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September 6, 2011

On the Giller Long-Long List

I wrote a post last winter called “Ephemeral, yet eternal” in which I celebrated the good-but-not-great book. I wrote: “That [such a book] didn’t win prizes is not to say that it’s not a worthy book, but that a worthy book didn’t win a prize is also not to say it was robbed. Prizes are not the sole determinate of worthiness. And I’ve been thinking of this lately, considering the number of books I read that are considered unrecognized because they’re not short or longlisted by Giller and the like. The notion of the “snub”, the entitlement behind that notion, as though everyone deserves to be a winner. As though prizes were handed out on an assembly line, when really sometimes it’s the books that seem to be produced that way, so can you really be surprised when yours isn’t a winner?”

This year, as part of their mandate of bringing the public closer to the judging process, the people at the Scotiabank Giller Prize published a list of all the books that were eligible for the award. I had a bad feeling about this immediately. “My book has been nominated for the Giller Prize!” was how the spin went on a few posts on my Twitter feed, and it made me squirm with embarrassment, because of course the books hadn’t been. Books were on that list because they’d been submitted by their publishers for consideration  they’d been published in Canada within the eligible time period for submission. (Thanks to AJ Somerset for his correction.) I’d read a few books on that list and some were terrible. Some others were the good-but-not-greats I’d been talking about earlier. One was a non-fiction book, and therefore not even eligible to be there in the first place, which goes to show how much screening had really gone into the submission process. (Some were wonderful books. A few of those have even made it to the longlist, which looks like a really interesting one.)

My problem with this is that there are 120-some writers who this morning were made to feel like they’d lost something. Now some of these writers might have felt this way anyway, but this time they were really set up to have done so. That they had their chances at the Giller Prize publicized, when some of them really never had that chance in the first place. To the others who did have the chance, I suppose, it’s just proved mainly a disappointing exercise, because I bet they didn’t get too many book sales out of the experience (except for those lucky writers whose names happened to start with A or B and showed up on the front of the website).

Awards-culture has its benefits, it does. I’ve discovered some wonderful books because of it, so many books have been sold on its coattails, and it’s a fantastic chance for unknown writers to take centre stage (Hello, much of the Giller shortlist from last year!). But the downside is that awards continue to be the standard by which success is gauged, even when those of us who’ve read widely know that, speaking critically, this is not really the case. Because a) terrible books win awards and b) really wonderful books don’t. This happens all the time.

And yet regardless, there is this assumption of entitlement. When a longlist is revealed, the first thing so many authors think is, “Why aren’t I up there?” An author who publishes a good-but-not-great book is made to feel like he has failed by not being nominated for prizes, even if that good book is a real harbinger of wonderful work to come. (And sometimes even when it isn’t.) Even if that good book has connected strongly with so many readers who are looking forward to see what he does next. (And sometimes even when it hasn’t.)

There aren’t enough prizes to go around. If there were, they would cease to be prizes. Very few books are truly extraordinary. And prizes are subjective, by the way. They matter, but they don’t matter. For sixteen writers, today is a wonderful day, but it really has no bearing on the status of any Canadian writer who is not among them on the Giller list.

PS: If I ruled the world (which would be a dictatorship, certainly), first books would be ineligible for book prizes…

12 thoughts on “On the Giller Long-Long List”

  1. You put that very well, Kerry.

  2. m says:

    This is very well said.

    The idea that the list of all the books that were put forward was published makes me uncomfortable, not because the individual authors wouldn’t know (I am quite certain they would have asked their publisher if they hadn’t been told whether or not that their book had been submitted) but that *everyone else* knows. I know they make the lists for the GG available, but there aren’t restrictions for the publishers with the GGs.

    I’m very curious to why you’d like first books to be ineligible for prizes. Perhaps a post? There are first books that have won or been shortlisted prized that I think were definitely worthy.

  3. Kerry says:

    Re. your last point, M. it’s because for the most part fifth books are so much better than first books and would make for a much more interesting list. I also like the idea of a first book as sort of a trial run for publishing, finding one’s feet. Also sets writers up for so much pressure to follow up. You’re right, there are definitely worthy first books (oh, how I love Light Lifting), but I think most first books (and their authors) arent ready for the scrutiny awards-nominations require. Anyway, there are exceptions. This was very much an unthoughtful statement…

  4. AJ Somerset says:

    Two things:

    First, a correction: the long long long list published by the Giller Prize was not a list of titles submitted by publishers. Publishers — meaning the big houses — do not want the list of submissions made public, because they can only submit three titles each, and they don’t want the guy who didn’t get submitted to get his nose out of joint.

    The Giller long long longlist was just a list of titles that were eligible to be submitted by dint of being published in Canada in the required time period — which made the spectacle of “ooh look I’m being considered for the Giller” all the more pathetic.

    Reference: http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/canlit-2011/#more-info

    Second, I’m not sure the spirit of your post is in line with your tacit suggestion that a book that is not nominated must be “good, but not great.”

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks for the correction, AJ. That changes things up a bit (but not entirely!). It also makes clear why a few books were on there in the first place…

      Also, didn’t mean to imply that books left off were always good books. Those that I’ve read ranged from brilliant to atrocious, and everything in between.

  5. steph says:

    Re first books: that’s a tricky one, isn’t it? There really are such fantastic first books out there, stunning, really. But your point, Kerry, about them perhaps not being ready for the scrutiny and status, is a good one. No matter how great your writing, or even how long you’ve been writing, or how old you are, if you’re winning this award for your first book, you’re green. Talent has little to do with emotional readiness.

    (Isn’t there an award for first books, anyway?)

    The whole awards thing is tricky to me, too, because, as you say, it’s all very subjective. I do think writers deserve to be recognized for their writerly achievements, but I wonder if this couldn’t happen in a less controversial way? So many great books are recognized for their greatness simply by readers sharing their positive experiences, which in turn ups sales and so on.

    This too is subjective (although good reviews will always at least explain why something was good or bad, what worked or didn’t), but at least it’s not in contest to the exclusion of others. Not that the issue is necessarily exclusion, but the question of why such and such a book won over another book people thought was more deserving always arises.

    1. Kerry says:

      Though they are interesting discussions, those of why certain books get chosen over others. I have these kinds of conversations all the time, and sometimes they do great things for expanding our understanding of a given book (ie a furious defense confirms our love, or a shortlisting makes us take a second look at a book we hadn’t properly appreciated). The problem really is how the authors themselves (and their careers) are so caught up in these award machines. I don’t think that does a lot of good for anyone, or our literary culture at large. Anyway, I do like awards, actually, but the long-long list thing, I am sure, really does contribute to make the process seem even more exclusionary than it really is.

  6. steph says:

    Thinking on this further, I find it kind of funny that we feel such a need to have awards, whether literary, for film or TV, etc., to exalt people over others and to be exalted.

  7. Laura says:

    My dad was in the habit of telling people my book was “up for the Giller.” Terribly misleading, but he didn’t care. My line: “It was an honour just being eligible.”

    As for the first book issue: that’s crazy! Maybe Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English will change your mind?

    1. Kerry says:

      Not with that bloody pigeon at the end, it wont 😉

  8. I haven’t obsessed about the Giller list for a few years now (since the year Charlotte Gill’s Ladykiller was nominated: great stories!) but I am in the mood to read it again this year.

    The random-ness of this kind of award does make me a little sad (for the reasons you’ve suggested), but it’s also one thing that I love about it because it takes me to books/authors I hadn’t noticed before and makes me read in new bookish directions.

    And it just so happens that I have a good chunk of reading time ahead of me this month… ::eyes reading lists::

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