or, a thoroughly subjective report on an award’s decline
This is a story of how aspirations and literary posterity collided.
Following the publication of Verbatim: A Novel, in fall 2010, my publisher, Enfield & Wizenty, sent copies to reviewers and to judges of prizes.
One of the last competitions to occur is the Prince Edward Island Book Awards. This prize is awarded every two years for the best book in the categories of Fiction, Poetry and Non-fiction. Having lived in Charlottetown since 2000 it seemed a sensible thing to try for. The local writers are known to each other, and we sometimes get together. The field is small.
I never thought the book would impress the Giller or GG judges. I’m not in that league, and the book is an experimental work whose arc is fragmented with characters that aren’t lovable.
Thanks to statements by such literary people as Rabindranath Maharaj, Canadian authors have had fair warning that innovation is regarded with unease. But not every judge despises the new and seeks only the easy read. On PEI, with its abundance of poets that gets renewed each year, artistic expression demonstrably matters.
On 25 April the shortlist for the PEI Book Awards came out. While I didn’t expect to win, I did think I’d see-my title on the fiction list, alongside J.J. Steinfeld’s A Glass Shard and Memory and David Helwig (either Mystery Stories or Killing McGee). Both are well-known writers, provincially and nationally, and between them they have a long string of prizes and a wealth of story collections, novels and plays. David, a former-Poet Laureate, likely would win.
Instead of those names, the choices of three judges as the best works put out in fiction since 2010 were: Patti Larsen for Family Magic; Patti Larsen for Run (The Hunted), and Dale McNevin for Treasures to Find. McNevin’s entry is a 24-page children’s picture book that easily has over 60 words in it; Larsen is a self-published author of paranormal books (until June 2012, when her newest book came out from the Establishment, i.e., The Acorn Press) that often are part of a series. Seeing the list sharply chastened my ego.
On 16 May I attended the ceremony and sat to one side making notes. Unlike the 2010 event, which I’ve written about here, this one went off professionally: it was held at the Carriage House, a downtown Charlottetown venue with a small stage and fine acoustics, not like the main library with its poor sound system where these things have gone off before; slides showed the covers of, it seems, every book entered; nice-looking treats were plentiful; and the attendance was good, indicating that word had circulated. The minister of culture seemed pleased to be supporting the literary arts (the next month he announced the cut of the meagre $10,000 subsidy given to PEI book publishers), and stood accompanied by departmental staff. Of the audience members I recognized, most were there to support Dianne Hicks Morrow, a poetry finalist, with What Really Happened is This. (One poet mentioned that the absence from the poetry shortlist of Richard Lemm’s latest book, Burning House, looked quite odd.) Most of the more familiar faces from the writing community were missing.
Naturally, the fiction category most interested me, so before the event I looked up McNevin and Larsen. As indicated, McNevin’s book can be gone through quite quickly. With Larsen, you can’t just go into a book store and check her titles to see if they’re worth buying. Her website describes them, and lists how well-liked they are by Amazon readers. But no critical comments. Here’s a quote from her site that caught my eye:
Who are you to read my book or anyone else's and tell us we're not good enough? That our work is crap so we don't have the right, in this free and beautiful world, to publish it? To share it? Our heart's desire, our deepest passion whether suckage or a work of art?
Because it's all art to the author; www.pattilarsen.com/mywritinglife/the-self-appointed-self-pub-police
Who are you, indeed; who am I; who are we? (Chances are good that if you’re reading Arts East you’re a writer who has gone through the usual process of getting a book published.) More to the point, who were the judges, those non-paying readers who had willingly taken on the task of deciding what books were good enough to win such prizes? Their names would soon would be revealed, but for now their motivations, their credentials, and their experience remained mysterious.
By the time the event started the number of people present had reached around fifty, which is very good for Charlottetown on a mild spring night. Readings by Wayne Johnston and Michael Crummey bring in a hundred, local writers much less. One bow-tied departmental functionary, impressed that artists do so well on so little funding, as he once stated over lunch in Casa Mia (careful, writers with notebooks are often at nearby tables), led the proceedings, promising we’d know who the finalists were, that we’d hear from the judges (only one showed), and that the authors themselves would get to read (in 2010 they weren’t shown such respect). The minister, up again, commented that PEI “must be inspirational” to have so many books produced over two years. (You understand those subsidy cuts won’t affect inspiration, just actually getting books out.) Artwork, resumed the functionary, gesturing to attractive hand-made stained glass with lines of poetry embedded in them, would be given, along with the prize money (amount never disclosed) and a sticker for the front of the book, as a further indication that the award had developed “some traditions,” specifically, “a partnership with the Island fine craft community.”
