Everyone's a winner
Few countries honour their authors as exhaustively as Canada. But, with another nerve-racking awards season upon us, Mark Medley wonders: Does the infatuation help or hurt hopeful writers?
On Monday, the first-ever winners of the $25,000 Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing will be announced at a ceremony at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. While Canada's newest literary award shares similarities with many of the country's other literary honours, the prize – which is administered by Cardus, a Christian think tank – is devoted to "faith-themed writing," making it one of only a few non-secular writing prizes of note in the country.
"I think the prize really does occupy a new space for literary culture in Canada," says Randy Boyagoda, a novelist who is also principal of the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College, and who is serving on the jury alongside the likes of parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke. "If nothing else, it identifies new literary voices for our country that might not otherwise be heard. That strikes me as a good thing."
But can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to literary prizes?
We're currently in the middle of CanLit's annual awards season, a (roughly) two-month period of industry anxiety and exhilaration that can not only make or break a book, but, in some cases, a writer's career.
The winners of the Governor-General's Literary Awards – 14 prizes spanning seven categories in both official languages – will be revealed on Wednesday. Less than two weeks later, on Nov. 14, the recipients of the Writers' Trust Awards – seven prizes totalling more than $250,000 – will be declared. Finally, the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize – who takes home $100,000 – will be announced Nov. 20. This represents but a fraction of the country's literary awards.
Earlier this week, the finalists for the $75,000 (U.S.) Cundill History Prize – administered by McGill University, it is celebrating its 10th anniversary – were revealed; the winner will be announced Nov. 16.
There's the $40,000 British Columbia National Award for Non-Fiction (its long list will be revealed on Wednesday) and the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize, another major non-fiction award whose long list comes out Dec. 6. The Writers' Trust of Canada administers three literary prizes in addition to those announced in November: the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, the $4,000 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers and the $10,000 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.
There's an award for best book on Canadian public policy (the $50,000 Donner Prize) and an award for best book related to international affairs (the $15,000 Lionel Gelber Prize). The $10,000 Lane Anderson Awards celebrate the best in science writing, while the $10,000 J.W. Dafoe Book Prize focuses on history. The $10,000 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction is reserved for an author's first or second book. There's also the $30,000 National Business Book Award.
Are you a children's-book or young-adult author? The TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards – with more than $135,000 awarded across eight categories – will be held on Nov. 21. When it comes to poetry, there's a whole range of awards, although the massive $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize dominates the landscape.
There are prizes for debuting and emerging writers, including the $40,000 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the $10,000 Danuta Gleed Literary Award (for a collection of short stories) and the $10,000 Kobo Emerging Writer Prizes. There's the $15,000 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, one of the country's oldest book prizes. There's the Arthur Ellis Awards, which recognize the best in crime writing, while if you happen to write science fiction or fantasy you have both the Sunburst Awards for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic and the Aurora Awards to choose from.
There are two competing prizes for cartoonists and graphic novelists: the Doug Wright Awards and the Joe Shuster Awards. The CBC also administers several literary awards. Then there's the ReLit Award, which celebrates the best book from an independent publisher; it doesn't carry a cash prize but winners receive an extremely cool ring. Even the American heiress Gloria Vanderbilt sponsors a pair of Canadian literary prizes: the two-pronged, $15,000 Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Competition.
There are city prizes and provincial prizes and regional prizes. There's not only the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards, but the Western Canada Jewish Book Awards and the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Writing. Some prizes are extremely specific, such as the Kobzar Literary Award, which "recognizes outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts through presentation of a Ukrainian-Canadian theme with literary merit."
It seems it is only a matter of time before there is an award for the best award – as if no Canadian author or publishing house should be left out in the cold.
"I think Canadian prizes still sort of work to prove that Canadian literature is worthy of notice," says Gillian Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in England who wrote the book on the subject of Canadian literary awards, 2011's Prizing Literature. She says there's a "colonial mentality that persists" in the Canadian industry, where authors and publishers are constantly wanting to prove themselves against their American and British counterparts.
Montreal author Sean Michaels, who won the Giller Prize in 2014 for his debut novel Us Conductors, thinks the Canadian industry's infatuation with prizes may be linked to the mid-nineties, when authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Carol Shields were garnering international awards such as the Booker and the Pulitzer.
"The idea of CanLit, as it evolved in the eighties and nineties, was very much tied up with prestige – international literary prestige. So I think Canada has created it's own cottage prestige industry as a response to that, to kind of recognize our own and keep that prestige-ness rolling," Michaels says.
And it continues to roll, with more prizes announced every year, such as the aforementioned Mitchell Prize and the new Indigenous Voices Award, which rose from the controversy surrounding calls for an "Appropriation Prize" earlier in the year.
In a decade spent covering Canada's literary scene, I've sometimes felt as if I've devoted more time to writing about prizes than writing about the books themselves.
