Friday, September 13, 2013

Literary Prizes and Capitalist Tendencies

I've been thinking about the plethora of literary prizes lately and all the stories that have been circulating about various prizes and ways that prizes are awarded and how juries are organized, etc., and it occurs to me that the reason we completely reorganized our Grand Prize jury in the last few years was to alleviate some of the pressure that prize-awarding bodies have been under to make the process as independent and transparent as possible. To be honest, this was something that was suggested to me and so when I came on board, we completely reorganized the way we awarded the Blue Met Grand Prize without much thought or discussion.

And we've been happy with the results. Our last few winners (Colm Toibin, Joyce Carol Oates, Amitav Ghosh) have attracted the public and received a good deal of press attention. Oates and Ghosh have published some solid work since their wins, too. (Toibin only won six months ago, so we should give the guy some room!)
Joyce Carol Oates, winner in 2012

The down side if, of course, that the independence of the jury limits certain aspects of the
prize. In past years, we typically alternated between awarding the prize to a Francophone one year and an Anglophone the next year. But with an independent jury, that doesn't always work, particularly given the criteria of our prize (especially since we change our jury each year). Letting a jury decide, though, allows us to get a winner who represents more than just our own opinions in the office about who should win. We want people to think of the prize as a community of readers who award it with jury members composed of journalists, editors, cultural workers and even politicians.

Carlos Fuentes, winner in 2005
Writers who have concerns about literary prizes, about "grading" writers or works, about ranking something which is inherently subjective, miss the point, it seems to me. The honest truth is that prizes are less about "quality," really, and more about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer. A prize is something the media understands, it's something government bodies understand, it's something the public understands. In many ways, our prizes each year are a kind of stand-in for our Festival for we have often found that if our prize winner is a big name writer, our Festival gets a lot more attention from the press and we sell a lot more tickets. The name of our winner also influences who come to our Festival: when it's a Francophone, we get a lot more Francophones, when it's a man, we get more men, etc.

So while the prize is given to the writer, it's less about ranking or grading work or individuals than it is about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer or on his or her work for the world to have a chance to look along with us. It's about quality, of course, but there's a lot more to it than that: it's about writers who are contributing to the literary milieu, but it's also about availability, innovation, tradition, stage presence, and attracting the public. So "the work" is only one part of a larger picture. At any rate, most of our prizes (we have two others) are for a body of work which means something different than a prize for a single work.

Paul Auster, winner in 2004
What I appreciate about the way we award our prize is the rigorous debate that goes on behind the scenes: disagreements, arguments, it can get heated at times. But it's a real discussion and there's more to it than just throwing a big pot of money at it and lining up all our media contacts and sending them out like flying monkeys. It's also a varied prize and we've awarded it to writers from at least 8 different countries (though most with strong connections to Canada, the US or France). A look at our past winners reveals no "flash in the pan," and all of our laureates so far (two have subsequently died, Norman Mailer and Carlos Fuentes) have continued to do amazing work; this stands in contrast to other prizes which seem to be more about the dollar amount of the award (as if that makes any difference whatsoever to anyone but the writer), and the whole media campaign which surrounds it.

Another thing I've been told by a few winners that they haven't accepted our award because it pays X $ amount but because it means something in a larger context. Anyway, most of our laureates could ask a lot more to appear in public than our prize pays them, but they still come happily...

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