Why is it that we find a barnyard animal more attractive when it has a blue ribbon tied around its neck? Why do we engage in the process of setting up awards and contests—other than the potential financial rewards for organizers—when ultimately the work being judged must stand or fall on its own merits? In 500 years who’s going to care that an author won a Booker Prize for his novel? Assuming the work still exists by then, what is likely to have contributed to its lasting success through time – the plaudits of others, or the work itself? The answer is obvious, yet like many such truisms, we seem to ignore it when it comes to awards.
The recent scandal over the Amazon First Novel Award is a case in point. Author Madeleine Thien was shocked to discover that as a judge she had supposedly helped the panel choose the short-listed books for the award. In her March 12th article in the National Post (http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/12/madeleine-thien-on-transparency/), Thien explains: “When the shortlist was released on February 27, three of the four jurors had not read these books (or any other first novels). We were, however, apparently in agreement that these were the best ones published in Canada in 2012. I’m pretty sure I’ve not even held some of these books in my two hands.” I’ve been saying for years now that literary awards are so arbitrary a process that they have little, if anything, to do with literary excellence. The Amazon award fiasco strongly suggests what many have long suspected, that such awards are mostly marketing tools for publishers and retailers. Though of course authors benefit too.
Canadian poet Linda Rogers, a former poet laureate for the City of Victoria, has said that the problem began in poetry when the word ‘career’ was introduced to the milieu. As with so much else in 21st century society, where everything is broken down into industrialist notions of utility vs. non-utility, making poetry a ‘career’ ultimately cheapens its historic role in society. Not to say that poets shouldn’t be as decently compensated as any professional for their work. But when the emphasis shifts from speaking truth to power to scoring career points, something is wrong. Poets traditionally saw themselves as shamans and social activists providing vital feedback to their societies. The ancient Celtic bards were actually feared by kings for their ability to satirize the foibles and crimes of the elite. And imagine—in a pre-technological age—being able to conjure armies and mountains in the air with nothing but words. Pure magic. As Irving Layton so aptly observed back in the 1970s, “poets have traded their crown of thorns to become entertainers.” From the point of view of the political establishment, transforming poetry from a calling to a career is the best thing that could possibly have happened.
Awards have proliferated like the proverbial spring daisies over the past 30-40 years. But does this actually foster excellence? While it may in some cases, I would argue that overall, it does not. What it may really foster is a literary hierarchy that mirrors capitalist hierarchy, with a writer’s ability to publish determined by status and fame rather than merit. Intentionally or not, it reinforces a system of rank and privilege based on an arbitrary process of judgment. Very much as the financial class structure determines the options available to individuals within it. As the Biblical proverb puts it, “He who has little, more will be taken away; he who has more will be given more…”
The exposé of the Governor-General’s Awards published in June 2012 by author Kim Goldberg, Canada’s Poetry GG – Afterthoughts of a Juror, reveals yet more cracks in the system. Goldberg contrasts the even-handed approach of BC Arts Council award juries with the more rushed, horse race-like process of determining who will win Canada’s most prestigious award for their books. Here the problem may be less one of elitism than of a system that is poorly thought-out and underfunded, allowing jurors too little time to give thoughtful consideration to contenders. “Even the Canada Council doesn’t know what the full list of books in competition will be until shortly before the three jurors fly to Ottawa for the single day of jury deliberations,” writes Goldberg. The result? The winning book is chosen not necessarily for its excellence but for being “the one book out of the five that no one in the room had any major problem with. (Hardly the stuff blurbs are made of.) The high-minded ideals we had entered with had been pulverized by a process that is far too rushed, and with no mechanism (or time) to backtrack, review, or deploy common sense to halt a runaway train.” (See http://pigsquash.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/canadas-poetry-gg-afterthoughts-of-a-juror/)
In the following excerpt from an interview with poet and author Tom Wayman at Selkirk College in April, 2011, we hear the perspective of someone who has considerable experience with the phenomenon, having also served on awards juries. Wayman offers an antidote to the career-obsessed legacy of literature that has been built up over the past few decades. We spoke in the context of two middle-aged writers confronting the usual questions and self-doubt that often attend this stage of life. A time not unlike adolescence, when we question the notions we’ve held or been taught—not the least of which is our notions of success. Partly it’s an issue of location, location, location—rural writers seldom have access to the literary circles of power the way their urban counterparts do. One always has the option of moving to Vancouver or Toronto to further one’s literary career. But at what cost? “They’ll succeed – in quotes – but will that success take them through middle age,” Wayman asks, “or will they regret not having lived a more grounded emotional life, a life that was more rewarding?”
He reminds us that what it’s all about is connection—with our readers, with our own process of growth, with the divine in whatever form we experience it. If you need a blue ribbon for that then I suggest as a remedy the nearest meditation retreat. True transcendence comes from honing one’s craft and allowing oneself to be a hollow bone through which the universe can sing. Anything else pales in comparison.