OPINION: PEI Book Awards

The Prince Edward Island 2014 Book Awards,
How much farther can this thing sink?

By Jeff Bursey

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Arts East.

In  2012 Arts East published a slanted piece, by me, on the PEI Book Awards for that year. Welcome to its successor.

Awards are tricky things. Thomas Bernhard had some choice comments on them in My Prizes: An Accounting (reviewed by me here). Book stores return books people don’t buy in record time, review space is limited, some writers sabotage the very notion of reading any criticism of books, thereby reducing their exposure in unsubtle ways—we used to argue ideas, not just blog opinions—so how do books get attention today? As Vanessa Shields put it in an article for Write, The Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, “publishers are coming more and more to rely on prizes to drive sales,” but, as she goes on to point out, most prizes “tend to go to books that were already going to be successful” (“Some Great Decline,” vol. 41, no. 4, spring 2014, p. 20).

Participants in the PEI Book Awards, which go off every two years, are experiencing the same financial pressures as large and small firms elsewhere in Canada. Our biggest local publisher, The Acorn Press, owned by Terrilee Bulger of Nova Scotia’s Nimbus, lost access to provincial grant money when the provincial culture department announced on 5 December 2013 that its “$10,000 P.E.I. book publisher subsidy will not be restored again,” after the subsidy had been “cancelled, restored and cancelled again all in the past three years.” (Many felt relief when Bulger announced during the awards ceremony that a different department has reinstated the funding, this time to $15,000.) As I said, there’s nothing special about PEI’s case: it simply underlines the generally unhealthy environment anyone who cares about writing must in some ways ignore to successfully create in. So when a prize is up for winning, publishers toss their products into the ring to see what will happen; considering the conditions, that’s understandable.

For the first time, this year the PEI Book Awards, for the best book in the categories of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, were folded into the Atlantic Book Awards. This had everything to do with the sesquicentennial celebrations here of the Meeting of the Fathers of Confederation. This number erected outside Province House, home of the Legislative Assembly, by Parks Canada in late May says it all:

Photo by Jeff Bursey
(The colour and font make me think that, if wicks were stuck in the top of each number, you’d have the perfect candles for a giant’s birthday cake.) As the press release of 13 December 2013 stated: “‘The Atlantic Book Awards Festival Gala will be a fine addition to what promises to be a once in a generation celebration on Prince Edward Island.’”

To some degree–1/23rd –I had a personal interest in the outcome of the fiction award, as Riptides: New Island Fiction (2012), an anthology that lives up to its name, had been shortlisted, and I have a story in it. (So do many fine writers.) But that won’t make this any more biased a report than if that had not been the case. Personally, it felt more like the editor, Dr. Richard Lemm, and the publisher (Acorn) were up for this award.

The event took place on Wednesday, 21 May, in Charlottetown’s new Convention Centre that adjoins the Delta Hotel. From various places in this building there is a wonderful view of one of the city’s marinas. The effort to build this centre took up much news space during construction since it is situated on reclaimed land that required a seawall and, for all I know, some court cases might still be active. The local CBC reported on 28 January that some of the steel rods holding the seawall in place broke:

The problems have raised questions about the stability of the waterfront site.

The centre opened last summer. The land has had problems before. In 2011, before construction began, steel sheets were driven into the harbour to stabilize the land.

The anchorage system failed, causing the steel sheets to twist, bend and buckle.

A Nova Scotia engineering company stabilized the site by mixing cement directly into the ground.

Then 49 heavy rods were attached to the seawall, anchored by a large concrete structure.

If someone wanted to consider the sea trying to reclaim the land, alleged construction cock-ups, and battles over competence as somehow placing the PEI Book Awards in a negative context, I won’t argue. By now, though, eight years after the first ceremony, we are at a state worse than before, and irony has worn out.

Whatever amusement remains, it got a chance to emerge a week before with the PEI Book Awards fiction panel that was open to the public on 15 May, followed by a 20 May non-fiction panel. I made it to the first; the second, which featured the shortlisted titles and writers –

Lionel F. Stevenson: Fifty Years of Photographs (Pan Wendt)
The Master's Wife: The Book and the Place (John Flood, ed.)
Ni'n Na L'nu, The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island (Jesse Francis and A.J.B. Johnston)

– might have been interesting, but duties got in the way.

As for the fiction panel, it featured Simon Lloyd, a librarian, as compère, Yvette Doucette, a poet (among other things), as moderator, and the three figures connected to the shortlisted titles: Lemm, Keir Lowther (author of Dirty Bird, Tightrope Books), and Patti Larsen (author of Ghost Boy of MacKenzie House, Acorn). It was a study in contrasts, as, from left to right (Lemm, Lowther and Larsen) we had, to shorthand my opinion, Art, Unsteady Humility, and Commerce.

