Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Keep Your Eye on the Many Values of the Prize

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By Becky Toyne

Last month at the International Festival of Authors, Eleanor Wachtel asked a panel of Deborah Eisenberg, Andrew O’Hagan, Margaret Drabble and Dionne Brand how important they thought literary prizes were today. “Too important,” they declared in unison, dismissing as a “childish notion” the “annual steeplechase” to add “award-winning” to one’s bio. (It should be noted that none had objected to being introduced with a slew of such adjectives themselves.)

Steering the discussion back to the event (a 20th anniversary celebration for Wachtel’s CBC Radio One show Writers & Company), O’Hagan cited the importance of nurturing an ongoing, organic conversation around books and literature, rather than going for one quick injection and moving on. He’s right of course. We do need that conversation — of which shows such as Writers & Co. and The Next Chapter, review sections, and indeed this website are a major part — but I think it’s wrong to frame a criticism of literary awards purely in these terms. How is all this organic conversation to thrive when its allotment of land grows smaller and less fertile every year?

Squidged in a corridor with Brand and Drabble immediately after the IFOA event, I outed myself as the now-scorned publicist for a collection of major literary awards. How could it be considered a bad thing, I asked, that almost a full year after publication, Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists had just been reviewed in the Globe and Mail precisely because it had been shortlisted for an award? They were not to be swayed. More lead stories, fewer laurels, they said.

Oh had we but reviews enough and time. With few exceptions (the Wall Street Journal caused a flurry in September by announcing it was creating a stand-alone books section), review coverage is being squeezed into ever-fewer pages. An artsy sliver of The New York Times with your Sunday Star this month is a treat to read, but it remains to be seen how it will impact the Star’s indigenous books coverage in the long term. I’m all for the organic discussion about books, but I also believe that literary awards — and festivals too — are rich fertilizer for the ground from which it sprouts. As I wrote recently in this column, award nominations drive the conversation for books that might not otherwise have made their Who-ville voices heard. You couldn’t ask for a better example than this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize (though Skibsrud’s win does raise other questions about the potential blessings of award recognition).

It’s true that, to the general book-buying public, the number of awards out there can be befuddling to the point of meaninglessness, and publishers don’t help by being over-eager to slap a badge on a book at the slightest sniff of a prize. As a bookseller I know that telling somebody a novel is award-winning by no means guarantees a sale. And why should it? An ad taken out to congratulate an author on their longlisting for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (common in Canada, though I’ve never seen it done in the UK) essentially has no more meaning than would an ad congratulating a book for having been submitted for consideration to the Giller (the two lists would number around 160 and 100 books respectively). But the IMPAC boasts the biggest single purse in literature, so even if doing so is misleading, publishers want to shout about it — and authors certainly want to win it.

This purse, however bulging or modest, represents a second component of the quick injection administered by an award. National and provincial granting programmes are a lifeline for many authors — the catalyst for Yann Martel’s What is Stephen Harper Reading campaign was the lack of governmental commitment to arts funding without which, he says, he could never have completed his first novel (or gone on to become such a healthy payer of income tax). It’s pretty hard to generate publicity around the awarding of a grant though. Wrap the money up in a package that includes media attention and not only do you generate sales, you also entice private-sector donors to stump up the cash.

In the week following the Writers & Co. IFOA event, I heard Wachtel’s question echoed a number of times. Vit Wagner picked up on it in a Toronto Star piece two days later, pointing out that “writers, many of whom are happy to sit on book juries, are not always the most reliable judges of the phenomenon itself.” When asked by an audience member at another IFOA event what was the role played by literary prizes, Robert McCrum replied, “Prizes have replaced reviews.” I don’t disagree. I also wonder if perhaps the reason this question was on the asker’s mind was that books nominated for awards had been so much in the news that week. See what the awards did there? They acted as the seed of a conversation.

After our brief verbal tussle backstage at IFOA, Dionne Brand, Margaret Drabble and I shared a cab to the CBC party and then went our separate ways. My defence of literary awards on pause for a moment while I concentrated on a new but no less worthy mission (it involved note passing), I got talking to Dan Rhodes, a British author appearing at the festival with his seventh book. He asked whether Margaret Drabble was at the party and, if so, could I point her out. Why was he so keen to find her? To thank her, he said. She’d recently been part of the committee that gave him the E.M. Forster Award. For the recognition, and for the money which allowed him to continue to write, he was grateful. Not a childish notion after all then.

Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist based in Toronto. Since embarking on a career in publishing in 2002, she has worked as an editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada; as a bookseller, event planner and publicist for Toronto’s Type Books; and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors and Authors at Harbourfront Centre. She is a member of the communications committee for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and the publicist for the 2010 Writers' Trust Awards. She tweets about life in book land as @MsRebeccs.

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