Why have Hamilton writers missed the Giller Prize?

No Hamilton writers cracked the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist this year, marking another year no writer form the city will have a chance to win the prestigious Canadian literary award.

Local bookseller says prize shutout more 'bad luck' than lack of writing talent

Kerry Cranston-Reimer, of Bryan Prince Booksellers in Hamilton's Westdale area, says the city has always been 'quietly strong' with writers. No writer from Hamilton, however, has ever won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in its 20-year history. (John Rieti/CBC)

No Hamilton writers cracked the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist this year, marking another year no writer form the city will have a chance to win the prestigious Canadian literary award.

The prize — now worth $100,000 for the winner along with an almost guaranteed surge of book sales during the holiday season — announced its long list last week and will reveal the short list of five soon.

Throughout the prize’s 20-year history, no one  from Hamilton has ever won. The city’s best shot was when Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and Commonwealth Writers' Prize, respectively) made the long list in 2007.

Hamilton has always been quietly strong with writers.- Kerry Cranston-Reimer, Bryan Prince Booksellers

Carleton University Professor Rosemarie Hoey, who leads a fourth-year course focused entirely on the prize, says her gut reaction is that the city is missing the infrastructure writers need to win big.

“With all due respect I don’t know who your writers are in Hamilton,” Hoey said.

Kerry Cranston-Reimer, one of the owners of Bryan Prince Booksellers in Westdale, says not winning the Giller is more “bad luck,” than lack of writing talent.

“Hamilton has always been quietly strong with writers,” she said, easily rounding up a stack of books by local authors – including Krista Foss, Miranda Hill, Vince Agro and several others -- to prove her point.

Hamilton authors have snapped up other awards, Cranston-Reimer points out, but the Giller breakthrough will have to wait.

How to win a Giller

Those who watch the literary prizes closely know there’s plenty of politics at play, including an intense battle between large Canadian publishers to get their titles onto the Giller’s list.

Hoey said if Hamilton authors want to win, they need to be proactive in submitting their own books, or lobbying publishers to support them (something that can be difficult unless they’re an already-established author.)

The city, meanwhile, could help its authors by creating buzz around the local writing scene. That means writers’ events, readings and a supportive public.

“You can’t wait around for the Gods to find you,” Hoey said.

The literary Gods – or, in this case, the award’s jurors – have often smiled on writers from publishing hubs like Toronto and Montreal, but writers from smaller cities have also won. Consider the last five winners:

  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing, originally from Nova Scotia, now in Toronto and Edmonton
  • Will Ferguson, 419, from Fort Vermillion, Alta., now in Calgary
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues, from Victoria, B.C.
  • Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists, from Nova Scotia, later in Toronto and Montreal
  • Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man, from Nova Scotia, now in Toronto

This year’s Giller field, Cranston-Reimer said, is particularly strong. With no new major books from Hill or other prominent writers, it’s not entirely surprising Hamilton didn’t get a nod.

“Our time will come,” she said.

City need more novels: poet

There's no Hamilton section at Bryan Prince Booksellers, but there are plenty of books by local writers available. (John Rieti/CBC)
Local poet and nonfiction writer John Terpstra, who was himself nominated for poetry’s Charles Taylor Prize, said he’s not too worried about the lack of Giller nominees to come out of Hamilton.

He said if he had to guess why, it’s a lack of writers focused on writing novels — the format that has largely dominated the Gillers, despite last year’s triumphant collection of short stories.

“Maybe the novel you’re hoping will be on the Giller list is being written right now,” he said, hinting that at least one homegrown writer is working on a promising new book.

Terpstra said the recognition of awards — “I want prizes as much as anyone ... it would be wonderful!” — could have a positive effect for the local writing scene, but having local publishers like Wolsak and Wynn up and running does more for the community in the long run.

Certainly, Terpstra said, the city isn’t missing anything in the way of inspiration — particularly in the grit of its urban life.

If you’re looking for books set in Hamilton, by Hamilton writers, Cranston-Reimer can certain help out. The city typically plays itself in mysteries, she said, though in other books it appears as a fictitious city and readers will be left to spot the references.

'Mammoth opportunity'

There’s one other thing to know about prizes: sometimes, Cranston-Reimer says, the book that wins just isn’t beloved by the public.

Last year, Joseph Boyden’s Orenda missed the shortlist, but it’s been a consistent bestseller at the shop.

“Sometimes one of our bestsellers of the season isn’t nominated for anything,” Cranston-Reimer said.

Still, heading into a busy season for book sales, the Giller remains, as Hoey puts it, a “mammoth” opportunity. And one, perhaps, that will befall a Hamilton writer sooner or later.