moving from the east, Manitoba has two (the very new novel The Age of Hope by David Bergen, and the very old novel The Diviners by Margaret Laurence...a fascinating combination). The interesting choices continue with four Saskatchewan books (Cool Water by Dianne Warren, The Englishman's Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Stolen by Annette Lapointe and the 1947 classic Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell...although Mitchell, who lived in High River and Calgary for more than 40 years, could also qualify as an Alberta author). Maybe the voters thought of that, because splitting W.O. in half would give parity to Alberta, which also has three nominees, Wayne Arthurson, Fall from Grace, Todd Babiak, The Garneau Block and Fred Stenson, The Trade (and we find an interesting range of books right there.)

Rounding out the selection is a book on the North, Late Nights on Air, set in Yellowknife and written by Ottawa's own Elizabeth Hay. It's nice to see Ottawa getting in on this very wide-ranging national contest. Now on to the next stage.

Douglas Gibson worked as an editor and publisher from 1968 until he retired from McClelland & Stewart in 2009. His Douglas Gibson Books was Canada's first editorial imprint and lives on. The editor turned author with Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others (ECW, 2011) and now tours Canada with his stage show adaptation of the book. Find out more at

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