Thursday, December 4, 2008

More on the GG Controversy

Michael Bryson on the brouhaha. I hear that there will be more on this on CBC's Q Monday morning.

Some further thoughts on Michael Holmes' interview. One Q&A:

Do you think the fact that Jacob is a young poet is making it easier?
Thank you. There’s definite ageism here. All you have to do is look back - anybody who has talked to me privately about this, I’ve encouraged them to look back over the years at the short list, not only for this jury, but for other juries, other prizes, like the Giller and like the Griffin - and to say ‘Would the same scrutiny have fallen on senior authors?’ And the best example that I know is the Griffin Prize of last year, and three really deserving nominees from Canada, with Nicole Brossard, David McFadden, and Robin Blaser. All of them respected people of Canadian letters. The same issue could be raised there and it wasn’t, and that’s because, I think, Jacob’s an easy target because it’s his first book, because he’s a young man, and because people are afraid to take on those authors with more of a history behind them.
As I keep saying, this is something I've been writing about in one form or another for several years. And I'm not the only one. This year, the story got picked up by a lot of other people. By far too many to just dismiss this as a case of envy, or anger that favourite X or Y wasn't honoured, or the vicious mean-spiritedness of a small handful (or rather large critical mass, as Andre Alexis has pointed out) of blog bullies. I'd not be surprised to find out that Michael considers me a bully. Wouldn't be the first time I've had that mud slung my way. I'd just like to point out that other supposed bullies include such hotheaded curmudgeons as Carleton Wilson, Evie Christie, Susan Glickman and Ian Letourneau. Now, if you've ever met these slavering rabid killers, you'd no doubt agree with Holmes. (I'd say they're some of the nicest folks I've ever met, but then I'd start to sound a bit like Scheier praising Brandt's integrity...) If this isn't who Holmes is talking about--and he's already gone on record saying he's not talking about George Murray--then who are you talking about, Michael? You said 20 or 30.

There are several possible reasons for this story going viral while similar cases died in the water:

A) Michael Holmes is right and Scheier's an easy target, whereas past cases have involved established, respected, revered, etc. poets. There's something to this, but to say it's a simple case of ageism assumes one thing that can be taken for granted only by a small handful of people (including Scheier, Di Brandt and Holmes): that Scheier's book is actually good enough to win this prize. The thing with the other examples cited by Holmes is that it's pretty easy to imagine those other poets being shortlisted by another jury. People are having a very hard time imagining a similar scenario with MTKUW. What I've read of it and read about it suggests to me that this is a very typical first collection, neither particularly ambitious, adventurous or accomplished. Therefore, given the composition of the jury, it's hard to chalk the win up to the usual suspects: reputation; past shuns; career accomplishment; the intrinsic oddities of the jury system. The only factor left to explain it is croneyism.

B) People have been getting progressively more irritated by the way things are run and prizes are awarded and this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Maybe. But it's more like a grand piano than a straw. (See A, above.)

C) None of the interested parties is willing to concede that there might have possibly been an error in judgment, much less unethical conduct. As Andre Alexis said in his Globe and Mail piece, Brandt's brusque dismissal of people's concerns is extremely rude. Scheier's defense of Brandt is mind-bogglingly naive. The Canada Council's repeated insistence that the rules were followed is disingenuous. Michael Holmes' reiterations of these dismissals and denials is the icing on the cake. The result is a highly polarised conflict. Which makes for great copy.

D) The Griffin and Giller Prizes are privately funded and administered. How they run their show is their business. The GG is administered by a publically funded institution. There is certainly a sense that it has to be held to a higher standard of accountability than private institutions. The Giller and Griffin have actively fostered croneyism. They're widely seen as lost causes. The CC has a mandate to avoid favouritism, which is why they tend to compose their juries of people as demographically and aesthetically distinct as they can. This year, they failed especially hard to do so. One juror thanked quietly in the acknowledgments wouldn't have caused a stir. A blurb and two thank yous, one profuse, to a person who helped write at least one poem and has another named after her and who is described by the author as a "mentor" and a "family friend. " Yeah, crazy business thinking the fix was in. Damn cyber bullies.

