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Much Ado about Literary Awards

Over the last few years, and the past two especially, there’s been a hullabaloo about the value and credibility of literary awards, particularly concerning the big three: the Giller, the Governor General’s, and the Writer’s Trust. The discontent is multi-faceted, but focused mainly, I think, on the tragedy of awards featuring mostly already much-hyped books and major authors, on the awards being rather irritatingly predictable and even unfair, and on the loss of credibility. CBC’s Canada Reads has equally been under much scrutiny.

I’ve expressed my feelings on Canada Reads, and concluded the contest is not for me, as what I want would make the program something entirely different, and that is, of course, not the point. I haven’t said much on the three awards mentioned above, and that’s because I don’t really have much problem with them. In spite of the complaints, I actually see more value to them. And I see that in answer to the upsets, we have undoubtedly seen changes in not only how the awards conduct their contests but also in the lists themselves. These CanLit events are not soldiering on regardless of what people say. (There’s a reason for that, right? It will come up again later in this post. Hint: because we are important.) After being accused of seeming too small-minded and exclusive, the Giller and Canada Reads and the Bookies introduced the people’s choice vote, an extension to give readers a say in what books would be recognized. This has ultimately seemingly backfired because of the variety of books mentioned (at the same time, though, it calls attention to lesser-known books) but also because of authors promoting their books, readers promoting author friends, and books being suggested that aren’t even released yet. How can anyone vote, let alone say anything about one book being more deserving than another if they haven’t read all the books? Thus, we have uninformed and poorly represented input.

But there have been good changes, too, and these can’t be dismissed as insignificant. There are awards growing in popularity in answer to the three, like the ReLit awards, that promote smaller presses and lesser-known or less lauded authors. And how many times have I mentioned the new generation of CanLit! It’s not just me. The 49th Shelf picked up on the phenom and created a list of books under that category. In fact, the site is also significantly contributing to these wonderful changes in CanLit.

This new gen is widening the canon, or defying it, or obliterating it altogether and recreating it. Younger authors are making grand appearances, as evidenced by Sarah Selecky, Alexander McLeod, Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, Johanna Skibsrud, and so on. Those names are big now, but we’d never heard of them before they got on the big awards lists, often with first books. Never mind what you think of who won: this is truly incredible, considering past nominees and winners. Increasingly, we’re seeing new authors and first books garnering much deserved attention. Young, talented Canadian authors are crawling out of the woodwork at such a rate it’s impossible to keep up with them. And they’re on awards lists everywhere. Heather Birrell, Iain Reid, Grace O’Connell, Buffy CramMarjorie Celona, and so many more are commanding literary presence, and not only with their books but with their contributions to newspapers, magazines, in teaching, and in the literary community in general. We’re also consequently seeing not just larger publishers like D&M and Thomas Allen recognizing the value in and picking up these authors, but also smaller publishers in the spotlight these days, like Breakwater, Biblioasis, Goose Lane, Cormorant, Coach House, Freehand, and ECW. Anansi has always been significant but has secured a place in the big leagues and on awards lists with countless new author successes.

Happily, this deluge of young Canadian first-time authors coincides with an influx of fantastic short story collections (you know how everyone says you write short stories first and then graduate to the novel, right?) that is also evidenced not only in bookstores and on people’s shelves, but on award lists. This year’s Giller longlist contains two collections (I liked Alix Ohlin’s Inside but would have preferred to see her Signs and Wonders collection on the list. For a review of Wangersky’s Whirl Away, click here). This is a very big deal, since not only has canonical CanLit had a stigma attached to it but also the short story.  Thanks to these young authors (in particular Sarah Selecky, Jessica Westhead, and Matthew Trafford, who founded YOSS, which has extended beyond just 2011), and those alongside them, like Steven Heighton and Zsuzsi Gartner and Emma Donoghue and Alice Munro, who continue to mentor and publish stellar collections, the short story collection has just about overshadowed the novel and continues to crop up on awards lists in increasing numbers.

