Thursday, March 14, 2013
The fiction at the core of literary awards
An interesting piece by author Madeleine Thien in the National Post online in which she talks about her reasons from recently resigning from the jury of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. The proliferation of literary awards in the last couple of decades is undeniable. Having your novel appear on an award shortlist is important for a variety of reasons. To the author it means validation. To the publisher it means additional publicity and attention. To the industry it means potentially increased sales. To the reader it distinguishes a handful of books worth reading from the thousands published every year. The industry needs awards. And as self-published books proliferate in the digital world, they will mean even more to the book-buying public. And yet authors and publishers know how idiosyncratic the nature of awards is. They are clearly hit and miss, as much an expression of the personal tastes and preferences of individual jury members as a recognition of enduring quality. Thien, I think, makes a valuable point when she argues that at the very least the system should not be so opaque. Yes, awards are here to stay. And they owe it to readers who rely on them for their book-reading recommendations to be as open as possible about the selection process. The reality is that it is humanly impossible for a juror of any of the major awards (the ones that every author and publisher wants to win) to meaningfully wade through the scores of novels submitted every year. If, for example, 150 novels are submitted (not unsusual) for a certain prize, that would require each juror to read more than twelve novels per month, if given a year to do it, which is rare. Most jurors have day jobs. I don't know about you, but I'd have to be reading eight hours a day five days a week to cover that territory. Forget about feeding the wife and kids. Therefore, a vetting process must take place, and Thien is arguing that the prize administrators should be open about it. The Amazon.ca First Novel Award, which she won in 2006, comes in for particular criticism from Thien. It is a uniquely important award because is recognizes first-time novelists, is backed by a major book retailer with resources, and is that much more meaningful for authors seeking validation at the very outset of their careers. In the past, when the prize was administered by Books In Canada, the now-defunct literary publication, it was quite transparent about their vetting process. The year that my novel was a finalist (2005) was the last year novelist WP Kinsella chose the finalists. Kinsella was the first novels reviewer for BiC, and arguably no one in the country read more first novels than he did. Still, his tastes were undeniably idiosyncratic. And it struck me as comical to watch the jurors charged with choosing a winner attempt to grapple (comprehend) with Kinsella's eclectic selection. Did the prize recognize the best debut novels of the year? Probably not. Were many worthy books overlooked? Of course. To my mind any vetting process is as good (or bad) as any other. Everyone knows that awards are a crapshoot. For those of us lucky enough - it's mostly about luck - this kind of acknowledgement provides an important boost. In my case, it meant a lot just to know that someone of the stature of WP Kinsella liked my book. The cloaked secrecy of some prizes (The Giller, for example), as Thien points out, in an effort to protect some fictitious image of objectivity is at best nonsense and at worst, a lie. These awards mean too much, in spite of themselves, to be so opaque and disengenious. They owe it to the reading public to be as open as possible. They should trust the public to decide how valuable they really are when it comes to making book purchases.