E) It actually is a blatant case, and not just a matter of slighted poets maundering, so the media have picked it up. As Michael says, people complain about this stuff every year. Not news, then, is it? Yet it is, to judge by the mainstream media coverage. It irks me some that it takes such a boldfaced example to shine a light on the problem, since it has been a problem for a long time, but it's hardly surprising given the obscurity of the art form.

I agree that none of this is the fault either of Jacob Scheier, or of his publisher. It's arguably not Di Brandt's fault either, since the CC did after all allow this to happen. But the total lack of grace with which Scheier, Brandt, and now Holmes have behaved since the controversy broke does nothing whatsoever to win sympathy. All they're doing is yelling "shut up!" over and over. They decry the fact that no one is addressing this book as a work of poetry, but the reason it's not being so treated, the only reason it's being addressed at all, is the mess created by the active favouritism of Di Brandt and the passivity of the Canada Council. Like it or not, Brandt is directly responsible for how this book is being talked about now. If Scheier's work is half as good as she thinks it is, then she owes him an apology for sabotaging its critical reception. (NB: I just turned down a review assignment of MTKUW because, having blogged extensively about this thing and having been labelled, however obliquely, a bully for my efforts, it would look pretty bad if I wound up panning it. My case is a bit special, but the fact is that no one can now write about this book without the spectre of this scandal colouring the review. Even if the elephant in the room is ignored by the reviewer.)

I find it more than a little rich that Michael is decrying the supposedly ad hominem mistreatment of Jacob Scheier and Di Brandt. This is the same guy who called Carmine Starnino an "assclown" in a published interview not that long ago. Moreover, so much of what he's saying in defense of Scheier and Brandt is, in fact, ad hominem; it's stuff to which no one not intimately acquainted with their intertwined personal histories could possibly have access, whereas what's in the acknowledgments page is there for anyone to read. It's part of the published book, not "extra-literary" at all. You can't have it both ways, Michael.


Ian LeTourneau said...

Well put, Zach. I have yet to perceive any cyber bullying. The way I see it: a lot of people raised concerns. We were called "absurd." More interesting facts turned up that raised more concerns, so we raised them again. Does raising concerns necessarily mean cyber bullying? I don't think so.

The part I shook my head at (ok, I've been shaking my head all along) is the fact that the editor Holmes said that some people have done something unforgiveable. And really I don't see anything that is unforgiveable. Everything I've read has been sincere in its concern. I don't even think being called absurd or a cyber bully is unforgiveabble. I mean, I think they still have a chance to admit that maybe, just maybe, they didn't handle this well. At least I hope they do. A personal attack may be unforgiveable but anything I've read dealing with this scenario is not, in my opinion.

GM said...

My suspicion is that the "unforgivable" was Zach posting a hit sheet from his stats showing visits from Brooklyn under the keywords "Zach Wells jerk" -- thereby implying that Scheier's been looking in and, in effect, ridiculing him for it. It could possibly have been a friend of Scheier's, of course.

The unforgivable part was making Scheier and object of scorn rather than staying on target with the CC, juror and the issues.

I personally think Scheier's done the right (and most elegant, given the situation) thing in staying out of it, as hard as that must be. I'd hate to be in his shoes right now, much as I could use the $25G.

Zachariah Wells said...

That was unforgivable?! Posting, without comment, evidence of someone looking for someone else calling me a jerk? Hilariouser and hilariouser.

It should be noted that Michael Holmes once proposed to me publishing a book of my criticism. But that was before my days as a cyber bully.

Donna Kane said...

It could also be argued that including information on Jacob's Wikipedia page (as noted in one of Zach's posts) in regard to the controversy and making mention, if I remember correctly, that the incident had raised questions as to the merit of Jacob's book, could be seen as getting a little invasive. I don't know who was putting that information on and who has been taking it off, but I did think it was uncalled for.

