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Much ado about prizes

August 3, 2011 5 comments

When the CBC bought the broadcast rights to the Giller Prize, I joked that we would soon see the Giller decided by an online vote. It was one of those jokes one hesitates to make: too snide, uncalled for, adding insult to earlier insult without just cause. Yes, one hesitates — unless, of course, one is me, in which case one snickers and goes right ahead. And then, months later, one finds himself vindicated by the frankly baffling announcement that the public will indeed vote in this year to place one title on the Giller longlist.

Yes, I do have a problem with this. But first things first: before I can argue that vote-ins are a problem, we have to ask why we have prizes in the first place. What are prizes for?

Prizes are for selling books.

The Giller winner will move about 100,000 copies, in a bookselling environment where the average novel sells about 1000 copies, and a debut story collection may move only a few hundred. Most of those copies sell to people who may only read a few serious books each year; if the award did not exist, that money would not be spread over dozens of other titles, but would instead be spent on movie tickets, restaurant meals, or whatever else. Most of the books sold each year are sold just before Christmas, during the awards season, and prizes set the agenda. It is the prizes that define the national shopping list.

So prizes are a huge boon to booksellers, an annual golden egg squeezed out of a generous goose. Which books sell does not matter. Books, in the bookseller’s general ledger, are toothpaste; all that really matters is how much you squeeze out of the tube.

But prizes don’t serve anyone else tremendously well. Not publishers (especially small presses), who can’t count on winning; not writers, likewise; and certainly not the readers who, having received a copy of The Sentimentalists for Christmas, find themselves leaving two-star Amazon reviews. The fact that a book wins an award is no guarantee that you will like it, or indeed, that it has any great merit. “Winner of the Giller Prize” means, in reality, nothing more than the collision of three people’s reading tastes, with a certain amount of mud wrestling to follow. It is a terribly arbitrary way to make careers. The prize system, in short, sucks.

But its effects are not entirely pernicious. Prizes bring money to people who need it. Prizes turn unknown writers into reader favorites. They mainline injections of pure cash into the scrawny arms of lucky publishers, and they keep booksellers in business. It’s also worth noting that the people who run and organize prizes have the best intentions.

So prizes are a lousy way to sell books, but they are also the best way we have. We can’t hope for them to be perfect — but we can hope for them to be as fair as possible, and as valuable as possible to everyone involved.

Which leads to the problems with a vote-in system. An online vote is not a fair system, and it diminishes the value of the prize.

People tend to think of a vote as the fairest way of settling matters, but online voting is not voting. An online vote carries with it three problems:

  • it favours the politician, the writer or publisher who can use social media to build the biggest base of support. And that support may come from people who would not ordinarily pay any attention to the prize. Consider the organized (and successful) campaign to vote a graphic novel onto Canada Reads — a campaign that appealed to people who had never listened to the show, many of whom did not even live in Canada.
  • it favours the established writer. The writer with the most fans stands to win; the debut author will get votes from her mother, boyfriend, and cat. The established writer can rely on fans who haven’t even read her latest book. One of the most valuable functions of prizes — to launch the careers of new and unknown writers — is lost.
  • it favours the book with a cult following. This is the most damaging effect of online votes, and bears further examination.

The best example of a cult following making a mockery of literary merit is the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the century, which featured an editors’ list and a readers’ list, established by a public vote.

The editors’ list, predictably, featured the usual suspects: Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Under the Volcano. One would expect the readers’ list to veer more towards the commercially successful, the accessible, the book club favourite, with a smattering of genre; more Steinbeck, less Joyce, and some sci-fi. And indeed, Tolkien is there (as arguably he should be, having created an entire genre), as is Heinlein, and Nevil Shute, and Stephen King. This is all good and well; all we have here is a collision of different standards of merit.

But something strange is going on in the top 10: four novels by the noxious Ayn Rand, and two by L. Ron Hubbard. Both writers take “cult following” to a new level. And clearly, their cult members stuffed the ballot boxes.

Canada Reads also saw this phenomenon at work: Terry Fallis’s The Best Laid Plans, a book so badly written that I would have rejected it in its published form, made it to the top 10 not on its own merits but because its Cinderella metastory — rejected by all the big houses, self-published book wins Major Literary Prize (the Leacock grows in significance in the retelling), is picked up by Idiot Editors who passed it over and achieves greatness! — appeals to that large constituency of people who complain that we need to embrace the new world order and be done with the gatekeepers.

Will this ruin the Giller Prize? Well, not really. Let’s remember that we are talking about only one title on the longlist, with no prospect of getting to the shortlist unless the jury chose it, too. But I am not pleased by the prospect of one spot on that longlist — one resume-padding “longlisted for the Giller Prize” — being taken from some deserving book from a debut author and given to whoever can organize an online vote.

It is notable that the public can’t vote for the winner, or the shortlist, or even for the entire longlist. The prize organizers themselves recognize that this is a lousy way to choose a longlist title. But they have gone ahead and done it — egged on, no doubt, by nasty little creatures at the CBC who measure merit in page hits — in the interest of publicity. It’s silly, and it’s unnecessary. Publicity is the one thing that the Giller Prize doesn’t lack.

