As autumn draws in around us, we are deluged with literary media about the storm of literary prizes offered here in Canada: The Giller, The Governor General, The Writer's Trust, and on it goes to dozens of smaller, provincial prizes. Each prize claims to honor "the best." But what does "best" mean? When it comes to art, to literature?
To my mind: very little. I dislike this idea of ranking literature as Consumer Reports ranks cars or fridges or blackberry devices. This ranking only diminishes. The beauty of art and literature is that it is like falling in love, people vary in their tastes, these tastes are highly subjective. I find that redeeming, comforting, as a novelist. (And as far as my own oeuvre goes, there are those who love my work and those who hate it, though a strong reaction of any kind is a compliment to me, as I believe powerful fiction should shake one up, move a reader from one place to another.)
Of course, there might be agreement in what consitutes a masterpiece, or a piece of dreck, but even here...I've witnessed differences of opinion.
Clearly, an award can help an unknown author get on the radar. In my own career, winning The 2009 Canadian Jewish Book Award for my recent novel, The White Space Between,certainly helped me garner more readers, more reviews, more events, more respect. And being short-listed for The Re-Lit Prize for Bloodknots, also helped that volume of stories get out there. Writers more than anyone else know, it is all too easy for a book, a novel, a volume of stories, a collection of poetry to drop like a smooth stone to the bottom of a black pond.
However, I hate to see writers writing with THE AWARDS front and center. I don't believe it will produce powerful or original work, just as trying to write to trends leaves the author always one step behind.
Writers, please write what you want to write...and keep that day job or rich spouse or lover or live frugally if you can. Write what is inside you. Write what obsesses you, what keeps you up at night, what you can't stop thinking about. And stop thinking about those prizes. Think about that next enveloping story, that indelible character whose voice you hear inside your head, that image that opens out and unfolds....