Zachariah Wells said...

The disputed sentence from the Wikipedia entry is this: "Because two of the jurors (Pier Giorgio di Cicco, who provided a blurb for the book, and Di Brandt, described by Scheier himself as "a mentor and a family friend," and who collaborated on a translation in the book) were personally connected to Scheier, there has been some controversy over the legitimacy of that win."

Fair summary or malicious distortion? It's factual information. The only reasons it's controversial is that some people don't like the facts of the matter and that it was I who posted them to Wikipedia. Apparently, if someone more disinterested than I had posted the exact same summary sentence, it wouldn't be a problem. Regardless, "invasive" it certainly is not, unless having an encyclopedia entry written about you is invasive in the first place.

Michael Reynolds said...

When I read the post that George mentions, "visit from Brooklyn" I'll admit I laughed. But that was the first thing that came to mind when the (generally misguided) accusation of cyber-bullying came out. I agree with George that it crossed the line (though unforgivable is perhaps an overstatement).

To be clear, s/he didn't call you a jerk Zach (whoever s/he is). Someone in Brooklyn (quite possibly Sheier) googled your name with a nasty adjective (or maybe it was a verb -- or even a saucy noun...). I'd say this is more akin to thinking you are a jerk, or perhaps muttering it under his breath in the privacy of his home. It wasn't a public forum. I suppose an argument could be made that the writer figured you would see the insult in your visitor's log, but I think this is stretching it -- I for one didn't even know bloggers had access to such details.

Anyway, the only purpose of the post was to belittle Sheier (and may in fact misrepresent him). It served no purpose in the context of the argument taking place here and at Bookninja. This may of course not be the bit that elicited Holmes bullying comment, but I think an argument could be made in this case.

That said, I've been in agreement with almost everything you've said regarding the issue Zach.

Zachariah Wells said...

You laughed because it's funny, Michael, which is the exact same reason I posted it.

And my stats are visible to anyone who wants to see 'em. All you have to do is click on my hit counter and go from there. So what I posted was not exactly private info. And I didn't say anything about who I thought it was; just left that up to everyone's imagination. For some reason, folks seem to assume it was Jacob Scheier. I wonders why that is...

Sharon McCartney said...

Oh my lord, Zach, I so cracked up when I saw the "hit list" post. That was not unforgiveable. It was unforgettable. Almost as amusing as Holmes's emphatic insistence on the "uncontroverted facts" of Brandt's lack of engagement with Scheier's book. Just the facts, ma'am....

David Kosub said...

Okay. I bought Jacob's book and I mean this when I say that both my wife and I enjoyed it immensely. Sophisticated, witty, easily one of the best Canadian poets I've read in some time, Schieier warrants attention by anyone who loves poetry. I, for one, will be following his career closely to see what other gems he produces.

That said, the explanation from the poet's editor is overly defensive, illogical and finally evasive on both the reality and optics of the CC's decision. It unnecessarily casts aspersions on another poet and does nothing to counter the odour arising from the way in which we in this country honour the best of the best in Canadian literary arts.

I am dismayed for Mr. Schieier - a true talent by any measure. I am dismayed for us who now must weigh with increasing incredulity the decisions emanating from what many consider, rightly or wrongly, to be Canada's principal adjudicator of artistic merit. Plainly, it is time for a little self-examination on the part of the Canadian Council for the Arts.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for your comments, David. Had you and your wife been the jurors instead of Brandt and di Cicco, I might have questioned your judgment, but not your ethics. But as you say, the widespread dismay about the award has almost nothing to do with Scheier abilities as a writer. Almost nothing.

Mark McCawley said...

It's quite obvious (at least to me) that any juror or jurors with a modicum of integrity would have removed themselves at first reek of impropriety. That they did not — caring more for their position on the jury than Scheier's reputation — does a disservice both to the award and Scheier as a writer (who may very well have won, regardless).