Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Close Reading

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Close Reading

It’s that season again. Writers’ reputations and books’ futures are being decided, even as we emerge from our post-Christmas, gift-certificate haze. Yes, I know it’s months away from the big fall literary prizes — 2012’s winners have barely had time to look for the blip on their royalty statements and most of the books eligible for the 2013 prizes have yet to be released — but the likelihood of this book, over that book getting a prize nod is already starting to cement. That’s because those big prizes are busy assembling their juries right now.

Award organizations have different approaches to how and when they reveal their jury members. The Giller announces its star-studded panel of reader-judges with media releases and big pictures on its web site. Others, like the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, prefer not to introduce their deliberators until the winner is announced, presumably to avoid any enticements for the jury’s favour. But with many of the prizes limiting the number of submissions each publisher can make, keeping the jury secret is also a way to keep publishers from hedging their bets by submitting books tailored to the judges’ perceived tastes.

Because, let’s face it, there’s probably no such thing as a best book, there’s just a best book for a particular reader.

I’m a writer and an avid reader, married to a writer and an avid reader. We buy books, publishers send us books, friends give us books: reading is what we do. And if you peruse the shelves in our common spaces, you will have a sense of an eclectic collection, a wide variety of tastes and interests.

Until you get to our bedside tables. These micro collections represent two separate countries of taste and perceived quality. Only occasionally does a book cross the quilt to receive a warm reception on the opposite shore. Somewhere between the spill of my husband’s reading lamp and mine, there is an invisible shift, a Bermuda triangle that transforms perfect books into abominations, or at least brilliance into boredom.

Me: Hey, I thought you were reading that book I gave you.

He: I was, but I’m reading this one now.

Me: But what did you think?

He: I gave it 30 pages. If it doesn’t grab me in 30 pages, I don’t want to waste my time. I’ve got too many other books to read.

And vice versa.

Other readers in close, personal relationships often report the same phenomena. Kerry Cranston and Tracey Higgins are co-owners of the impeccably curated store Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, where visiting writers often linger after their readings, just to trawl the shelves and soak in the atmosphere. Kerry and Tracey are also sisters, with very different reading tastes. “Oh no, that’s a Tracey book,” Kerry laughs when I ask about a new title. “She loved it. And most books that Tracey loves are not books for me.”

Clelia Scala, who publishes Open Book, also reports a few blips when she compares some of her reading preferences to those of her partner, a writer and professor of English. Every summer, the couple exchange lists of six books they'd like each other to read. "We love a lot of the same books," Clelia says, "but there's usually a book or two on each of our lists that we can't bring ourselves to pick up or finish."

Luckily, book choices don’t have to be an indication of the health of the rest of the relationship, though there was a time in my teenage years when I pressed my then-favourite book, Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, on every potential boyfriend as if it were a glass slipper. Now, older, wiser and happier, I don’t take my husband’s list of favourite books as an indication of our potential as soulmates. And maybe this makes those unusual moments of total readers’ agreement sweeter, as happened last fall when I heard my husband laughing one night while he began The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. “Hey, you can’t love that book,” I said, “Because I love it!” But as I heard him exclaim over its excellence, its deadpan humour and subtle beauty, I got to enjoy the story all over again.

A few weeks later, we brought this small miracle up at a dinner party of writer and editor friends as evidence of the book’s power, the writer’s talent. “Really? The cowboys?” someone said. “Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t get it.”

Good, bad — never mind “the best” — is a shifting target. So pity the jurors, locked in a room with stale coffee (or, in some cases, debating over the phone, scribbling frantic defenses and arguments on notepads on desks on two or three continents) making a case for this book over that one, each hoping to win the others over to the book that speaks to him or her directly, that taps those particular sensibilities, laid in by years of reading, writing and life experience, as personal and arbitrary as a preference for red over green.

Authors of 2013 — eager with your stories, your biographies, your memoirs, your novels and novellas, waiting in the publishing cue to emerge in spring or summer or fall, aided by agents and publicists, marketing budgets shoestring or gilt-edged — your fate is already sealed. It’s possible that your perfect reader has just accepted a position on one of the juries for a major prize, and he or she will champion your book as the best thing to read this year, or any year, the book he or she would recommend to each and every friend and consumer. Lucky you. Or maybe that tale that you’ve been working on for three years or a decade will fail to capture the judges in those crucial early pages, maybe they’ll never get to page 300 and your astounding ending, and your book will be dumped unceremoniously on the pile of to-be-shipped-back, donated, forgotten.

But here’s the thing: anointed or unanointed, it’s waiting there, for just the right reader. Your book is someone’s favourite.

That’s what I think.

But maybe that’s just me.

Miranda Hill’s stories have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Reader’s Digest, The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review, and in 2011 she won The Writers’ Trust / McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic.” This story and eight others were published in her debut collection, Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012).

Hill is also the founder and executive director of the Canadian literary charity Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and works in Hamilton, Ontario.

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