Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What's in an award?


This is a favourite catch phrase in the book business. It's right up there along with 'critically acclaimed' and 'best-selling'. All are used so often as to lose the impact they are meant to have. Critically acclaimed by whom? Your Aunt Zelda? By the internet blogger who'd just discovered the greatest way to get new books? Best selling where? And by what criteria?

These phrases are meant not only to impress the reader but to help them to select, among the thousands of books in the store or online, those books that might be worth reading. 'Someone has judged this book better than all the others.' 'Millions of people have read this book, so it must be good.' Dubious yardsticks indeed.

Given the sheer volume of books now flooding the market, especially with the advent of alternative publishing models, some assistance in separating the wheat from the chaff is very helpful to readers. In the past, publishers themselves served this function; if the book was good enough to get published, it had passed the first filter. But today, with publishers squeezing their lists and opting for books that promise the most commercial success, excellent books are being rejected. And at the same time, authors both good and bad are opting to bypass the traditional publishing route altogether. Self-publishing has never been easier and more appealing. How to know which are worth at least a peek?

Enter the awards, the best seller lists, and the myriad of self-appointed peer reviewers. Of all these, awards are perhaps the most seductive. They have retained a degree of objectivity and respect that the others are losing by virtue of overuse and manipulation. An award is something. It means someone has singled out the book for excellence. However, not all awards are created equal, and the distinctions are often lost in the chorus of praise.

Some awards are juried, which means that a small group of experienced book people (usually 3 to 5) has read all the books submitted and has chosen the top five and the winner. The validity of the choice depends in part on the book actually having been submitted (there is often a cost involved, so some publishers don't submit every book), and on the the preferences of the jury. Having sat on these juries, I can say that whittling down the pile is easy but choosing the final five and especially the winner involves a lot of discussion and compromise. Rarely is the choice unanimous. But at least there is a process to evaluate quality. The Giller, the GGs, and the Arthur Ellis Awards are examples of these.

Other awards are voted on by fans - either those who attend a particular conference or read a particular magazine. Sometimes the vote is open to the general public. In all these cases, the results are strongly influenced by name recognition, and to some extent by the ability of the author to get out the vote. Appeals to nominate their book flood social media sites when such contests are being held. Authors who are less well known or less well connected have little chance of ending up on the list.

Some awards are a hybrid. They are voted on by members of a select group in the book industry, such as booksellers or librarians. In these cases, lesser known works will get noticed although name recognition and popularity play a role too.

There are those who think awards are inherently biased, or pit author against author, or reward the bland and less controversial. There are those who think literary excellence is so subjective that any hierarchy is arbitrary and meaningless, that art shouldn't be a contest. I suspect that the objectors have never sat on a jury or had their book nominated. Winning may be somewhat arbitrary, but being a finalist is an accomplishment.

Awards matter. Not just to readers trying to select good books but to the authors who are nominated. When my first book, Do or Die, didn't make the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel shortlist, I was disappointed and suffered through the usual self-doubts about my ability to write. I did not dismiss the list or the award as meaningless or biased, but instead asked myself how I could make my next book better. Competition is healthy. The next book did make the shortlist for Best Novel, and I subsequently went on to win two Best Novel Awards for later books. I have also have a number of other nominations for short stories and novellas.

Awards are an affirmation of our writing. In a profession where we spend much of our time in solitary confinement, solely responsible for the product we are making, awards are a thumbs-up that we have succeeded in our quest to tell a good story. Particularly when the awards are judged by either our fellow writers or by industry professionals, they are important validators. Not getting on a shortlist may mean nothing, but being a finalist does.

Why am I going on about awards right now? Because on November 12, I will be attending the Ottawa Book Awards ceremony at the Shenkman Arts Centre. The Whisper of Legends has been shortlisted for the fiction prize, and I am thrilled to pieces. In all the years I have been writing, and despite many excellent crime books being written by Ottawa writers, none of us has ever cracked this list before. It is a milestone of sorts, hopefully signalling the breaking down of barriers between mainstream and genre fiction to recognize that excellence crosses all lines. As does extremely bad writing.

In the literary world, awards can mean huge monetary prizes (the Giller is worth $100,000), a surge in sales, and the difference between a book succeeding or failing dismally in the marketplace. The prize money in genre fiction is almost non-existent, and the surge in sales is probably modest at best, at least here in Canada, but the validation to the author is priceless. I am honoured to be up for the Ottawa Book Award, and although I have my fingers crossed to win, the nomination is affirmation enough.


Rick Blechta said...

For those who don't know the Canadian literary scene, I thought a little clarification might be needed by those in other countries.

The Giller Prize could be thought of as this Canada's "Booker". "GG" refers to the annual literary awards in several categories given out by Canada's Governor General who is the Queen's representative to the government. The Arthur Ellis Awards are handed out every year by Crime Writers of Canada in a number of categories, and as noted, Barbara's very fine novels have been recognized twice by this award -- in back to back years, no less!

Sybil Johnson said...

Congrats on making the shortlist, Barbara!

Donis Casey said...

Congratulations, Barbara. I've always been an advocate of trying for awards, beyond the fact that it looks very good when you win or are a finalist. Entering a literary contest is a good disciplinary exercise for a writer, and even if you don't win or place, you may receive some excellent feedback.

Rick Blechta said...

One last thing: The photo shows Barbara holding an "Arthur", the statuette presented to Arthur Ellis Award winners. Since the real Arthur Ellis was the name used by Canada's hangmen in the course of their duties, it's only appropriate that the statuette represents a person on a gibbet. It is also the only literary award in the world that can be played with. Pull the string underneath and the hung doll "dances". Goulish, yes, but well, we specialize in murder, don't we?