Friday, October 2, 2009

Best? Why Not Favorite?

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....


Leo said...

It's a hard lesson for writers to learn. The allure of a prize - with its promise of badly-need funds and an author's fifteen minutes of fame - are sometimes too hard to resist.

Writers toil in obscurity, alone with their text, and no one to encourage them in what they do. It's also a dreadfully long process to get that text just right, to make into a publishable tome that can get from manuscript to book and out to the stores can take years.

In the meantime, what is the reward? How can a writer get some kind of recognition that their writing is worthy of publishing? In comes the prize, any prize, that will raise the profile of that writer in the eyes of the public and provide some badly-need recognition and awareness.

I agree that writing specifically for a prize is a fools game. The only positive thing such behaviour provides is the discipline to churn out another piece, to keep writing and honing one's craft. But after losing the prize countless times, it wears one down to the point that a writer shrugs his/her shoulders and says, 'why bother?'.

Well, why bother is precisely the point. I think writers need to be motivated by something other than a prize, but by what they feel passionately about and how to go about writing that down. It's not easy, but in the end, it's a necessary state of mind.

And prizes, as you can see, are completely subjective. One prize committee's winner is another person's dreadful novel. Mind you, it is what drives the publishing industry itself - subjective choices made by people who think a book might sell. Most of the time they are right. But who predicted Dan Brown?

Chez Ami said...

If one measures the writer's life by fame and fortune, few would persevere.

A writer is not only one who writes, but one who loves to write, even when some days, the words do not come, the character does not take shape...there is the next day, when the writer is immersed in the process, time slips away, and the story flows.

My point? It's the going, the doing, the process that is the reward, that has to feel like the reward.