Weighing in on literary prizes

Last week, twice, I asked Rolf the same question, twice in a row, with no recollection that I’d done so. I hate this. What could be worse than a partner who’s “there but not there”?  These days, I’m that partner.

I joked about senility. Really, I’m tired and preoccupied. I’m up at five every day, revising my novel before work and teaching and organizing readings.

Whenever there’s a pause in this routine I park myself beside the cache of literary treasures I’ve gathered. This has been an amazing spring for fiction. In order of when I bought them: The Blue Guitar, by Ann Ireland, Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, Matadora by Elizabeth Ruth, and Ania Szado’s Studio Saint Ex sit waiting in a blessedly quiet spot where there’s a view of the park gradually coming into bloom. I’m fortunate enough to be inspired, not intimidated, by other people’s fiction. Over the last six months I’ve stubbornly pushed my way through another draft of my novel, and reading has spurred me on.

I printed the manuscript up in its entirety last week, read through it, and came to the conclusion it’s not good enough. It’s going to take more investment of time, (aka money) and creativity, not to mention the part of myself that should be listening to conversations with people I love, before I can get to the next stage … of self-investment.

I’ve been through a crisis in the last six months, though I was kind-of too tired to notice. The thinking went something like this: a healthy person, an effective person would not do this. She’d write books that would sell so that writing could become her job. And if that didn’t happen, she’d give up, in the same way a healthy person would give up on a love affair that’s gone on for thirty years, costing a lot and yielding little, a healthy person in my situation would give up writing.

Not that I’ve never had any of these thoughts before, it’s just that I’m in my mid-fifties and I’m tired, and I’m still at the beginning of my writing career, while my need to feel – I’m looking for a real word and can find only pop psych clichés – empowered? Self actualized?

Spare me.

My need to feel like a functioning adult has become an emergency.

And it’s increasingly clear that writing is not going to get me there. The crisis is not about the terrible state of publishing but about me, that I keep going anyway. And chime a meaningless, “How was your day?” to the person who believes in me more than I believe in myself.

So there are the books.

Last night I set out to read a few pages of a book I missed last year, Linda Spalding’s The Purchase. Before I knew it I had used up two of the precious six hours I’d carved out for sleep. I was so tired that some of the content slipped into the same hole as conversations with my husband, yet I didn’t care. I was carried along by the integrity of the book. This author had created a seamless world of character and time and place and history and prose, that I could trust. These days, sinking into a created world feels more restorative than sleep. The possibility that I might give someone else the same healing balm of art is one of the few things keeping me going.

The Purchase is good. I think it’s a classic. And it makes me feel good that I believe it deserved the Governor General’s Award. For there to be justice in the world of prizes has become really, really important.

Which of the newer books will win prizes? A literary prize or even placement on a shortlist can confer – not simply recognition – but the feeling of being a functioning adult that hardworking writers deserve. In a perfect world, they’d each get one. It’s not a perfect world.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the prizes act as gatekeepers, that they’re taking over the promotional work that a publisher should do. We have enough of them in this country that winners and shortlisted candidates can fill up reviews pages, interview shows, creative writing faculties, festival programmes. But few enough that the majority of perfectly worthy books go unnoticed.  Disappointment at not winning a prize is not just a matter of being a sore loser. The stakes in this day and age are very high. Yes, we can take promotion into our own hands and are encouraged to do so. We’re told that we have power in the situation. Still, all the effort in the world is overshadowed by forces we can’t control. Elizabeth’s Ruth’s Matadora comes to mind.

My book, Outside the Box came out in the fall of 2011. It is a work of literary merit and historical significance, one that helps Canadians understand our identity, encourages artists in our struggles, helps women articulate the issues underlying our situation in the world. When it came to the stories of the living and the dead I went through the work of determining what felt to me like an appropriate balance of truth and respect. I made it beautiful. This took twelve years. It won a history prize but did not receive so much as a nod on any short or long list for any of the literary prizes that might have put me on the map.

I’m okay with this.

My grandmother, the subject of the book, was censored from publishing poetry about the impact of the Second World War on her as a woman and as a mother. Later, her career was squashed by the post-war backlash against women. Males returned to dominant positions in newspapers and publishing, pushing out the women who had been flourishing. Reviews vilified “lady writers”. Lacking public discourse on the issues at stake, my grandmother took it all personally, and several generations of the family suffered the consequences.

Sure, it feels like a lottery, but as long as I can publish this new book, I know it stands a chance of falling into the hands of a jury of fair, honest and hardworking writers like myself, who will carefully weigh the decision, understanding exactly what it’s like to be on the other end of it. 

I know my history. I’d rather have my fate determined by an ever-shifting jury of more-or-less peers, than by a couple of despotic reviewers or editors who might dominate literary fashion for years on end.

Of course, the whole context is messed up: the way books are sold and marketed, the way the arts are funded, the way the press covers the arts. We need more of everything, not to mention a shift in public thinking. On the other hand, the internet puts us more in control than we’ve ever been, as long as we ourselves don’t become its slaves. Thanks to people like Kerry Clare, who believe in the book, it has more ongoing presence that a print review could offer. There are still people discovering and – yes – buying it.

And best of all, people are talking about these issues.  The censorship of silence has been fought on the internet by organizations like CWLA.

It’s hard to be working on something as thankless as this novel, and knowing that it will come into a world with very few resources. But given a historical perspective, I’m still proud to know that Canadians have found a way to be as fair as possible.

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2 Responses to Weighing in on literary prizes

  1. This is a very interesting post. Writing is often (as you say) thankless. But also compelling, forgiving, generous. And it’s always hard, I think, even when there’s enough time, enough energy, the right light, the right texture to one’s memories. I’m going to look for your book.

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