Literary Awards and the Spurned Writer

The 2011 literary awards season has drawn to an end, with new stars such as Esi Edugyan and Patrick de Witt in the Canadian literary firmament. It has been an inspiring year, an inspiring few years in fact, and we can add Johanna Skibsrud, Annabel Lyon, and Kathleen Winter to those whose fiction has been making a splash.

There are good reasons to celebrate their accomplishment, in part because they are younger than the writers who first established Canada’s literary credentials nationally and internationally. There is every reason to expect more from these new writers In addition to the prizes themselves, they have won the considerable support that the literary world can provide to its favourites. The future looks rosy for Canadian fiction.

When those older writers could not find publishers at home to publish their work, some of them left Canada to make a name for themselves, others created new publishing houses of their own, and yet others worked in quiet obscurity until an enterprising impresario or publisher recognized their talent. When it came to CanLit, everything remained to be done when Gallant and Richler, Munro and Atwood were emerging as writers. Working with book and magazine publishers, literary journalists, booksellers, librarians, and eventually festival directors, they succeeded in creating a readership for their work.

In many ways things are easier today. Neither Edugyan nor de Witt had to create the publishing house that would publish their work, nor did they have to create publications to review it, associations to defend their interests, events to showcase their work, prizes to cover it in glory, or a public interested in reading it.

In other ways things, things are harder today, mostly because there are so many writers of all stripes and all ages wanting a share of the literary pie. The importance of literary prizes has increased, too. That has a lot to do with the fact that the number of book reviews has decreased, so that winning a prize is the only way some writers can have any impact at all. There are fewer and fewer alternatives, offering less and less space for book reviews. Books that don’t make it on to the shortlists – and benefit from that kind of publicity – simply disappear from bookstore shelves.

Another consideration is that Chapters Indigo has reduced (to a mere 45 days) the length of time a book may remain on their shelves before it is returned. This reduces the likelihood that your book will be available in the store if and when a review ever does appear. This is a shortsighted move even for the bookseller, as it will encourage even more book buyers to go online. For the writer and his publisher, it’s murder. It also further increases the importance of prizes, award-winning books being more likely to remain on the shelves.

All the more reason for envy of the chosen few. Which brings us to the spurned writer.

Writers love literary awards when they win them, and they hate them when they don’t. In general, writers are more likely to wonder what could have possessed a jury to choose that particular title than to cheer when then the winner is announced. This is especially the case of writers who had a book of their own in the running. Awards organizers, who know a bit about sour grapes, just roll their eyes.

Complaints cannot always be discounted, though. Sometimes the grapes are indeed sour, and if sour grapes have made it into the bottle you are served at dinner, you’re right to send it back. Writers muttered about the Giller Prize for years, with so many winners living close to downtown Toronto. The fact that the Giller has finally emerged from its Toronto cocoon is a direct result of complaints from writers who felt excluded from this charmed circle.

Writers mutter about rigged juries and biased jurors, too, sometimes unfairly, but not always unfairly. Being a juror is an underpaid and in many ways a thankless job, with the result that juries are not always ideally diverse. There are jurors who keep their personal animosity for a writer to themselves. They quietly set that writer’s work aside so it never even gets within hailing distance of a shortlist. Other jurors keep their love for a writer to themselves, which doesn’t help either.

There can seem no end, in other words, to the sheer bloody unfairness of it all. When your book doesn’t even make it to the long list of some prestigious award, it can be tempting to think that awards are just a lottery.

And it’s true that luck plays a role a role in literary success. It isn’t always possible to know how big a role that is. The process cannot just be a lottery, though when a book is nominated for three or four major awards with entirely different juries. That is the case with both Edugyan and de Witt. There are honest juries, and there are deserving books. Everyone knows that, except for writers who feel spurned.

© Linda Leith

This piece appeared in slightly different form in Montreal Serai on 29 December 2011.

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