As on the previous evening, when Paul Bowdring came to read in Charlottetown from The Stranger’s Gallery, Lowther spoke of his novel as being “gritty” and “uncomfortable,” and therefore not easy to place with a publisher. (One imagines nods and murmurs of commiseration from a literary pantheon that includes William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., Kathy Acker, or authors published by Raw Dog Screaming Press such as Larry Fondation and Eric Miles Williamson, Eugene Marten in his novel Waste, Michelle Butler Hallett in her novels Sky Waves and deluded your sailors, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford—grittiness has its lineage.)

The imp of perversity has me wonder what to call artworks that don’t make people uncomfortable, but that question had no place on this evening, though perhaps Lemm addressed it accidentally by focusing on the non-Gentle Island content of the anthology that showed darker sides of the province (though few pieces in the book are set here) and in the world generally.

Larsen, formerly purely self-published, classified herself as “a mainstream pop culture writer” who, in addition to being an artist (however modified or defined), is a “business person” keen to make sure that her books are “pleasing the reader” so she can make money. In this she stood in contrast to Lemm who made no such claims whatsoever, and in polite disagreement (this is PEI) with Lowther, who appeared semi-apologetic for taking time over his writing and having a “style that tends to be literary.” But he and Larsen were on the same page when he stated that, with so few readers around, “we need to be entertaining. We need to be competitive.” I assume he meant competitive with the Internet, with movies, with Netflix, but he may have had in mind the many other books that are out there.

Indeed, it would be hard to say what Lowther meant as, from time to time, his sentences trailed into vagaries. To me he came off as insecure (the faux-apology for considering attention to language as recherché), cocky (befitting a young writer) as when he said he could answer a question better than Lemm, and sentimental (choking up when he spoke of the real-life inspiration for his book). On his website for 7 May Lowther wrote: “If you are in Charlottetown, and are looking to be dazzled by my banality or have me write an inappropriate inscription in your copy of Dirty Bird, I would appreciate your support.” These elements seemed to be in evidence.

Lowther’s comment about his literary ways reflected how literary fiction took its now-usual pasting. Personally, apart from graphic novels or comics with only panels (such as Marvel’s dialogue-free issues), I’m not aware of any fiction or poetry or plays that don’t have a literary aspect. But that fine distinction didn’t get much play, though when asked if there was a non-literary writer Larsen sacrificed Dan Brown. The main thrust of this part of the evening was taken up by discussion over the great divide between Art and Commerce, with Larsen, by far the most talkative panelist (evenly matched for interrupting others by Lowther), reassuring the audience that “every kind of fiction is acceptable now.”

Well, maybe not. In 2011 Larsen stated: “If you don’t write good stuff, you don’t get readers, plain and simple.” It is, after all, her “job” to make money from writing. Art? That’s for others, really, and I think of Herman Melville from The Confidence-Man or William Gaddis in his first couple of decades. Her task, her love, is to pump out product that rarely goes through the slow process of a publishing house. When she referred to Indigo’s non-book content as “merchandise” I paused to wonder how that differs from her own method: as she says, “honestly, I have a system, one I teach, called Get Your Book Done. I use a very specific method I’m constantly tweaking, allowing me to get in clear touch with my creative side. The trick then is to slow down, not speed up.” (In November last year Larsen told a blog that her “goal is to write and publish twenty-four books this year.”) For his part Lemm pointed out that the thinking of genre versus elite literature is “a game we all play” with labels and with taste, and this is as true as anything else said by the others.

There were other matters taken up: the future of publishing and publishers (dire), the fate of bookstores (dire, unless they get behind ebooks), ebooks (the sales of which are declining, someone ventured), Amazon (“just a corporation,” said Larsen), the presence of PEI in these books (rare in Riptides, the setting for much of Dirty Bird, and not of interest to Larsen generally as she “doesn’t want to offend anybody”), audience reception (the US is the prime market for Larsen, her home province less so), and movie rights (good news for Lowther). There were a few more items discussed before Lloyd wrapped the evening up.
On the eve of a competition for a prize none of the competitors spoke about, except to say that they were pleased to have their book considered, it might be worth taking a scan of the fiction titles that were considered but ultimately not selected for the shortlist:

