Canada’s Literary Awards: Distinctive Characters, Visible Trends

In News by Dennis Abrams

‘The way trends establish themselves within literary prizes is mysteriously opaque,” writes Brian Bethune. He looks for trends in Canadian prize programs for the country’s robust literary scene.
The Rogers Writer's Trust shortlist. Yasuko Thanh's 'Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is this year's winner of the competion,

The Rogers Writer’s Trust shortlist. Yasuko Thanh’s ‘Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is this year’s winner of the competion,

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2
‘It’s the Jury, Stupid’
ABrian Bethune reports in Maclean’s, it’s book prize season in Canada, which includes, as Publishing Perspectives has reported, the awarding of the Governor General’s Literary Award and the upcoming announcement of the Scotiabank Giller Prize today (November 7). In addition, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize was announced on November 2.

Bethune takes a closer look at who wins such literary prizes–and why. He writes:

Brian Bethune

Brian Bethune

“Of the Canadian book world’s two familiar tropes during award season, the most common—’why is this novel on a prize list?’ or, even more frequently, ‘why isn’t that one?’—has scarcely raised its head. Although a case could be made by the hard-to-justify absence of Kevin Patterson’s News from the Red Desert. The second theme—’how can juries have such different opinions as to end up, often enough, with entirely different nominee lists?’—is a complete non-starter this year.

“In 2016 the Big Three national awards—the Giller ($100,000), the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize ($25,000) and the $25,000 Governor General’s awards have kicked over that applecart. With the Giller listing six nominees, which its juries occasionally do when very impressed with the contending titles, there are 16 slots on the shortlists, occupied by only 11 titles. The entire GG list, the last to be announced, was already named on one of the other two.

“Besides Thien’s Canadian double (a triple with the Booker), there are four other double nominations. Anosh Irani (The Parcel); Kerry Lee Powell (Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush); and Katherena Vermette (The Break) all share the Writers’ Trust and GG lists. The fifth GG nominee, Gary Barwin (Yiddish For Pirates) also has a Giller nod.”

Bethune notes that Barwin “sticks out like a sore chromosome on the Giller list,” as the only male writer who received a nomination. In fact, it’s been a good year for women writers in Canada, who were a majority of nominees on all three shortlists.

He writes:

“When British-American novelist Nicola Griffith last year blogged about her hard look at gender bias among five major American and international prizes and their winners this century, the news wasn’t good for female writers: Women won a solid if not equal number of awards but were far more likely to do so if they wrote about men. Women writers whose protagonists kept to female points of view were usually shut out. Griffith’s succinct conclusion: ‘The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women; women have literary cooties.’”

Bethune writes that when Maclean’s took a closer look at the history of Canadian prizes, that the results were “Canadian–extreme fence-straddling.” Some of the same trends that Griffith had discovered in the US and UK were also found in Canada, but they weren’t he says, as pronounced in the Canadian competitions. With of course, one exception: the higher you go up the “literary prize food chain,” the more Canada’s numbers “fell in line.”

Bethune writes that the more prestigious a prize tends to be, the more likely men were to win it. The Giller, the grandest and richest of Canada’s literary awards, shows the greatest gender imbalance in its two-decade history—14 men to seven women. Is there a social, as well as literary, aspect to the complete flip of that ratio this year, at least on shortlists, right across the national prize scene?

“Maybe, maybe not,” he writes.

“Just as the relationship of any given monster storm can’t be conclusively tied to overall climate change, the way trends establish themselves within literary prizes is mysteriously opaque. A shortlist might be taken, sometimes even without squinting, as representing a range of writing, but the bottom line on any winning book—any year, any award—is ‘it’s the jury, stupid.’ A small group of people, usually three to five in number, mostly writers, mostly people who know the nominees, make a choice”

And of course, each prize has its own individual character.

The Giller, for example, has the “glam, the cash, and historically, a tendency” to reward the “already celebrated,” in Bethune’s opinion.

The oldest award, the Governor General, has the “history and an often detectable desire befitting a fount of government, to all things to all regions.”

And the Rogers Writers’ Trust competition, which historically,he writes, has the greatest degree of general equality among winners, is said to be the most “writerly and sensitive to change of them all,” a kind of “national talent spotter.”

Bethune goes on to cite individual cases that reflect these trends, and you can read about them here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.