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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.