Abel (Zack Metcalfe) [self-published via Smashwords; science fiction]
The Box (Christina Gaudet) [released via Amazon; YA fantasy]
Danger - Keep Out! (Deirdre Kessler) [Curriculum Plus; children’s literature]
The Grand Change (William Andrews) [Acorn; fiction]
Kira's Secret (Orysia Dawydiak) [Acorn; YA fantasy]
The Last Wild Boy (Hugh MacDonald) [Acorn; YA dystopic fiction]
Reluctant Detective (Finley Martin) [Acorn; thriller]
A Song for Josh (Susan Rodgers) [ebook; YA]

Not much adult fiction, or the bête noir of the night, literary fiction, on that list, which would have been rectified if two titles by former poet laureate David Helwig had been put forward: Simon Says (Oberon, 2012) and Clyde (Bunim & Bannigan, 2014) would appear to fit into the two-year time frame of the awards. That seems a missed opportunity all around, and decreases the worth of the competition when one of the strongest local writers is not competing with Acorn and self-published books.

I left the night with a feeling that adult fiction of complexity is barely thought about or encouraged on PEI, and with the hope that between now and 2016 this will be proved wrong.

Just to be complete, the non-fiction entrants not considered for the shortlist numbered 15:

Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day (Georges Arsenault) [Nimbus]
Anne around the world: L.M. Montgomery and her Classic (eds. Jane Ledwell & Jean Mitchell) [McGill-Queen's University Press]
Booze: a Social Account of Prohibition on Prince Edward Island, 1878-1948 (J. Clinton Morrison) [Crescent Isle Publishers, where Morrison is publisher]
Eating Well with Karin (Karin Antolick) [Acorn]
Fairies on my Island (Shawn Patterson) [Acorn]
I am an Islander (Patrick Ledwell) [Acorn]
Maritime Sea Food Chowders and More (Paul Lucas) [Acorn]
Owen's Pirate Adventure (Patti Larsen) [Nimbus; children’s literature]
The Politics of Principle: Catherine Callbeck (Wayne MacKinnon) [JHB Publishing]
Prince Edward Island: 125 Years through our Eyes (The Guardian) [Island Studies Press]
Right place, right time (Bruce Rainnie) [Acorn]
The Sustainable Table: Take Back Your Plate (Tracey Allen) [Earth Haven, released via Amazon Digital]
Tallulah: the Theatre Cat (Jennifer Brown) [Acorn]
A Taste of Islands: 60 Recipes and Stories from our World of Islands (Anna and Godfrey Baldacchino) [Island Studies Press]
Who's Who on P.E.I.: Cartoon Portraits of Remarkable Islanders (Wayne Wright) [Island Studies Press]

The panels were preludes to the main event. It was a nice thing to see the Atlantic Book Awards here and to place PEI writing in a regional context. There were two bars, and the tables featured bowls of pretzels, regular chips, Pringles and popcorn. Yes. For a festival gala that’s mingy.

“Hold on, there,” you may be saying, ignoring the description of the snacks that had to last us from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. “You said the PEI Book Awards go to poetry as well. Where are your jibes and mean remarks about that, or were you as lazy as a cut dog and didn’t go to that panel either?”

The press release from the Department of Tourism and Culture on the shortlist for the PEI Book Awards came out on 20 March, and declared: “In total 28 books were nominated for awards.” (If we do the math there are 29 titles: 11 fiction and 18 non-fiction.) Poetry didn’t show up at all.

When Joe Sherman advocated for the creation of the award in print in November 2005 he probably didn’t foresee that the category in which his posthumous book, Beautiful Veins, won in 2008 would not be represented. Back in 2006 the person then responsible for culture remarked: “‘Joe was tireless in his promotion of writing and publishing in the province. He advocated for the creation of a book award,” the Minister said. “I think Joe Sherman would have been very pleased to have seen the results of this first competition.’” It’s unlikely he’d be pleased now (or had any pleasure from the award two years ago).

As soon as the press release came out people started talking about what wasn’t there. I called the department. The communications person responsible for the poorly-drafted release—anyone familiar with PEI’s writing community should have addressed the absence of poetry with a line or two—wasn’t in, but someone else told me that only two books were entered by publishers, and the rules require there be three titles. Fair enough.

Consequently, Here for the Music by Laurie Brinklow and Variations on Blue by Pam F. Martin, both published by Acorn, would be considered in the 2016 competition. Fine for then, but in this year, in front of everyone from the other Atlantic provinces, the home of Milton Acorn could not produce more than two books of poetry? What does it say about the rich poetry scene?