In which I shoot at certain marine mammals

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I was looking forward to reading Jeet Heer’s Walrus piece, “The Life Raft,” regarding Canada Reads and the general mess that is CanLit’s lottery economy. In fact, I intended to read it on my flight down to Dartmouth, where now I languish, but did not. Instead of buying a copy of The Walrus, I re-read The Bushwhacked Piano, which I think would always be a sound decision. But now, the magazine has put the thing online and put me into my misery.

I am immoderately disappointed. Jeet Heer is a smart guy and a sharp writer, but not this time.

Let us not dwell too long on the word “middlebrow,” which he uses more times than I care to count; suffice to say that I feel this word is too often substituted for argument. It is easy to sneer at something once you have slapped that label on it, but the fact is that the number of things that cannot be called “middlebrow” is vanishingly small. The word is therefore meaningless, and henceforth I intend to discourage its use by carrying an electric cattle prod at all times and administering a corrective jolt to the sorry ass of any person who I catch using it. You have been warned.

More disappointing is Heer’s surprising claim that what is most deplorable about Canada Reads is its exclusion of short stories and poetry – and especially, he soon makes clear, of short stories.

But rather than rant about Standard CanLit Complaint #4 (Short Stories Get No Respect)* let me simply propose this thought experiment: if, next year, Canada Reads picks Wilderness Tips, Friend of My Youth, Play the Monster Blind, Blackouts and What Boys Like, will all be forgiven? Will Canada Reads suddenly cease to be “middlebrow?” Will the boom-or-bust “Canada Reads effect” and its pernicious effects cease to exist?

Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence by discussing that any further.

Heer neatly labels the big problem with Canada Reads as our “lottery economy”: the few books that get a Canada Reads nod sell like hotcakes. It is a career maker. And it makes careers by entirely arbitrary means. Without dwelling on this year’s vote-in process, we can simply say that the mere fact of a Canada Reads nod doesn’t guarantee that any given Canadian reader will like the book, or even that the book is good, but it does mean it will sell.

We see the same thing with the GGs, of course, and the Writers’ Trust awards, and most of all with the Giller Prize. The Sentimentalists is seeing a mixed reception from readers, he said diplomatically; this is partially because it is not everyone’s cup of overwrought tea, and partially because it is a structurally flawed, ill-conceived piece of shit. It is, however, the big book in Canadian literary fiction. This is because it won the prize that gives the most money. The prize where people are on TV. The prize that’s televised by the Globe & Mail’s sister network and, not coincidentally, pimped more extensively by the Globe than any other.

Yes, gentle reader, we really are that shallow. The problem here is not Canada Reads; it is Canada itself. For a supposedly literate nation, we’re simply not very good at talking about books. We prefer hype to engagement. And that’s a fault that including short stories and poetry will hardly correct.

_____

* which complaint, gentle reader, I reserve for future dissection

Categories: canada reads, canlit

Pavlov never predicted this

November 1, 2010 Leave a comment

So I came downstairs from the office and the kids were playing with the dog.

My daughter has a bad habit of showing a treat to the dog before giving a command. Consequently, the dog will do anything for her — just as long as she’s holding a treat.

She held out the treat and gave the dog a series of progressively more ridiculous commands. Sit. Lie down. Sit. Shake a paw. Lie down. Roll over. Play dead.

Still no treat.

The dog turned to me with a look in its eyes that was almost human. A look of supplication.

And I knew exactly what the dog was thinking: “What the fuck is this? Canada Reads?”

Categories: canada reads

In which I discuss Thomas McGuane, etc.

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I was a “special guest” (I do love being called special) on the Enthusiasticast podcast recently, where I talked about Thomas McGuane’s novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade. I also talked about my other favourite subject: my book.

Other than McGuane, the discussion ranged over James Nachtwey and Don McCullin, the effects of embedded journalism, Tim Hetherington’s recent Infidel, and black humour in novels.

Elsewhere, I recently griped about Canada Reads and its efforts to become as boring as humanly possible. They called me special, too: “special to the National Post.” Well, it’s nice to be special to somebody.

Canada re-reads, rehashed

December 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Because my two cents are just essential. Right?

I don’t entirely agree that the Canada Reads books should all be new; there’s nothing wrong with dredging up something from the vault and suggesting people read it. And I’m not sure that everyone in Canada has read Generation X and Fall on Your Knees; the four or five people who haven’t will certainly benefit from this exercise.

I’m just going to say this: there are two ways to make talking about Canlit obnoxious. The first is to pursue some kind of nationalist/regionalist project that attempts to define Canlit on nationalist grounds, and exclude what doesn’t fit as insufficiently Canadian. The second is to use badges of merit from outside Canada to validate Canadian writing, because we should be past that by now.

I think the presence of an Oprah pick and of Generation X on the Canada Reads list this year can be seen as a case of the latter. Maybe.

What I’d really like to know is, how does the selection process work?

Categories: canada reads, canlit
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