Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Politics, money, and the Arthur Ellis Awards

Barbara here. In my last blog, I talked about the Arthur Ellis Awards (and taxes, but let's not go there). They are Canada's premiere awards for crime fiction, which for some reason never seems to make it onto the other Canadian fiction awards lists like the Giller and the Governor General Awards. Not that we're complaining, really. With the bigger awards, there is the issue of politics and money, which are really two sides of the same coin. Money not only in terms of the size of the prize, which in the case of the Giller is $100,000, but in terms of the huge surge in sales, which allows both publisher and author to live to create another book. Perhaps even longer.

Because of this, politics rears its ugly head. Writers compete, publishers size up potential books in terms of their ability to win the big prizes, writers can be dumped if their books aren't nominated, rumours of influence and backroom deals abound, publishers lobby, and writers chafe with secret envy. Media scramble to do features on the latest literary stars, thus producing priceless additional publicity.

I should say at this point that since my last blog, the Arthur Ellis shortlists have been announced, and my Rapid Reads book, THE NIGHT THIEF, was shortlisted in the best novella category. Three other Ottawa authors were also shortlisted in other categories; Peggy Blair for HUNGRY CHOSTS in Best Novel, Jeff Ross for SET YOU FREE in Juvenile/ Young Adult, and Pam Isfeld for BRAVE GIRLS in the unpublished manuscript category. We are all thrilled. Our local paper, the Ottawa Citizen, ran a story on us which was picked up by many major dailies across the country because its owner, Postmedia, happens to own most of the newspapers in the country.

This publicity, along with a well-timed phone call, led to three of us appearing on the local CBC radio afternoon show, during which the host asked what impact such an honour would have on our lives. After suppressing a laugh, I was tempted to say “huge!”, but the truth is, the impact is subtle. In fact, you have to be a serious optimistic to see it at first. Politics and money play very little part in winning these awards, once again because the two go hand in hand. There is little or no prize money attached to these awards, and an author's future does not hinge on winning or losing one. Most crime writers can count on a modest income that may never lift them above the poverty line but that will grow slowly as they prove themselves and continue to write consistently good books. Crime writers build readership good book by good book, often in a series, rather than by one spectacularly brilliant book.

Because there are no politics and money, crime writers rarely compete with each other (and we suffer only occasional tweaks of envy), but instead we find there is solidarity and fun in cooperation. Readers who read one crime writer usually read others, so it's not a matter of competing for readers but rather sharing them. Crime writers are generally the friendliest and most supportive of colleagues, and because there's little money or fame at stake, we know the friendship is without strings or self-interest. There are benefits to being frozen out of that $100,000 prize money!

Arthur and I
So besides avoiding the jealousies, anxieties, and financial windstorms of literary prizes, what are these subtle benefits of the Arthur Ellis Awards? Most importantly, they are an affirmation of one's achievement as an author. Independently judged by a jury of experienced book people, they are an acknowledgement that your work stands out among its peers as excellent. This in itself is a huge boost to one's confidence and self-worth. Authors labour for months, often years, in the privacy of our little rooms, trying to produce a work of substance, but we really have little idea whether we've succeeded until the verdict comes back from readers. These awards are that verdict. Believe in yourself. Believe in your writing. It's good.

Secondly, the awards give a writer gravitas. Beyond bragging rights, winning the award brings respect from the book world in general, in the form of libraries, bookstores, reviewers, and media, and from fellow writers as well. No one can ever take that award away from you, and everyone takes a little more notice of you once you have that funny little hangman statue on your mantle. You may not have the media hounding you for feature articles, but when your next book comes out, reviewers may pick it up from the huge pile accumulating on their office floor.

Along with the increased respect comes a related, third, benefit; more name recognition and thus, more invitations to book events. Canada is full of literary festivals, readings, celebrations, and events.   A lot of factors influence literary festival invitations, including the author's popularity, the size of the publisher's purse and publicity machine, the tastes of the organizers and their past experiences with authors. But one thing is certain; it's difficult to get invited if no one has heard of you.  Organizers look for fresh faces and new talents. They look for authors whose works have been vetted. The Arthur Ellis Award, like other respected juried awards, provides that vetting.

Awards are subjective, and many good books do not get nominated. While being nominated is good for the ego, it does not follow that not being nominated is a mark of failure. Certain styles of book seem to get nominated over and over, while other equally excellent books do not. I believe this is partly due to the judging experience itself. Juries read dozens of books in rapid succession, so a  book with a unique style or a compelling opening will catch their flagging attention more than subtler stories.  In my experience, the majority of readers enjoy a good book and are not much influenced by the Arthur Ellis Awards, mainly because they've never heard of them.

On May 26, Crime Writers of Canada will celebrate all Canadian crime writing at its annual awards gala. I will be there, looking forward to raising a glass with my friends and colleagues, whether they are competing for a funny little hangman or not. Good luck to all!


Melodie Campbell said...

An excellent post, Barbara. I was particularly impressed by your point that since we don't have big money awards in the crime-writing field, we tend to be a friendlier group of colleagues.

Aline Templeton said...

Good luck, Barbara!

Catherine Astolfo said...

Well said, Barbara! Instead of competing, we complement one another as authors. That's a wonderful perspective and worth more than financial gain every could.

Donis Casey said...

Congratulations on the nomination, Barbara.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Cathy, I'm sure there is some competitiveness and envy--no group of people is perfect, not even crime writers! And a little financial gain might be nice too!