At a dinner on Good Friday some writers heard that the poetry competition had been re-opened. With the awards only a month away, A Gathering of TWIGS by the TWIG Collective (TWiG Publications) entered. In fact, the current Poet Laureate, Dianne Morrow, had helped the process along. As she put it in an email dated 22 May:

I was surprised to see no poetry category in the March 20 press release listing the finalists for PEI Book Awards.
So, as poet laureate, I emailed the contact for that press release to ask why.
Was told that not enough poetry entries had been received out of at least nine eligible books. 
Expressed my surprise and concern.
Was asked if I thought a 2nd call for submissions a good idea. I said yes and offered to spread the word at my poetry month events, which I did.
Enough entries were then received for an award.

Did you, too, focus on “at least nine eligible books”? I did. What is the story behind this pattern of non-submissions, and why aren’t writers attempting every method possible to get their books known? It’s not like they don’t need the publicity.

On the 21st, then, a group of us sat at one table, we chatted, we idly looked through the nicely done programme, and then we noticed the poetry category was not in the table of contents. At least five of us wondered, as we bit into pretzels or chips, perhaps each silently hoping everyone else was germ-free, if the prize for poetry had been reinstated after all.

We were in a kind of fog—some of us suffering from fatigue, some of us from migraine, some of us from ennui, some maybe not at all (I should have taken a scientific poll)—when the first award was announced, since the host, Matt Rainnie, the right person for this sort of occasion, did not speak about the missing prize in the first half.

It was at the intermission that some of us learned the poetry prize would be given out last. All right, at least we knew…

The PEI Book Awards went to Riptides for fiction, Ni’n na L’nu, The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island for non-fiction, and the late entry, A Gathering of TWIGS, for poetry. In his acceptance speech Lemm commented on the many fine submissions from Island writers all over, and with his customary generosity indicated those contributors in the audience; with sincerity, Jesse Francis and A.J.B. Johnston had special words of praise for the Mi’kmaq of PEI; accepting the poetry prize with unsurprising assurance, Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, one of the editors, thanked her colleague P. Susan Buchanan who was unable to be present due to illness.

Brinklow’s loss struck locals as the major surprise as she has been a practicing poet for years (and once owned The Acorn Press), and it had a different feel from Lowther and Larsen not winning in the fiction category, for she looked to be, in that old phrase, a shoe-in.

As usual, we wondered who the judges were for the PEI portion of the awards. By the time of the poetry prize announcement they were identified: Jean Davis, a librarian at École François-Buote; Gary Ramsay, a librarian at the Confederation Centre Public Library; and Ian Colford, a fiction writer.

Some may wonder: What did Island winners receive? According to Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, the prize “included a gorgeous felt-lined bird’s-eye maple box by McAskill Woodworking and $1000 in prize money,” and one assumes that the same, or something similar, went to the other winners. The details ‘3M’ provided are more than we usually get in news stories around these parts. People are chary about such details, though it is public money being handed out.

The most perturbing feature—indeed, by now a hallmark—of the PEI Book Awards is the prevalence, on the part of those in charge, to choose judges who, with the exception of Colford this year, don't possess adequate qualifications to decide the merits of poems, fiction and non-fiction. This is not a problem restricted to 2014. In 2012 the judges were a literacy and public services librarian, an educator, and an editor/journalist. Fine as they may be in their own fields, none are published authors of poems, history or fiction, or of plays that have been performed.

The botching of the poetry category announcement is one thing, and the lack of interest in it may speak to structural problems as well as indifference or carelessness on the part of poets and publishers. As writers, we look at these things in a personal way, and wonder how it is so difficult to ignore the pool of civil servants and opt instead for those who know what it is like to carry a work of fiction or non-fiction to completion. It’s not fitting that handers out of books are tasked with determining what books win the prize. As in 2012, the quality of judges has undermined whatever credibility the PEI Book Awards still carries in the professional writing community. In 2010, as I wrote when considering Bernhard, the following happened around the awards:

With barely any publicity, and no shortlist released ahead of time to create awareness and excitement, the awards went off in abysmal fashion: the envelopes given to the winners didn’t contain the cheques; the minister for culture, his culture commissar, and two of the three judges spoke, but the winners weren’t permitted to; and the cheap Christmas cookies looked like they came from a supermarket. One judge, who won the award in 2006, said that the fiction prize had never been awarded to a collection of short stories before [Steve] Mayoff. Actually, in 2008 it had been awarded to a collection of short stories by a writer well known in the community who was sitting in the audience.

Three events in a row that have been fumbled in one way or another, and three sets of ill-matched judges (excluding Colford, and Hugh MacDonald from 2010): it doesn't take much to see that however writers are talked about in pronouncements, whatever value their books bring in or lustre they add to the cultural reputation of PEI, the worth of the award is sinking before our eyes. Many wonder what 2016 will bring. My feeling is that it will feature more of the same cheapness that further distances the prize from Joe Sherman’s dream.

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