Another change in the awards—and this has brought contention among those with opinions about the awards—is more variety in the story. We’re not getting the typical Canadian book anymore. We’re not only seeing the “standard” Canadian author anymore, either—that is, by previous definition, and aside from them now often being younger. We’re seeing more stories outside the Canadian canon locations, beyond the immigrant in Canada—books, like Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, that are not even set in Canada, authors, like Alix Ohlin and Marjorie Celona, who no longer live in Canada. While others doth protest too much, in my opinion, this is an advancement in Canadian literature. It demonstrates our willingness to acknowledge the diversity we always speak of. It helps us grasp that ever-elusive Canadian identity people rail on about not having. We are a mixed bag. That is our definition, and in telling and allowing our stories, we cement our definition. We create and experience all kinds of things outside of the prairies or east coast or Toronto. And why should any of these stories be discounted or ridiculously labelled “not Canadian enough”? The Canadian experience isn’t about staying home anymore. It’s not just about landscape and darkness. It’s about experimenting, with place, form, humour, ideas. It’s about pushing boundaries and redefining.

That’s how I characterize Canadian authors these days. Jessica Grant and Ben Stephenson, John Lavery (unfortunately passed away now) and Stuart Ross, these authors and so many others exemplify Canadian talent that’s been up to now relatively unexplored because of our focus on the canon, and on tried and true literary devices and settings that we’ve actually become discontent with. Who can deny we’ve complained about Canadian literature being depressing? I argue we’re not seeing this in the awards lists anymore. We’re seeing more diverse choices. Will Ferguson’s 419 on the Giller longlist this morning took me by surprise. As did several others. These aren’t stereotypical choices. Perhaps this book won’t make it to the shortlist. Perhaps in the end the winner won’t surprise. But the awards, as we well know, and as Amanda explained in her post yesterday, are not simply about the winner. They are also about the other books that are nominated.

Now, other bloggers’ posts and challenges begin to crop up about reading the entire awards lists and then weighing in on what they’ve read. It’s great attention for the books. Customers are starting to buy and order the books from bookstores. The awards, of course, help sales. But I argue that they do not in fact shut out other deserving books. Not everyone goes for the awards books, and it’s in fact ridiculous to think that only these books are being read by all Canadians for the duration of the awards season. While marketing will push the contenders extra hard, the awards season is only that, a relatively short season of the year. The awards are not so great that other books being published will be ignored. For one, this is not in a publisher’s best interest. For another, we are not necessarily, helplessly at the mercy of the Giller or other awards. We’ve already seen adjustments being made by publishers to ensure other titles in their catalogues do not go unnoticed. Because, yes, publishers can do something in answer to this issue of books going unnoticed. Promotion, relationships with readers, solid and consistent decisions, all these things, not only an award, affect if and how books are received.

Ultimately, though, publishers are going to focus their energies on what they know is going to bring in the bacon. So it comes down to us readers. I personally will read only what I find interesting, as I always do no matter what time of year. And that’s why I don’t predict who will win or say who deserves to win over the others. I will never read an entire awards list unless I want to read all the books on it. I’m sure there are countless others like me, who will also read other books brought out this season that make no awards lists, who will also promote them, alongside their publishers and authors. I’m sure there are more people like me who will also check out the ReLit Awards and the Other books at lit festivals and on bookstore shelves and so on.

While they are a significant factor of the CanLit scene, the awards do not have to be guilty of what people lament. It’s not the awards that necessarily shut out books. It’s us. The readers. The consumers. We’re actually the ones in control. We decide how much the awards have effect by how much and what kind of attention we give these awards and their lists, and in contrast, the books not on the lists. If we want other books to garner as much attention as award titles, if we want the awards to have less say on the standard of Canadian literature, on the definition of it, then we need to speak up. It’s that simple, really it is. Especially these days, in the age of rampant social media. It doesn’t have to be an award that gives a book the most attention it will ever get. Of course it helps. I don’t deny that many readers trust the name of the awards and will buy books based on their accolades. I also do not think these books or authors on these lists likely unworthy of the attention they’re getting. The main thing is, people also buy books when they are enthusiastically lauded simply by word of mouth. In the end, this all comes down to opinion, of judges, of us, also judges. People will love the winners, people will scorn them. In the end, where books and their popularity are concerned, it’s not about awards. It’s about us, the readers. Awards, crazy marketing, big names…no matter how intimidating, how much the pinnacle of the fall season, without the cooperative reader, these are rather ineffective.

