Saturday, October 15, 2011

The CC says everything's cool

So the Canada Council has responded to the comments I made about the most recent GG poetry shortlist. Here's what they have to say:

The Council does not see a conflict of interest in authors assessing books by other authors that are produced by their publishing house. Peer assessors are professionals and dedicated to making the best decision possible. If authors were not able to sit on a peer assessment committee to discuss books produced by their publisher, it would be impossible for the Council to have qualified representation on these committees. As noted by Mr. Wells, Mr. McCaffery has a stellar reputation in the poetry community. The Council benefited from the expertise of all three members of the jury in this selection process.

A number of things to address here. First off, I agree in principle with the first sentence. Obviously, peer jurying would be inconceivable otherwise. I have my issues with peer jurying, but I've never said that no poets should ever be on the jury. However. Agreeing with this a priori does not mean that one need agree with it a posteriori. When three titles by a single press make it onto the shortlist, one immediately looks for an explanation. The altruistic explanation is that it was just an exceptionally good year for BookThug. Bravo, BookThug! This could also be the cynical explanation, depending on your angle. The altruistic explanation only holds water if you can't otherwise account for such a high number of shortlistees. (Keep in mind that BookThug submissions accounted for 6% of books under consideration for the award, but 60% of shortlisted titles. Just having one title on the list defies the odds; having three is akin to the mathematical improbability that saw the Tampa Bay Rays make the MLB playoffs this year.) We could speculate endlessly about how this extremely improbable scenario took shape--and we must speculate, as the CC insists on acting like some kind of goddamn Star Chamber--but Occam's Razor insists that we pin responsibility on an interested party.

Enter Steve McCaffery, BookThug author and Champion of All Things Avant Garde. The spokesperson from the CC said that I made reference to Dr. McCaffery's "stellar reputation in the poetry community." I said nothing of the sort. For one thing, I've never held Dr. McCaffery's work or opinions in high regard. For another, I'm far from alone in this. I said that McCaffery is an eminence grise. Which he is. He is a polarising figure who has dedicated his life and work to the promotion of one stream of poetry and the diminishment of all others. If he is to be placed on a jury, this needs to be taken into account. Dr. McCaffery is not simply a variable to be inserted into a jury equation. He is a theorist and poetic ideologue dedicated to the promotion of postmodern values in poetry, who would have a number of preformulated arguments at his fingertips, which he would no doubt bring to bear in any discussions with fellow jurors to determine a shortlist. If your average possible juror is x, then McCaffery is 5x. For a jury including him to be balanced, the other jurors must be similarly formidable figures. Douglas Burnet Smith is a good writer and a smart man, but has nothing like McCaffery's stature or zeal. Joanne Arnott, to be frank, is little better than an amateur. In the absence of disclosures from the CC, it is only reasonable to assume that McCaffery had a disproportionate influence on the shortlist. The CC is to blame for this, for choosing an unbalanced jury in the first place and for failing to redress the unbalanced shortlist in the second.

Something that's gone unmentioned is the fact that the unbalance isn't restricted to the presence of 3 BookThug titles. Besides those, there is also a book by a writer, Garry Thomas Morse, associated with the Kootenay School of Writing, which is aesthetically aligned with BookThug and its pedagogical arm, the Toronto New School of Writing. So, four out of five titles have "avant garde" credentials. And we're to believe that McCaffery, a longtime avant-garde general, had no more say in this than the other two. Who have no avant-garde affiliations, by the way. Uh-huh. A likely story. Occam? Not bloody likely, you say? Oh. (And please note that the CC carefully avoids saying that all jurors had equal input.)

As usual, the CC is owning no responsibility for this cock-up. Same thing happened a couple of years ago with the Di Brandt/Jacob Scheier mess. They said everything was okay. But then they started cracking down hard, going so far as to remove juror Brian Bartlett from jury duty because a poet he barely knew happened to dedicate one poem to Bartlett (because the poem borrowed a line of Bartlett's). The CC doesn't seem to realize that conflict of interest is something that has to be watched more on the back-end than the front-end of a juried competition; a potential conflict of interest is immaterial if the compromised juror selects no books to which s/he has an affiliation. Had this year's jury only turned up one BookThug/avant-garde title, you shrug and go "okay, that's to be expected." Three?! Then, you need to go back to the jury and find out, pardon me, what the fuck is going on. Let me remind you: there were 170 titles submitted to this award. 11 of them were from BookThug. Let me also remind you that this is a press that fairly prides itself on its own counter-culture marginality, on being "experimental" and "innovative." For them to have three books on this most mainstream of lists means either that they've sold out hardcore or that they've been given an unfair boost by an ardent fan.

