By Steven W. Beattie
Anti-colonialism. Body image. Rape culture. Political and religious persecution. The 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury announced its agenda resoundingly with its robust, six-title shortlist. The books that made the cut (Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl; Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates; Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder; Lazer Lederhendler’s translation of Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall; Madeleine Thien’s winning title, Do Not Say We Have Nothing; and Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People) were by and large focused more on moral probity and thematic seriousness than literary innovation or technique. They elevated content above style. As NOW Magazine’s Susan G. Cole put it at the time, they were “books dealing pointedly with social issues” rather than being concerned with “literary virtuosity.” And they were noticeably short on humour. The exception was Barwin, whose book was stylistically innovative and—somewhat remarkable for a Canadian literary award contender—very funny. You’ll note it did not win.
Compare this list to the five-book shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. That group featured a philosophically rich, technically audacious literary triptych (Michael Helm’s After James); a suite of minimalist short stories that managed somehow to be both thematically rich and stylistically austere (Kerry Lee Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush); and an historical novel about a terrorist cell in French Indochina, complete with touches of magical realism (Yasuko Thanh’s Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, which went on to take the prize). The remaining pair—Anosh Irani’s The Parcel and Katherena Vermette’s The Break—comprised works of naturalism that could broadly be conceived as “issues books,” but they were also notably strong on the level of prose style.
That two separate juries could come up with shortlists so divergent, and so obviously focused on different priorities, is remarkable on its face, and points to a persistent quandary involving the role and function of literary prizes in this country. Should they serve to spotlight books that are useful for the betterment of society, as the Giller jury appeared to suppose, or should they focus more on literary craft, à la jury of the Writers’ Trust? (It should be noted that these two respective shortlists cleaved fairly close to form for the two prizes: the Giller has always been more conservative, with certain exceptional years (see, e.g., 2002, 2006, 2011 and especially 2015), while the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize has tended to take more chances, and consequently to produce more interesting shortlists.)
None of this would matter were these awards not typically considered arbiters of what is best in Canadian literature, or if they were not so important in determining which titles become successes and which fade into obscurity. In our current literary culture, a lazy, nepotistic or agenda-driven prize jury can effectively tilt the balance of literary taste, a pernicious by-product of an environment in which literary culture and prize culture are conflated.
That such a conflation exists should be self-evident. In Canada each fall, the literary corners of social media are barraged with incandescently effusive blog posts, tweets and status updates fawning over the shortlists for marquee prizes. It doesn’t matter how many of these books the various commentators have actually read, let alone enjoyed or admired; the mere fact that they appear on a shortlist is cause for vocal celebration in order to avoid expulsion from the inner circles of online literary conversation. This mentality is driven by canny promotion on the part of the prizes themselves, which have been successful in positioning the various awards as signal markers of literary achievement, whether or not this is actually the case. (And, let’s face it: quite often it is not.) Media outlets, meanwhile, participate in a promotional feedback loop because prize shortlists generate content to throw up online or fill the ravenous maw of an endless, 24-hour news cycle. And publishers, in constant competition to attract and keep readers’ attention (and, more importantly, their money), recognize a golden marketing opportunity in the prospect of having an award-winning book to tout over the crucial holiday selling season. The vaunted Giller Effect is real, though it usually blesses only the winning title, not the other shortlisted books. (The so-called Canada Reads Effect, by contrast, appears more democratic in this respect.)
What results from this scenario is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: publishers realize that prize winners drive purchasing decisions, and this realization exerts influence on the acquisitions process. Books that can reasonably be expected to win favour with prize juries will argue more persuasively for publication than those—debut fiction, for example, or works that push the boundaries of convention or subject matter—that can’t. This will inevitably result in the publication of books that fall into the category American critic Dwight Macdonald derisively identified as “midcult”: work that is easily accessible to a broad range of readers, makes few demands in terms of style or experimentation, and cues readers on how to feel at any given moment. A book that comes bundled with a readily digestible moral or social message will appear even more appealing.
The consequence of this mentality is an entrenchment of risk aversion and an adherence to the same tired formulas that have worked in the past. If editors at major houses are judged, at least in part, on how many of their books wind up on prize shortlists, there will be a natural curtailment of the chances those editors are inclined to take when acquiring new titles. And if editors fear for their jobs should their titles fall below a certain sales threshold, there is an additional incentive to play it safe and sign up the next Giller or Governor General’s winner posthaste. This impulse, whether consciously expressed or not, answers to money on the line, not to literary legerdemain or adventurousness.
As Dan Franklin, associate publisher of the U.K. house Jonathan Cape pointed out in The Guardian, it is no accident that the increase in importance placed on literary prizes coincided with a shrinkage in the space devoted to reviews and other book coverage in newspapers and magazines. For publishers, awards have rushed in to fill the marketing void created by the ongoing diminution of print coverage of books: award recognition is a mechanism by which to lob at least a few books over the transom of a reading audience whose attention is increasingly dispersed across an ever-larger number of channels.
The visibility is, however, a double-edged sword: it works for the relatively small number of titles that do manage to land on various important shortlists, but anything that doesn’t make the cut gets shuffled off to the side. Daniel Wells, the publisher of Biblioasis – a small press in Windsor, Ontario, that has had a measure of success with literary prize nominations in the past two years – told the National Post in 2012 that the attention focused on a handful of Giller nominees “sucks the oxygen out of the room” for everything else, including other titles on the frontlists of houses with nominated books. So, when the claim gets made that literary prizes are beneficial for books, that is true to a very limited extent, but they also have the effect of casting a whole raft of other, equally worthy titles, into the wilderness.
Which brings us back to the question of what kinds of books get singled out for prize recognition. Much of this, of course, will depend on the biases of the individual prize jurors, and every award is to some degree a product of compromise among a group of three or five people who can reasonably be expected to have different sensibilities and priorities. The very notion of choosing the “best” work in any given area is chimerical, since every evaluation will necessarily be partial. Different awards have different submissions criteria, and publishers choose what to submit and what to withhold. Since no reader is privy to the totality of what gets released in a given year, deciding what is “best” overall is impossible. Even if it were feasible, such a determination would require a superhuman level of objectivity, not to mention a commonly agreed upon set of standards by which to judge the literary merit of a piece of writing. None of this is remotely realistic, let alone achievable.
That being said, it would be salutary if juries would pay more frequent attention to the literary quality of work under consideration as opposed to its social relevance or its assumed place in a tradition of writers and writing. This is not to argue that award-worthy writing need be self-consciously abstruse or deliberately alienating: there is no necessary distinction between technical accomplishment and readability. But Cole’s conception of “literary virtuosity” seems a good place to begin. If nothing else, using this as a starting point would help mitigate the notion that a book needs to be good for you in order for it to be considered simply good.