Mark Medley recently wrote:

Last year, for the first time ever, a list of all the books eligible for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s pre-eminent literary award, were posted on the prize’s website. Organizers have done the same thing this year. As of Thursday morning, 224 books were listed, ranging from bestsellers such as Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager to rather obscure titles, such as June Bourgo’s Winter’s Captive. Even though only one of these books will be this year’s winner, the prize wants to celebrate them all.

“People work so hard on their books, and publishers work so hard with the writers,”  prize director Elana Rabinovitch says, “that it just doesn’t seem right for them not to have any kind of visibility.”

Yet visibility is low. The odds are that after Tuesday, when this year’s longlist is revealed, you’ll never hear about most of these books again.

In these paragraphs I see an awards committee recognizing what people are complaining about. But in Mark’s last sentence, I see nothing to do with the awards. If that happens, that we never hear about the books again, that’s not the awards’ fault. That’s where the publishers come in. And the authors. And where we come in.

We are talking about awards in the hope of perhaps changing them. But maybe in all this we allow these awards to be too definitive, of books, authors, ourselves as readers. And maybe the focus is ironically in the wrong place. Perhaps the focus ought not to be on what we dislike, on the various problems of literary awards, but rather on what we want. You want to effect change? Be the change you want to see. Read (and promote) what you want to read, not what you’re told. You’re allowed.

26 Comments

  1. My TBR has just grown, thanks to this post — and I’m thrilled. Thank you!

  2. PS — just loved this post, esp: ” Read (and promote) what you want to read, not what you’re told. You’re allowed.” AMEN.

  3. Hey Audra,

    Cool! I’m so glad you were able to add books to your list (and only because you wanted to, right? Haha!).

    Thanks for reading the post. My final words really came from that anxiety that I’ve been made to feel before: that I’m not of literary worth if I don’t read or follow certain literary books, authors, events, etc. I think this anxiety over awards has more to do with than just this upset people feel about the books being chosen and about being told these books, perhaps books they don’t want to read, are the ones we should be reading, but I think a great deal of the dialogue seems to come from that space. If it’s only about being unfair to other books, the solution is simple, and the same. Read and get behind those other books. A few events a year do not define things. We’re the ones who ultimately drive sales. And if people are buying tons of copies of awards books, maybe that’s really what they want to read.

    Perhaps I’m not completely informed on the issues, though. I’m hoping, then, that there can be dialogue here to remedy that.

  4. Nice points, Steph. CanLit would be a pretty boring thing if we all agreed on what a good books is, and personally, I think awards lists have been better than ever in the diversity and balance of fresh faces and icons.

    • Me too, Chad! That’s my point! That there have been so many changes, that the awards have indeed responded to what we’re saying. Perhaps not to our total satisfaction, but I doubt they’ll ever achieve that.

      I can’t really say anything authoritatively, since I don’t read all the books on the list and haven’t read or don’t recall all the arguments, but I offer my observations in response to some complaints. Will you be posting a follow-up to the lists or to your predictions on Salty Ink?

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Steph. Here are my two cents:

    I have been on the library hold list for Vincent Lam’s new book for a little while. I put myself on it because I thought he would be on the longlist, even though I didn’t really enjoy his previous book (sorry — just a personal taste thing). When he wasn’t longlisted, I went and cancelled my hold. At first I hesitated and felt guilty, like I was discounting it because it wasn’t nominated — but reading this post made me realize that I shouldn’t read it because I feel I have to. I don’t want to, and that’s that.