Finally, I think this situation proves conclusively that the three-person peer jury consensus model is too broken to be fixed. Scrap it, and stop pretending it's the only way this thing can be done. I've made many suggestions in the past how this might be effected. Mark Sampson has recently made more elaborate, but eminently reasonable, suggestions. Canada Council: start listening to your constituents. Don't be like Steven Harper. Because even if you are, he'll still cut your ass.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you Zach that the likelihood of BookThug producing three of the best poetry titles in Canada in one year is small. I suspect you are right about McCaffery’s influence. What no one has pointed out yet is that this kind of anomaly seems to be becoming a trend with the GG poetry shortlist. Last year, Vehicule Press (disclosure: a press I admire and have published with) suddenly had two books on the shortlist after years of drought. It so happened that one of the jurors was the accomplished Norm Sibum—a poet closely associated with the Montreal scene. It’s likely that he had a particularly strong influence on the shortlist given that the other judges were, by comparison, unknowns. It seems to me that the GG poetry shortlist has come to reflect the balkanization of the poetry scene in Canada. Another complicating factor is that prizes of this stature often seem to be awarded for a body of work rather than for a particular book. Jurors seem to want to redress imbalances or perceived imbalances by granting prizes to favourite poets or to favourite publishing houses. Juries for prizes such as the GG and the Griffin need to be more transparent about how they arrived at their shortlist and why they selected the winner. The Griffin, in particular, needs to be transparent not only about which books are actually selected and read for the prize, but who reads them. Personally, I’d like to see all of these prizes scrapped. They are little more than a corrupt lottery at his stage. If they are to continue, I think juries should make public their deliberations in written form and open them up for discussion—post awards. This might go some way to restoring the idea of discourse in our literary culture. The publication of the jury’s deliberation may also encourage jurors to look to their better angels or to come clean about the partisan nature of their selections.

Pat Warner
St. John’s

Zachariah Wells said...

I'd sooner see them scrapped, too, Pat, but the trend is towards more and bigger prizes, so this is a cultural reality we have to live with. The wiser course is probably to ignore it, but I've never been too good at that. I did ignore it last year, because I had a book eligible for the award, which I felt disqualified me from saying anything publicly.

I think the Griffin has less responsibility to run a clean show, because it's one guy's money paying for it. It's up to him how it gets administered. It's clear from the jury selections that they're more interested in an elite club than in a truly non-partisan award. So be it. The GG is our responsibility because it's our money. I mean "our" in the broadest sense, of course. If the prize had no impact on anything, I'd ignore it, but nominations and wins have a disproportionately large influence on the course of poets' trajectories. Which is sad because of how arbitrary, at best, the whole thing is. But it's a fact. As such, I'd rather agitate for reform than keep my mouth shut.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the system needs reform. Badly. Do you think the Giller/Griffin model--one Canadian juror, two non-Canadian judges--would be better? I would actually like to see all three judges have distance from Canadian poetry, so that there is more focus on quality rather than who you personally like or align with poetically. So three 'international' judges seems far better to me. Anything seems better than the current method. I think TSN's monkey-spinning-a-wheel-to-predict-playoff-hockey-winners was more effective.

Ian LeTourneau

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Prizes are subjective. The jury process, both on a selection and deliberation level, is unfair. These are bottom line problems that will never be resolved. In some years it will be less evident than in others. But we can't ignore literary prizes, and don't want to. In a world replete with so much literary dross being produced, having some sort of filter is better than not having any. Seems to me that the narrower a prize's focus the less controversial and/or unfair it appears to be. I mean, does anyone argue about the shortlist for the Toronto Book Award, or the BC Book Prize, or the Charles Taylor prize, or the First Novel Award, or any of the SF or mystery writing awards. Not much, because the criteria is more explicit and focused. So if the trend is more and bigger prizes, it should also be more toward more focused prizes. For example, why not just cut to the chase and make the poetry GG poetry a career prize, instead of for just one book?

Jonathan Ball said...

I feel I have to ask, Zach, how you see this situation differing from every other year ever, in which lyrical poets ignore Canada's outstanding avant-garde work to promote other, often mediocre and unambitious, lyrical poets. I haven't read all the books so I can't say much about the specifics of this list, although the Eichhorn book definitely deserves to be on it.

