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Pickle Me This

November 1, 2018

Why I Love Literary Prizes/ Why I Don’t Care About Literary Prizes

I couldn’t decide whether to call this post, “Why I Love Literary Prizes,” or, “Why I Don’t Care About Literary Prizes,” which one would garner the most outrage and clicks, and it says something about literary prizes that both perspectives are controversial. And they’re both true, in my case. I don’t care about literary prizes, which is why I love them. Although I’m not saying that if you gave me a literary prize I wouldn’t love them even more, of course—MY LITERARY PRIZE DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN…especially because I broke my phone and now it no longer types As or exclamation marks, and if you gave me a literary prize with cash value (or a gift certificate to Wind Mobile) I would be able to afford to buy a new one.

But in the meantime, I will tell you that I used to care deeply about literary prizes once, because as a reader they were my gateway into feeling like part of a wider literary community. I read that book that won the Giller Prize by the doctor who met Margaret Atwood on a cruise ship—Vincent Lam! Although I can’t remember what the title was. I also recall being ecstatic when Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air won the Giller Prize, because I really loved that book when I first read it. It felt good to be part of a thing that everyone else was doing, and to receive reading recommendations, because this was about ten years ago, which is when my bed wasn’t a mattress on top of a perilously toppling pile of books stacked onto infinity.

But then I started to become more defined as a reader, and have a deeper knowledge of “the CanLit scene” and started paying attention to things like small presses vs. big presses, which meant that literary prize culture started to seem annoying—because these books were supposed to be celebrating “the best,” but I wasn’t sure they were doing the greatest job of that. This was also before I discovered that “the best” is not a thing, and that tastes (and juries) are subjective. But before that discovery, prizes seemed frustrating and useless and occupied so much real-estate literary-coverage wise that I’d rather ignore them than pay attention, because I don’t get off on being angry for recreational purposes. If a book I liked won the Giller Prize (Hello, Hellgoing!), well then, hurray. But I was certainly not going to read a book just because it had a sticker on it, and definitely not if it was a book that I had no intention of reading in the the first place.

Another reason I went off literary prizes was because I’d have to listen to writers moan about not winning them, and also hear others declare that winning such prizes was “humbling” (which makes no sense whatsoever). The collective malaise that hits Canadian authorial communities on the days when shortlists are announced is even more annoying than a poet who reads for thirty-five minutes—it makes me want to all-caps scream, GET OVER YOURSELVES. Yes, you worked hard on your book, and yes, you would have wanted this success for your publisher who put all his faith in you and your book, and who wouldn’t want to win hundreds of thousands of dollars (or a Wind Mobile gift certificate, even). But I have wanted a great deal many things in my life that I never got, and so have you, and one upside to the downsides of being a woman is that we rarely ever feel entitled to anything, including the things we’ve earned, so your assumption that you belonged on a prize list is kind of weird to me and I just think you should stop it, and go out for a beer and cry with your best friend, and them move on with things. It’s going to be fine.

I am also an author of commercial fiction, which never gets nominated for literary prizes anyway, which makes the whole equation easier for me. Although I will admit that I was fully prepared to be UNEXPECTEDLY nominated for the Giller Prize last year for my SUBTLY BRILLIANT UNDERRATED BOOK, and I’d been practicing both feigning surprise AND being a dark horse, and when the call never came, all that practice was for nothing, but I am an author, so certainly that wasn’t my first disappointment. All of us in this area are nothing if not well-trained.

When I am not busy being a non-award-winning author with a broken phone (VERY GLAMOROUS), I am fortunate to earn a living as editor of the Canadian books website, 49thShelf, and it was through this role that my appreciation for literary prizes began to return—for practical reasons, mostly. Because it’s part of my job to switch up featured books and lists on our homepage every week, and it’s a task that’s very easy this time of year as prize lists and award winners are being announced by the day—just this week, The Taste Canada Prizes, the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards. List after list, some with the usual suspects, but others with titles readers might not have heard of yet. And while not all prize lists lead to a huge bump in sales, I still love the way these lists shine a spotlight on titles and place them in a broader literary context. I love anything that gives us a reason to talk about a book—to make a book news, to tell a bookish story, to get us a little more excited about books. The actual awards might not be hugely meaningful (apart from a few with big cash prizes and sales bumps), but the books themselves mean an awful lot, and anything that gives even a few readers the chance to discover that is perfectly fine with me.

4 thoughts on “Why I Love Literary Prizes/ Why I Don’t Care About Literary Prizes”

  1. Alexis says:

    I’m with you. I love to see some of the small, quieter books celebrated, and learn about new books. But I also see the problems. One prominent Albertan writer told me that the problem with the prize lists is that just a small number of books get celebrated and talked about, when really, that number should be a lot bigger. I happen to agree with him.

  2. Alexis says:

    Also, I have a question for you. How did you determine that what you write is commercial fiction?

    1. Kerry says:

      I don’t determine, but sales and marketing forces do!

  3. kate says:

    I love how much you love books. I truly do.

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