We heard the familiar bilge that comparing various books “taxes the judges.” Frankly, that’s expected, and if they weren’t taxed then something would be very wrong with our literary scene. Turning pages doesn’t make you a hero. It’s not like they rescued a dog or a child from a burning house. Or a dog-child, which would be cool.
But I digress.
The mandarin’s next words made sudden chilling sense of the shortlist, and of all we’ve seen over the recent years when it comes to institutional respect for writers and the PEI Writers’ Guild (of which I’m a member). “This is not a literary book award only... This is not a competition of literary critics... Our judges represent the reading public.”
As people used to say seriously, and now with irony: Whaffuck?
The judges’ names were finally announced: Grace Dawson (literacy and public services librarian), Nancy Smitheram (educator) and Ann Thurlow (editor and journalist).
With respect to the hander-out of books, the teacher, and the columnist, as far as I know none of them have created and published a collection of poems, a long non-fiction work, a book of short stories or a novel. Yet they donned that thorny mantle of taxing pages and indicated to Islanders, to Canadians, and to everyone with access to the Internet that PEI’s thriving community of writers can, over two years and at best, produce a slim children’s picture book, and two self-published genre titles that you can’t physically see in a bookstore.
From the 17 May ministerial press release: “The Prince Edward Island Book Awards celebrate our authors and raise awareness of Island literature.” Incorrect. The judges celebrated the Island’s fiction output by removing from consideration the literary aspect, the part that has to do with crafting an art work that will last, and with that gone we’re left with a general “book award” instead, something that appeals to those who value the readerly over the writerly.
“You’re always scribbling,” the minister said to me before the event began, so I’ll go back to my notes.
The non-fiction winner, Marian Bruce, wrote Remembering Old Dan: Farm Horses and People of Prince Edward Island. It came out from Island Studies Press (UPEI), and drew praise for its depiction of horses and horse life, its “sweet” nature, and its “celebration” of when “life was simple.” Probably not sweet or simple if you were a hard-working horse who’d just bust a leg and who’d next hear a gunshot, but never mind that cavil. Bruce didn’t show to claim the prize. Fiction came next, and Larsen won with Run (The Hunted). And seriously, by this time I was rooting for that underdog title over her other one on the list, Family Magic, because not enough titles with parentheses win awards. (They indicate, in this case, that The Hunted is a series.) Grace Dawson, the one judge present, compared Larsen to J.K. Rowling, calling her work “action-packed” and praising her “interesting” characters. Larsen then read a passage. Most of the sentences were short and dully written; functional over memorable or poetic. Poetry was last, but the functionary had to single it out with another bland statement: “PEI poets have a unique perspective on this place.” Plumbers and oyster fishers can offer unique perspectives, too. But can you imagine a world where the alternative perspectives to a poet’s view are taken from a thriller that features the hunting and killing of children? (If Run (The Hunted) actually caught the essence of The Gentle Island, that’d be quite the message sent out to potential visitors. There’s a niche market, of a new and unpleasant stripe.) Dianne Hicks Morrow claimed the poetry prize, and received praise for capturing, in an “incredibly touching” way, what occurs when our parents decline.
After that, there were a few final words from the head bureaucrat, then time for pictures and snacks.
What lesson do I learn from all this, apart from the fact that my ego should never get so swollen as to think I deserve to be shortlisted for any prize? There are several. The first is that when it comes to the fiction category the PEI Book Award, as a prize, didn’t live up to the efforts of Joe Sherman (1945-2006), the driving force behind its creation. How could it when its judges haven’t written anything of literary worth? We can’t suddenly expect them to recognize works of lasting literary value if they don’t aim to create such works themselves. Also, they seem to have decided to (or been encouraged to) put aside critical thinking in favour of choosing a good read over a demanding one; they let their young child and rebellious tween take over. That kind of attitude is robbing the PEI Book Award of its initial worth and reducing its importance. It needs to be, in the words of Steven Mayoff (winner of the 2010 award for fiction), as imbued “... with the same sense of dignity and pride that many of us feel in being part of PEI's literary community.” Right now it’s not.
Looking over the long list some time later I saw that David Helwig hadn’t entered - two less books of literature for the judges to discard.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Arts East