Zachariah Wells said...

If three of the "lyrical" books in any given year were selected from the same press, by a juror with strong ties to that press, it wouldn't be different. Let's say David Solway was on a jury that chose three Signal books. I'd find that just as problematic. It's not a matter of aesthetic preference, as far as I'm concerned.

I've been pointing out problems of this nature for years, going back to the year that Robert Bringhurst and Russell Thornton helped out their good pals. Robert Bringhurst is one of my favourite poets and a man I respect enormously. So it's not a matter of "BookThug doesn't deserve this."

Jonathan Ball said...

But it IS a matter of aesthetic preference. As you say, McCaffery has clear preferences. As do all jurors. Where is he to pull his books from? There are very few presses that publish ANY avant-garde work, never mind quality work. BookThug is one, and one of the best, if not THE best such press in this country. So it seems perfectly reasonable that McCaffery would have to draw from this single press, although I could name other books I was impressed by from Snare and Coach House. I say McCaffery because he is the one you are discussing, although of course you have the rest of the jury there. If Solway was on the jury, he would not have to look to the same small pool of publishers (basically, 3) for the books that suited his tastes.

Of course I am biased in that BookThug published my first book, but McCaffery's not just publishing with them for the big advances (believe me), he's doing it because they are one of the only presses in Canada that specialize in the type of work he reads and produces.

If only the jury had put CLOCKFIRE on the list and spared themselves all this controversy.... (I should put an emoticon here, but can't bring myself to do so.)

Zachariah Wells said...

You know what I'd like to see? McCaffery's top 10 longlist, such as the one Bok published in an interview I republished on CLM a while back. Bok's list was eclectic and showed him to be someone capable of appreciating achievement outside of his aesthetic preferences. Would SM's list show the same? Were there multiple BookThug titles on the other jurors' lists? We can only speculate, unfortunately. Whatever the case, a juror who cannot evaluate the quality of work that doesn't ring his bell personally--who is judge and executioner as well--is a juror who shouldn't be.

Jonathan Ball said...

I don't know McCaffery so I can't speculate on his list either, with any real confidence. But knowing Bok, as you suggest, I know he can evaluate work he does not actually like with skill and grace.

Bok would suggest (and I would second) that in fact what we need are more jurors like McCaffery -- in the sense of jurors of his own calibre (again, I haven't read enough of the books to make a real case for or against this list).

Bok's continual complaint about jurors is that second-rate jurors choose second-rate books (we're often lucky to get second-rate jurors, and usually settle for third- or fourth-rate). If we had juries of first-rate artists -- I would include McCaffery, though I know you would't -- then we might have better lists and the jury system might actually work.

Zachariah Wells said...

That's actually one of the points I've been making: that McCaffery is on one level, Smith is on a second, slightly lower level, and Arnott is on a third level. This isn't a "jury of peers." It's a hodge-podge. And it will be a hodge-podge as long as the Canada Council is more interested in some kind of amorphous demographic "diversity" than in artistry. Had the other two jurors been peers of McCaffery's, we might have had a diverse and impressive shortlist--something in which we could argue about the merits of the books instead of the meretricious manner in which they were chosen.

Brenda Schmidt said...

OMG! First-rate, second-rate, third- and fourth-rate! And levels! Wow. Please explain in some detail how your rating systems work.

Zachariah Wells said...

My judgments are based on a combination of:

1) Evaluation of quality of work

2) Contributions made not only in the form of poetry, but to critical discourse.

3) Significance in the context of contemporary poetry and influence on other writers.

As far as #1 goes, I don't think much of McCaffery. As far as #2 and #3 go, it would be a lie to say that he isn't a major figure.

Smith is quite a good writer, but not a very significant figure.

Joanne Arnott has published several negligible books with dubious presses. She was on the jury, I have no doubt, because there is an official policy at the CC of having at least one juror representing an ethnic minority.

Having such discrepancies on a jury isn't _necessarily_ a problem, but it definitely is in a three-person consensus-driven model. It leads to waffly compromises in some instances and single-juror domination in others. I think there are very good reasons why the CC guards the secrecy of jury deliberations so zealously...

Jonathan Ball said...

I would more or less agree with Zach here, although I consider McCaffery's own work to be exceptional (aside from some few cases, like his Basho "translations," where he's outshone by people like Barwin/Beaulieu).

For me the issue here is not BookThug having a bunch of books on the shortlist. If anything, as always, it's a case of "who judges the judges"?