Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Awards, love 'em or hate 'em?

Recently the Globe and Mail published an article about the plethora of literary awards springing up in Canada, often with a large amount of money attached. Large, that is, for writers, who often labour below the poverty line. Topping the list at $100,000 is the Scotiabank Giller Prize, but many of the lesser prizes also run into the five digits, and the Ottawa Book Award gives $10,000 to the winner and $1000 to each shortlisted (at least it did when I was nominated). The more money, the more the media hype. They may not be the Oscars, but they're the literary jackpot.

Some of the awards are regional or limited to a particular subject or genre, such as political writing, but most rarely include genre fiction on their shortlists, except when it's dressed up as "literary". Thus crime writers are shut out of the big awards and the associated media attention. The Arthur Ellis Awards are juried awards given out in seven categories by Crime Writers of Canada, but with the exception of nominal honoraria in a couple of categories, there is no money attached to the award. No $100,000, even for Best Novel. And media coverage, despite all the efforts and press releases of CWC? Virtually none.

Instead, we get this quirky statue to startle guests who come to the house.


We crime writers are fond of grumbling about the "lack of respect" afforded us by the CanLit establishment (other genres receive even more distain), but after reading this article, I'm left wondering - is this such a bad thing? The more money and publicity attached to an award, the greater the competition and the more devastating the fall-out if your precious book, to which you devoted years of your life, is not on a single shortlist. Sales of your book may sink like a stone, while those of the shortlist soar. Authors may begin to second-guess their talent, play it safe, write an "award-worthy", probably derivative book, or give up altogether. Publishers may select books based on their potential to please the CanLit juries, thus ignoring unique or edgier stories. Or they may choose not to pick up the next book by an author who failed to make the all-important shortlists the last time. Yet we all know that agents and publishers often fail to recognize talent and turn down a book that later becomes an international hit. JK Rowlands, anyone? Or closer to home, Louise Penny?

With so much riding on these nominations, there can't help but be competition and backstabbing among both authors and publishers. And an overarching anxiety among authors about their fate in a process over which they have no control. In such a toxic environment, how can creativity soar free and full of promise?

It is certainly an environment I would not want to write in. There is precious little to encourage us to write a book in the first place, beyond the desire to tell the story in our heads and the joy of finally seeing it in print, that I'd hate to have that joy crushed as soon as the award chatter begins. In this sense I'm grateful for being a crime writer, writing under the radar and enjoying the emails and reviews from fans and fellow writers who like my books. The mystery community is a supportive, friendly community. Both readers and writers like one another and share recommendations freely. We laugh at our "black sheep next to the kitchen at the literary banquet" status, knowing that's where all the fun and the best jokes are.

This is not to say awards are of no importance to us. I think we Canadian crime writers do think about the Arthur Ellis Awards and hope to make the shortlist when our work is eligible, and there's no doubt making the shortlist is a thrill and an affirmation of our skill. But we recognize lots of other good books did not make the shortlist because of the essentially subjective tastes of the judges. Athough winning the Best Novel award adds credibility and gravitas to a writer, it does not really affect sales and it does not end careers.

And as far as I know, no writer has ever stabbed another writer in the back to get their hands on that statue.

1 comment:

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Very interesting! Thanks. I think a good crime novel can tell us as much about the darker side of society as any literary novel, so I'm not sure why it doesn't get the same recognition. It's possibly something to do with literary elitism. Who knows? I tend to be a little bit cynical about "awards". They are often created by the industry to promote sales in the industry and are, as such, marketing tools. Of course, there are the professional organisations who fund awards, like the CWA. Such organisations are not necessarily concerned with sales directly but they are influenced by prestige. They wouldn't want to support a book that turned out to be a financial flop. The thing is, as I am sure you know, while a good book will always stand out, it often needs a heck of a lot of marketing money behind it, the sort of money that only the big publishers can afford, to make it visible above all the rest. I suppose what I am saying in my very long-winded way is i think it's not always the best books that win the awards. That said, some of the best crime books I've read this year won CWA Daggers the other week, they were well-deserved winners. So, an award can suggest a good read but so can a good crime review blog. To answer your question, love 'em or hate 'em? I'm a tad indifferent. Thanks again for a thought provoking piece :)