    Not to say I wouldn’t change my mind if a trusted friend recommended it highly, of course.

    • yes, see, this is exactly why I don’t understand readers’ trust in literary awards and author bios. If you didn’t like Bloodletting, why anticipate Lam’s latest will be good (or to your taste), or, expect a different jury to like him, given that we’ve all got our own opinions and expectations from a book, so it’s not often we’ll fistpump at a shortlist or love a Giller winner.

      • I wonder if our persistence, if our hoping that we may like something others do or that is on an awards list, is partly because we fear missing something, and by that I mean, either we’re going to feel out of the loop or we’re actually not getting what everyone else seems to get.

        • Absolutely for me it can be a fear of missing out. I work in publishing, I should know everything about all the books, right? It’s an insane expectation I could never fulfill. But I keep trying, to a certain extent.

          • Yes, and as someone living so far away from the Toronto publishing hub, and as a reviewer among millions of other reviewers, I too feel an extra need to be part of the discussion and in the know. It’s hard. But recognizing it’s insane, as you said, I have to let go and hope that somehow I still stand out and won’t be forgotten, even though I’m not always in the loop.

    • I haven’t been articulating myself well here! i’ve been psoting hastily when I got a few seconds at work. Awards are definitely exciting … I just mean, I’d trust you two’s opion over some jury of strangers. Posting about this on Salty Ink tomorrow, so no more botched input here!

  6. Trish,

    I always had that about Alice Munro. In school it was as though you couldn’t be considered a real CanLit or even lit student if you didn’t read her or have her on your shelves. The truth was, I didn’t really like her stories. I found them depressing and too similar. She just wasn’t a favourite. I am looking forward to her new collection not because everyone is waxing poetic about its release but because it’s been some time since I’ve read her and maybe I will think differently, and the title has made me curious.

    But in general, I’m done reading what people say I have to read in order to belong. I’ve been disappointed by hype, and I find it grossly unfair that the thought that one must read certain books to be in the loop means so many other books suffer.

    I read what I want, and I recommend what I love, but I don’t expect people to read what I tell them I think is good, unless they want to, of course. We all contribute to this community in our own ways, and I’d like to think what I put out is still valid and I’m still valuable even if I’m not a fan of a popular book or I don’t review only bestsellers or I don’t follow Canada Reads, etc.

    The trends I see even on my blog, that reviews of books from smaller presses or lesser-known authors are not as widely viewed, this is often because readers are reading what they think they need to read to fit in. I’m trying to change this by writing good reviews, in the hope that people will read about these books because they trust the quality of what I write, not because they recognize the titles.

    I’m excited about the awards because it means reward for hard work on all involved in getting a book there. And I’m also a bit irked that people complain their books are nothing if they’re not on the long and shortlists. It sounds defeatist. I don’t deny these lists have influence, but I do believe we shouldn’t accord the awards such total power. Look at Anansi: once not as heard of, totally in the big leagues now, through solid decisions, the right kind of promotion, etc.; they’re on all the lists. They’ve changed their image, the way they interact with readers, produced consistent quality, and their books are getting attention.

    When I read the statements of the award committees, I hear how much they want to recognize good literature. Obviously, not all books can be included. I don’t think it’s necessarily the award committees’ fault that books aren’t getting enough attention.

    Whoops, totally got off on a tangent there. So:

    PS. I have Lam’s book (it was a freebie at work). I haven’t read it yet. When I do and if I like it, I’ll send it to you!

  7. Yes, maybe, kind of. But in what it all means for a writer, I think?
    But here’s the thing with awards lists: they’re just someone else’s ( a jury’s) opinion, yet readers act like these lists are gospel. Why thgink you share a jury’s opinion? You don’t, and that’s okay. Awards are nice recognition for wrietrs, and put books on readers’ radars, but they ultimately boil down to something for a wrietr to add to their bio so someone will want their next boo kthat much more. They don’t guarantee quality. I’m always a little let down most readers can’t find their own books these days without powertable, bestseller lists, and award lists. What ends up on all those things are far from what I enjoy as reader … so I imagine that’s the case for a lot of readers, who are getting a poor glimpse at what Canada has to offer … if limiting themselves to award lists, and bought displays space in bookstores.

