The Giller Prize: Thanks Jack

October 29, 2012

A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will...

At a certain point this Tuesday night, Jack Rabinovitch will step up to the microphone in front of a packed ballroom and a national television audience and recall sitting down with his friend Mordecai Richler and coming up with the idea of creating a memorial to his late wife Doris Giller.

You have to wonder whether, even in his wildest dreams, Jack could have imagined what a mighty impact that meeting would have on the Canadian cultural landscape. The Scotiabank Giller Prize has become the gold standard in Canadian letters since its inception in 1994, with unparalleled influence on readers and book buyers, and an annual shot in the arm for an industry that seems parlous at the best of times.

This year Jack’s annual literary dinner will be broadcast live, coast to coast on CBC, and the audience will be peppered with celebrities and luminaries. Jack has connections, but one of his most notable achievements is to have made attendance at an event honouring a work of fiction such a hot ticket. From the worlds of media, finance, and politics they come, for an invitation to the Giller Prize is treasured; you wouldn’t dream of passing it up.

A large part of the crowd, however, consists of people that don’t have a high profile, many of whom you wouldn’t recognize, not even by name.

For those of us who work in the book business, an invitation to dinner with Jack is cherished even more dearly.

At a time when publishing news is almost consistently dire, in Canada and elsewhere, the Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony is a welcome opportunity to celebrate our achievements, and to show the country, if not the whole world, that what we do for a living has significance and worth.

There will be editors in attendance at the ball, and behind every one of the shortlisted books is an editor, usually working in the shadows, part psychologist, part technician. And for every author shortlisted, each editor will have worked with many other talented writers, whose absence from the list has to be dealt with judiciously.

There will be publicists in attendance, the hardest working and least appreciated people in the entire business, who battle daily for attention for their writers in a world of ever shrinking media interest.

There will be writers there as well, winners past and future. And who works harder for less than writers? Often the great books are not appreciated until long after they have been published, and often the longed for day in the sun is all too brief.

And me? I’m a bookseller, and my invitation to the Scotiabank Giller dinner means more to me than I could tell you. Last Tuesday you might have seen me crawling on my hands and knees under a table, or wrangling some cartons of books along the street to my store. This Tuesday I’ll be wearing a tux, celebrating Canadian literature on national television.

So here’s a public thank you to Jack Rabinovitch.

On behalf of all of us who toil in the trenches of the Canadian book business, thanks Jack.

Whether we’re in attendance or watching on television, we all have one night when we can honestly believe that we’re in a glamour profession.

A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will celebrate its fifth anniversary this fall.