Literary prizes and the weather: the current conditions

October 1, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

Shortlists for Canadian literary awards have a great deal in common with the meteorological quip frequently attributed to Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” Or so John Barber suggests in today’s Globe and Mail:

If you don’t like one list, have another: The best in Canadian fiction became very much a matter of opinion Wednesday with the announcement of the finalists for the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, given in honour of “the year’s best novel or short-story collection.”

Those five finalists, in case you missed them, are:

  • Nicole Brossard, Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, trans., Fences in Breathing
  • Douglas Coupland, Generation A
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean
  • Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness
  • Andrew Steinmetz, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre

(There were also nominations in non-fiction and short-story categories, but for our immediate purposes, let’s focus on the fiction list. The complete Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees can be found here.)

Barber points out that only Annabel Lyon is on both this list and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, announced last week. For two prizes that claim to recognize “the year’s best” book of fiction, the discrepancy seems notable. (Yr. humble correspondent will here acknowledge that had Alice Munro not withdrawn her book from consideration for the Giller, it would likely have appeared on that list as well.) What explains these differences?

First off, it’s important to dispense with the notion that these prizes have anything to do with what’s “best,” as if such a metric could be agreed upon in the first place. It’s all well and good for a prize administrator to instruct a jury to consider matters of “literary merit,” but this guideline is so slippery as to be practically useless. Everybody seems to agree that Munro’s work has literary merit, but beyond that there is little consensus about what precisely the term means. (Even Margaret Atwood is not immune to this opacity, having found herself shut out of the Rogers Writers’ Trust list for her new novel, The Year of the Flood.) Does it involve fidelity to a particular fictional voice? Carefully drawn characters? A reckoning with landscape and geography? The use of innovative technique or structure? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is: yes. And no. Where one person may insist on the prevalence of an individual voice in a book, another will gravitate toward detailed descriptions of setting. One person’s literary masterpiece might be another person’s cure for insomnia. In the final analysis, literary merit is always in the eye of the beholder.

The easiest, most obvious explanation for the divergence in the two awards’ nominees is to be found in the make-up of their respective juries. It’s axiomatic that when you pick a jury for a literary award, you pick a winner, but it’s often not acknowledged just how true that is. The jury for the Giller is made up of Alistair MacLeod, Russell Banks, and Victoria Glendinning. The Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction jury is comprised of R.M. Vaughan, Marina Endicott, and Miriam Toews. The first thing one will note about the latter jury is that it is on average about 20 years younger than the former. Where literary sensibilities are concerned, 20 years is roughly equivalent to the difference between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The genders of the juries are also exactly reversed: two men and one woman in the first instance, two women and one man in the second. (Anyone who believes this is unimportant should canvass their literary female acquaintances about the merits of, say, Philip Roth. Then do the same for Bonnie Burnard among the men.)* Finally, the Giller jury is composed of people who have either written, or are known to favour, works of historical fiction. The Rogers Writers’ Trust jury, by contrast, is composed of writers whose work sticks fairly rigorously to contemporary settings.

Although these factors may influence the selection process, a three-person literary jury is predicated upon compromise. Because a truly important book – one that stands so far above the crowd that it immediately announces itself as a towering, enduring work – appears once every ten years or so (if we’re lucky), it is rare to find a jury composed of three members who will be in instant agreement as to what the best book in a given field is. (This does happen, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule.) More common is a situation in which each juror has a different favourite, which will usually be anathema to at least one other juror. In such a case, the compromise second (or even third) choice, which not all jurors are equally devoted to, but with which they can all live comfortably, will emerge as the eventual winner. This is simple group dynamics, but because people in the media and elsewhere are so devoted to the fiction of the “best” books getting recognized (a fiction, I have no doubt, that prevails even among certain prize juries themselves), it’s often glossed over in discussions about literary awards.

Here in Canada, it’s possible to argue that too much attention is paid to the whole business of doling out prizes for books. Literature is not, or should not be, a competition, after all, and the sheer number of prizes that proliferate in this country – from the big names like the Giller and the Governor General’s, to more specialized prizes such as the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature or the Canadian Nautical Research Society’s Keith Matthews Award for Best Book (and no, I’m not making those up) – can often make it seem as though not winning an award is more common than winning one. The annual Giller gala at the Four Seasons Hotel, meanwhile, is a big, media-friendly event that is only tangentially about literature: look around the room at the assembled guests in any given year, and you’re likely to see more television personalities and business people in attendance than actual writers (or – God forbid! – critics). And in almost every case, the winning book will come down to a matter of taste rather than an objective critical assessment.

The good news is, if you don’t share a particular jury’s taste, just wait few minutes: there’s another one right around the corner.

*And, yes, I am aware that it was the male-dominated jury that came up with a longlist of 12 books, 10 of which were written by women. I’m talking more about literary sensibilities here than a one-to-one correlation between the gender of juries and the gender of the resulting long/shortlists. Moreover, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that any attempt to outguess a literary jury is futile: although one can observe general trends, in the specific instance, there are often unaccountable surprises.

Comments

4 Responses to “Literary prizes and the weather: the current conditions”
  1. Finn Harvor says:

    “… [A] truly important book – one that stands so far above the crowd that it immediately announces itself as a towering, enduring work – appears once every ten years or so (if we’re lucky)…”

    Examples?

  2. Andrew S says:

    Bearing in mind that to pick a jury is to pick a winner, I wonder how the jury affects the publishers’ decision re which books to nominate?

    Considering the Great Glendinning Kerfuffle, annual complaints about gender parity, the complaint that A Certain Kind Of Book always wins, etc., it’s always struck me that you can’t really be certain of anything unless you know what was nominated. Yet nobody ever talks about that angle.

  3. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Finn:

    Gravity’s Rainbow? Midnight’s Children? American Pastoral?

    I’m trying to think of any potential Canadian examples. I dunno … The English Patient?

  4. Sometimes the work of towering achievement passes unperceived. Probably the best memoir/novel I’ve ever read is Ann Charney’s Dobryd, published in 1973, but it has never received the attention it deserves.