    • *Pardon the typos there, my iPhone is still learning to spell …

      • Typos forgiven. :)

        I don’t like that they’re taken as gospel, either. It’s an issue for sure. And in general, I agree with you. I too am often disappointed by the books on bestseller lists and such. You’re right. They don’t guarantee quality (regardless of personal taste), but they cater to the masses, and that’s where the money comes in. But this is what I’ve been saying, the issue lies not with the awards but with the people who think the awards are everything. The awards lists aren’t forcing themselves on us; we are allowing them to have such sway. I honestly think we can change that somehow, that we can achieve some sort of balance. Still have the awards if we must, but find ways to not have this so-called Giller Deflect.

  8. Yes, that’s what I’m writing about right now ;)

  9. “But this is what I’ve been saying, the issue lies not with the awards but with the people who think the awards are everything. The awards lists aren’t forcing themselves on us; we are allowing them to have such sway. I honestly think we can change that somehow, that we can achieve some sort of balance. Still have the awards if we must, but find ways to not have this so-called Giller Deflect.” Well-put! Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

    • Thank you for reading it! I didn’t offer solutions there, but I think it mainly lies in the decision of people to be more thoughtful readers. As I said on Chad Pelley’s post today (http://saltyink.com/2012/09/07/heres-the-thing-with-books-awards-in-reaction-to-the-giller-reaction/): The point is, we ought to be thinking readers, those who choose deliberately for ourselves what we read, those who think about what we’re reading, and what we’ve read. For me, well-read is not having read all the nominees or winners, it’s having read a diverse collection of fiction, in subject, from publishers small and large, Canadian and international. Chad summed this up better: “Basically: Awards are super exciting, but no way to curate a reading schedule.”

      Exactly! Therein lies the solution.

    • PS. I’m not much of a non-fic reader but Mnemonic is on my list!

  10. Yes, awards are exciting — no denying! But a shortlist is really a snapshot, a moment in time, taken by the jurors who’ve read the books, considered them carefully, and who have particular tastes. There’s a lot more to the larger picture. Which, as you say, is diverse, eclectic, wide-ranging…And how wonderful it would be to see more books get a little attention. But you know, I think blogs are doing this in a way that the book pages in the major newspapers are not. So thank you for yours!
    tk

  11. Great post. There are always complaints about awards – there was a furore in England last year around the Booker, when one of the judges said the winner ought to be readable or accessible or something, and it provoked an argument about whether the awards were being “dumbed down”, whether they were about literary merit or sales.

    In the end I think that awards do serve an important function of highlighting new authors and styles of writing. I read and enjoyed Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues last year, and would probably never have heard of it if it hadn’t been nominated for awards. I agree, though, that it’s up to us to be thoughtful readers, and not to mindlessly read whatever is served up to us, either by publishers or award committees.

    • You’ve hit both main points, I think. That without the awards, many wouldn’t hear of and read deserving books (thought that’s not to say that an award-winner is a guaranteed good book, and then that raises the discussion of what constitutes a good book), and that we should as thinking people not let awards lists dictate or become exclusively our own reading lists. The first point validates awards, and rightly so. They do indeed boost attention and reading, let alone sales, and it’s good, I think, to recognize the hard work and talent of artists of all sorts. If we follow the second point, the most significant issue, I think, of awards, which is apparently that they tend to deflect attention from other noteworthy books, would be moot.

  12. thanks for saying i was outside of the canon. that made me feel greatttttt

    • I can’t tell if that’s a sarcastic remark or not (or even if you’re the Ben Stephenson I was referring to)! But as I wrote it, it was meant to be a compliment. Most CanLit authors exist outside the (limited, stereotypical) canon, and I think they should get more attention. I think as things go now, though, they are getting more attention, and in fact are breaking the boundaries of the canon.

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