ARE BOOK AWARDS MERELY AN EXCUSE TO DRESS UP?

Deni Dietz

QUIBBLES & BITS

As I was watching Canada’s Grey Cup Sunday (my team, the B.C. Lions, won and one of my favorite singers, Nelly Furtado, performed during the halftime show), the following thoughts occurred:

It seems to me that no author sits alone in an office anymore, with only a muse for company. To be perfectly honest, the publication game is about moving your book. Because, to be in the "A League" of this sport, it takes not only talent but team work: coaches (agents), team owner (publisher) and a fan base ("Go, Deni!")

Fans are crucial and, nowadays, they need to see writers perform.

Aye, there’s the rubber chicken! Fans, it seems, are no longer content to just read a good book. They want to see the author reading it aloud, signing copies, thanking the editor.

Recently a group of British novelists complained that publishers increasingly favor the manuscripts of young, sexy writers. It’s no longer enought to write well, they said; to win at the writing game today, one has to look good on podiums or on camera.

Is that true?

To continue the sports analogy … one way a (non-young, non-sexy) career-athlete writer can make his/her way to the top is up the prize ladder, from Giller to Governor General’s to Arthur Ellis to Edgar to Nobel (dream big, Deni!)

On Awards night everyone thrills to the glitz and glamour and the hyperbole of reviewers, right? Of course, right (as Tevye would say).

But … the growing scale and competitiveness of prize events is not only about pandering to a celebrity-obsessed public. Prizes direct people’s attention to titles, and especially novels, says Azar Nafisi, whose memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran describes what reading and writing was like in her native Iran, where individual idiologies aren’t welcome. Novels, she says, are the literature of empathy, individuality and ambiguity (I love that and have printed it out to hang above my computer), as opposed to fundamentalist certainty.

In truth, prizes can do more than suggest what to read; they can keep authors out of jail! This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow. Pamuk was charged by the Turkish government for writing an article about Kurds and Armenians killed in Turkey that conflicted with the official, historical version. Eventually the charges against Pamuk were dropped, due to his international reputation and the protest of the world literary community.

So, to answer my own question, major book awards ARE about more than dressing up. And sometimes they even generate a paycheck:

City of Victoria Butler Book Prize: $5,000
The Giller Prize for Fiction: $40,000
Nobel Prize for Literature: $1.2 million

Holy cow! $1.2 million? Dream big, Deni!

Happy [American] Thanksgiving, everybody. On Thursday I will hoist a glass of root beer and recite my annual blessing:

    May the light always find you on a dreary day.
    When you need to be home, may you find your way.
    May you always have courage to take a chance
    And never find frogs in your underpants.

7 thoughts on “ARE BOOK AWARDS MERELY AN EXCUSE TO DRESS UP?

  1. Naomi

    I love that Nafisi quote re. ambiguity vs. certainty. I do think that book awards are helpful in revealing how different reading cliques feel and interpret a certain book. It says a lot about the times that we live in and what resonates and what doesn’t, at least on an award level.

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, Deni, thank you for this post. I think you’ve hit on several major points. For the big awards — there ARE real results and implications for the author.

    What astounds me at this point in my career is the number of minor awards out there. I look at people’s signature lines on their internet posts and learn of a different one each day. I don’t even know what most of them mean. And, (oh, I’m going to get into trouble here . . . )they diminish the value of the biggies IMHO (here’s the bad part . . . )kind of in the same way that self-published books diminish and confuse the value of those that have been vetted by traditional publishers.

    On a nicer note, thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes — and, please, always “dream big,” Deni.

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  3. JT Ellison

    I am ashamed to admit that when I was just a reader, I had no idea what the awards were and it didn’t really influence my choices. Now, of course, I understand who and what they’re all about, and while I believe they are wonderful to have, I think the nominations are the most important.

    This year there are two novels highly deserving best first, they are equally great. I feel the same about best novel, several really awesome entries. I can’t necessarily say one is better than the other.

    So as long as they all make it onto the nomination lists, I feel satisfied.

    Thanksgiving blessings to you, Deni, and to everyone here! I need to make pies and am grumpy about it. : )

    Reply
  4. B.G. Ritts

    “Fans … need to see writers perform.”

    I have found I much prefer that the author discusses his/her book’s genesis rather than read from it. The author’s voice doesn’t always ‘match’ the passage being read, and that can be distracting.

    A lovely Thanksgiving to all!

    (Driving the eight hours home tomorrow — no pies to bake, no rolls to heat, but between tomorrow evening and turkey-day morning, will spend about 2-1/2 hours on the stuffing.)

    Reply
  5. guyot

    First, I have a quick horror story – a writer I know sent a manuscript to a big NY lit agent. The agent said the book was great, but didn’t think he could market the author well enough to make a deal. The author being middle-aged, Caucasian, and overweight. The agent suggested that the writer possibly find a good-looking, younger woman who could literally “perform” as the author’s pseudonym on book tours, etc.

    Secondly, to hop on my soapbox for a moment…

    What’s sad about most book awards in the crime genre is that the group choosing the winners is usually five people or less.

    How can the tastes of five people accurately represent what was the finest crime novel of the year? It’s as flawed as Hollywood thinking that 5,000 Nielsen boxes can represent nearly 200 million viewers.

    All it takes is for two people to have an agenda and suddenly forty percent of a five person commitee is poisoned.

    I know it’s not possible, but I GUARANTEE you that if the Edgars (or any others) used judging committees of twenty-five voters instead of five, things would be different, and I believe, better.

    Now, I’ve been a judge for the Edgars and other awards, and it’s a tough job, to say the least. So this is not a knock against the judges or the people that run the things. I just think there’s safety in numbers./rant

    Lastly, I always check out who won what, despite how flawed the process may or may not be, and often will try new authors (new to me) based on awards.

    I’m ashamed to admit that I discovered two of my favorites – JM Coetzee and Updike’s Rabbit series – only after seeing their names associated with an award they’d won.

    Yes, I’m an idiot.

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  6. Deni Dietz

    Yes, Pari, I agree. Too many awards thins the soup. It’s like bestseller status. I’ve made bestseller lists, so I have the right to call myself a “bestselling author.” Which is VERY different from a NY Times Bestselling Author. But most readers don’t know the difference.

    I’ll match your horror story and raise you one, Guyot. An author actually signed with a Big Agent, then visited him at his office in NYC. The agent immediately dropped the author because he was “too old.”

    The major Awards I mentioned in my blog were for that somewhat elusive (at least for me) and enigmatic “literature” category. Fan awards are a whole ‘nother ballgame. And a whole ‘nother blog ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Cornelia Read

    Deni, thank you so much for sharing your annual blessing–that’s the best one I’ve heard since Mom asked our pal Joe the Woodchopper to say grace at Thanksgiving when I was about nine years old. His blessing was:

    Rub-a-dub-dub,Thanks for the grub,Yea God!

    I have to say I just don’t get the whole “writers have to look like pouty underage centerfold/Tiger Beat models” thing AT ALL.

    I admit that I love finding out what my favorite authors look like, but I think I’d be disappointed to discover that someone whose work I adore turned out to be Bo-Chanel-Toxed up the wazoo, with blindingly blue-white Chiclet teeth and windblown Farrah/Fabio tresses.

    Give me rumpled tweeds and laugh-lines and pot bellies over that, any day: Kurt Vonnegut’s hair, Barbara Cartland’s crooked yardlong eyelashes, Robertson Davies’ cumulonimbus beard, Agatha Christie’s sensible shoes, Eudora Welty’s smile… perhaps not all at once, but you get the idea.

    Reply

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