“A campaign for literature”: Professor Ian Williams on chairing the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury

January 19, 2024 by Emma Evans

In 2019, Professor Ian Williams won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel, Reproduction, an experience he remembers as “something most writers don’t dare to dream about.” 

Four years after his dream-like win, Williams returned to the Giller Foundation to chair the 2023 selection jury. 

The jury is comprised of five people, three from Canada and two from elsewhere in the world. Beginning in January, they read some 150 books submitted for consideration from large and small publishers alike. As this year’s jury chair, Williams steered the conversation towards identifying the best Canadian novel, graphic novel, or short story collection.  

“These kinds of positions involve setting aside biases,” Williams observes. “That said, it’s kind of impossible to operate outside of your own preferences. But that's why there's a jury, so that literary preferences balance out in the end.” 

Together, the jury must select somewhere between ten and fourteen books for the longlist, and then five books for the shortlist. The idea behind the shortlist is to tell readers, “Here are five books that you can love, and here are five living writers who are thinking through the issues of our time,” Williams says. 

This year’s shortlisted books explore everything from guerrilla gardening to grief, and travel from 1960s Panama to an unnamed northern locale. 

Speaking of travel, every year, the shortlisted authors visit several major cities in Canada to share their work with the public. Williams fondly remembers his own cross-country tour as part of the Giller Prize process in 2019.

“We travelled across the country to talk about our very different books,” explains Williams. “People are excited to hear about the books and have conversations afterwards. It feels like a campaign for literature across the country that is bigger than just winning.

When it came time to select the winning book for 2023, Williams and the jury were guided by one question in particular. 

“For some people with busy lives, this may be the only time they pay attention to books in the year,” Williams notes. “And so, we thought, if there was one book that people were going to read this year, would we be okay with this one?”

This year, that one book is Study for Obedience, Sarah Bernstein’s novel about a woman who moves to a secluded northern town to care for her older brother and experiences a succession of eerie events. 
“It's a really smart and unsettling book,” notes Williams. 

Bernstein, who was born in Montreal, now lives in Scotland, and with her win, she joins a long line of authors who broaden the scope of what it means to be a Canadian writer.

“There are other ways to be Canadian apart from the born-and-raised model. Some previous winners were either born outside the country or live abroad now,” says Williams. “It’s a prize for Canadian writers, and our idea of Canada expands with the prize.” 

For Williams, the ability to help grow Canadian literature is perhaps the best part of a prize like the Giller. 

“The longlisted books appear around two months before the winner is announced, and then the shortlisted books a month after that. The books get good visibility, and then we take the authors all over the place. That's how we build national literature, too.” 

With the 2023 prize winner announced, Williams is already thinking about what literature in Canada will look like in the years to come.

“I look forward to people’s careers in the long term—people who are publishing now, but also, my students. What are they going to produce in five or ten years? I can almost see it.”