The industry has come to "rely on them like a crutch," literary agent Samantha Haywood says, while the focus on prizes has only "gotten more pronounced" in recent years, says Alana Wilcox, editor-in-chief of Coach House Books, which published André Alexis's Giller Prize-winning novel Fifteen Dogs in 2015. "It's a vicious circle. The awards happen because they get media attention, and then the media attention happens because there are the awards."
For the majority of books, the only time they'll receive attention – beyond perhaps a review or two upon publication – is if they are fortunate enough to be nominated for a prize.
"I think to a large extent many of the prizes have evolved and tried to step up and fill a void of attention caused by the fact of declining book [media]," says veteran publisher Anne Collins of Penguin Random House Canada. "Prize culture has bloomed in the vacuum of the fact that we aren't paying the same kind of attention to … our writers."
"So much of the intense anxiety about prize culture is that there's just no other ways to have conversations about books," says the writer Catherine Bush, who also serves as the co-ordinator of the MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph. "It's not a sign of a healthy culture. It's a sign of an extremely anxious and insecure culture."
And literary prizes can help fuel that anxiety. The fall is arguably the most stressful time of year for authors and those who work in publishing, all of whom know that if a book doesn't make one of the short lists – especially in the case of literary fiction – it faces even steeper odds when it comes to finding a readership. And it's not only about the award itself – nominations lead to invitations from literary festivals, teaching gigs, speaking engagements and perhaps even secure an author their next book contract.
"I think people get grumpy about prize culture because sometimes it can seem, especially to a writer labouring away for five years to write a novel, that once the book comes out, if they don't hit a list then nobody's going to read them," Collins says. "There's relatively little glory for writers, so it can feel pretty dire if you've written a wonderful book and you haven't made any of the lists. There's so many prizes you think, 'Well, some jury, somewhere, should have noticed that I wrote a great book.'"
"As much pleasure as they bring, they also bring pain," says Haywood, the literary agent. "There's so many [prizes] that if, for some reason, you're not on one of those long lists or short lists … it's sort of a de facto failure. So they're having the opposite effect, in some ways."
Never mind that the financial effects tend to be overstated. With the exception of the Giller Prize and CBC's literary debate competition, Canada Reads, winning an award doesn't necessarily guarantee an author a place on the bestseller list. In many cases, an award is simply a glorified grant, providing a cheque and a nice boost of confidence to the author, but little else.
"So many of these prizes … it's just 'Here's the prize, here's some dough, and we'll give you a sticker to put on the book,'" says Patrick Crean, who edits his own imprint, Patrick Crean Editions, for HarperCollins Canada.
Still, they provide a "life raft" to writers, says Anne Collins, who notes that when she won the Governor-General's Literary Award for non-fiction in 1988, it allowed her to, literally, put a new roof over her head.
And they are only getting more lucrative. A little more than a decade ago, the winner of the Giller received $25,000; now it's $100,000. Until last year, the winner of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award received $10,000; now, he or she gets $40,000. And this year the winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize receives $50,000, twice as much as previous years. "More money tends to also bring more attention," concedes Mary Osborne, executive director of the Writers' Trust of Canada.
"Awards are clearly not just about symbolic capital any more," says Roberts, the professor. "There's also economic capital. Or this weird fusion of the two, where the increase in economic capital increases the symbolic capital of the award. It's like it's more culturally important because it gives more money. Why should that be the case?"
The criticisms levelled at prizes – from the argument that they promote a "winner-takes-all" mentality, to the concern that they cause the media to ignore the titles not shortlisted, to the worry they foster a homogeneous reading culture where everyone reads the same book and nothing else – are ones that organizers have heard over the years.
"I don't see [prizes] as having an adverse effect on writers or writing," says Elana Rabinovitch, the Giller's executive director. "Prizes are important because they shine a very big spotlight on writers that might otherwise not get noticed, and I think if that's the only thing they do then they've done their job."
In addition, prizes serve a valuable purpose for readers, Osborne of the Writers' Trust says.
"You go into a store and there are thousands of books," she says. "One of the things that can help you is just seeing a sticker on the book and thinking, 'Oh, somebody has recognized that as something worth reading.'"
Yet, it's the opinion of one particular group of jurors. For proof, look at the short lists for this year's three major fiction prizes, which feature 15 different books – the first time since the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize was founded that there's never been an author up for two or more of the prizes.
"I think a lot of readers are under the mistaken impression that prize juries are able to identify the single best, or five best, or 10 best, Canadian books, when really that whole question of 'best' is really dependent on taste," Michaels says. "Prizes really distort and give disproportionate focus and attention on books that did just happen to get a lucky role of the dice."
No one interviewed for this story – from authors to agents, editors to publishers – advocated dismantling the prize system. But neither did anyone have a solution.
"I think it's too bad that success depends on prizes," literary agent Denise Bukowski says. "But I don't think we have much of a choice right now."