Wednesday 24 October 2012

Did The Giller cause Douglas & McIntyre's demise?

Much is being made of the filing for bankruptcy protection and restructuring of Douglas & McIntyre, and many of the articles mention favourably the publishers’ stable of authors. Prominent among these is Johanna Skibsrud, author of the 2010 Giller Prize winning The Sentimentalists. In fact, prior to the naming of the book to the Giller short list, it had sold a mere 400 copies, boosted by another 2,000 after shortlisting, according to The National Post

After a quick scramble over several days that captured arts headlines, Gaspereau Press defending its hand-cranked manufacturing process (did they deliver them by horse and buggy, too, one wonders? No wonder book stores and publishers are dropping like flies)--Douglas &McIntyre inked a deal with Gaspereau  to provide 30,000 more copies. 

Unfortunately, a look at social media aggregators reveals that the public didn’t much like The Sentimentalists.

On Goodreads, 53 per cent of 1,248 responders liked the book; 46 per cent gave it only one or two stars. On, 30 of 41 responders gave it one or two stars.

Here’s a five star review written by “sean s.,” a “Top 50” reviewer from Montreal...digging a little, I surmise "sean s." is a professional “reviewer” who probably works in publicity or marketing:  his last 10 reviews (posted between Sept. 11th and Oct. 7th) are all five stars, and include most of the Giller finalists and all of the GG finalists...

Johanna Skibsrud is a 30-year-old Montreal writer, who is currently completing her PhD at l'Université de Montréal. She now also has the distinction of being the youngest author ever to have won Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.

An early version of this novel served as Ms. Skibsrud's Master's dissertation at Concordia University.

The Sentimentalists is written in an oneiric, poetic style with nuances of emotion that belie the author's young age. The troubling subject matter, gradually uncovered with archeological patience, is based in part on the Vietnam War experiences of Johanna's own deceased father.

The novel opens in the Fargo, North Dakota trailer home of Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam veteran. A rambling home, because Napoleon, a carpenter, has made numerous additions over the years:

"At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the `second library' - the `first' having reach its limits years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he'd ever read floating around in his mind."

As his health deteriorates, Napoleon's daughters move him from his trailer to the town of Casablanca, Ontario, to live out his twilight years with Henry, the father of Napoleon's deceased brother-in-arms Owen.

There, after gradually opening up to his daughter about his own fragmented memories of Vietnam, Napoleon succumbs to lung cancer:

"In the same way, I suppose, that for the drowning man there comes, though several times he raises himself above the surface, the irrefutable moment in which it is certain that he will not raise himself again, and the last bubbles of his final exhalations arise and disperse, and an invisible seal is drawn across the waves... we gave him up."

Explaining the origins of the book, Skibsrud has said "The real beginning of this story was a summer I spent working on Flagstaff Lake (in Maine)... That fall, with the beginning of a story in my head, my father began to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Vietnam War. I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did, but I think it had to do - it was 2003 then - with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been for some time stirring in him a deep anger toward a government willing to repeat the mistakes of the past at the expense of innocent people; soldiers as well as civilians."

Though the story recounted is fascinating, the real strength of this book is the accomplished writing. Michael Enright, a member of the Giller jury said "I read it twice, and it's amazing even the second time, and I think it would be even more amazing the third time."

The “most helpful” two star review:

…It is evident that literary scholars find this book a wonderful read. As an individual who reads books for entertainment, I found this book to be slow and without flow. Half way into the book I found myself reading the back cover to ensure that I had purchased the book whose description I had read - the synopsis on the back sounds very intriguing, but the book seemed aimless. Again, this may be because I am just a `lay person' and as such am unable to fully appreciate the author's literary genius…

Over at Librarything, the verdict was slightly less harsh: 85 ratings with a mean of 2.92 stars

It is very rare for me to close a book, unfinished, and know that I will likely never go back to try and finish it. I closed this book on page 65 still not clear on who the characters were or what their stories are. This book won the Giller prize - I had an expectation of a good read that fell far, far short. ( * )

A beautifully written novel that deserves to be read slowly; I read it at a pretty steady pace so I am sure I missed a lot. It is multi-layered and a moving story about a daughter trying to understand her father and the unreliability of memory.  ( ****)

Which raises the question: although the debacle must have been years in the making and probably not the result of a single bad decision, did their rush to grab The Sentimentalists hasten D&M’s demise?

And, for the future of Canadian publishing, let’s hope that the tastes of this year’s Giller judges are more in harmony with those of the purchasing public.

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