The doling out of book prizes is an entirely subjective, publicity-seeking, money-making operation that doesn’t openly debate excellence, but just assigns it arbitrarily.
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said … In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
The awarding of literary prizes is a mug’s game. I once knew a young writer whose first book was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in Fiction. It didn’t win, but for a long time after that he expected everything he published to be short-listed for this award and/or the Giller Prize, and certainly to win one or both of them. As the years passed, he became more and more disappointed at the failure of juries to recognize his talents. Now we learn that another writer, Howard Jacobson, the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, has felt bitterness because none of his works had won previously. If you give it, they will come, but they won’t always be happy when they arrive, let alone when they just get close.
Nonetheless, let’s consider this year’s slate of final nominees in the three major Canadian fiction prizes – the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust. Of the 15 writers in total, only Kathleen Winter turns up on all three lists. Emma Donoghue, whose novel Room was short-listed for the U.K.’s internationally prestigious Man Booker, is on the GG and Rogers lists, but not the Giller. How do you make what most would argue is the top literary short list of the English language but not that of your own country? How can the nine judges of three major literary awards choose 12 different books for their short lists? And what does it mean when three different books win the big prizes, or two different books, or one book (only Winter’s Annabel has a chance this year)?
The answer to all the above questions is obvious: the selection process for such short lists addresses a general literary merit that excludes much more quality than it can possibly include, while the choice of a winner for a specific prize has less to do with the outstanding distinction of one book than with the judges’ ultimate negotiations, which inevitably run along lines of personal taste. To emphasize all this, there’s a Shadow Giller Jury that announces its own winners just before the “real” show.
If it’s a good idea to have three different juries come up with three different short lists and for each jury to choose a winner, why not have a super winner or winners – the book or books that make the greatest number of short lists? After all, isn’t there a difference between three judges choosing a book for their list of five and nine judges putting the same book on three different lists of five? If there is no difference, then it doesn’t matter a bit that Donoghue’s appearance on that esteemed Man Booker list at the behest of five British judges is backed up by the six Canadian judges of the GG and Rogers Awards. If each list is simply an independent gathering together of good books that has nothing in common with other good-book gatherings, then let’s call literary award-giving what it is – an entirely subjective, publicity-seeking, money-making operation (especially and understandably for financially-strapped publishers) that doesn’t openly debate excellence, just assigns it arbitrarily (Canada Reads might be an exception here). The more nominees and winners there are, the more book and other sales there are – it’s the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, after all. Look for it one day: the Home Hardware Governor General’s Award.
While we’re on the topic of juries, there’s the interesting issue of why the most recent, five-person Man Booker jury contained only one established writer of fiction, while the 2010 Giller jury has two such fiction writers, but neither is Canadian (apparently it’s OK since the third, radio-broadcaster judge is a Canuck?). If it’s because we’re all readers capable of judging the very best, regardless of our genre expertise and preferences or a work’s national affiliation, then why have prizes based entirely on genre and such affiliation? Is it enough to read a lot of fiction and equally enough to be a “virgin” in matters of Canadian literature, as Giller judge Victoria Glendinning admitted last year? Jimi Hendrix certainly springs to mind: “But first, are you experienced?/Have you ever been experienced?” And why don’t fiction writers get to judge formal competitions in which the reputations of broadcasters are on the line? I know some writers who listen to a lot of radio.
Incidentally, despite his disappointments, that young writer I once knew got to be a better and better novelist as the years went by. The prize-winning seal of approval doesn’t make you a writer. For better or worse, it just makes you a reputation.
J.A. Wainwright’s first novel was short-listed for an international literary prize.