Culture | Who’s a winner?

Over seventy years after its inception, the Governor General's award is still generating controversy

In a few weeks, the Canada Council for the Literary Arts will reveal the winners of the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Awards (GGs) – its selection of the finest in Canadian literature from a shortlist of finalists that was released in October. To compile the shortlist, the council enlists the help of peer assessment committees – comprised of other authors, publishers, and the like – to sort through the submissions and select five nominees in each category that they feel represent the best in Canadian writing this year. Choosing the best out of almost 1,000 literary works (double that to include French-language submissions) is no easy task, and the short-lists are heavily debated by critics, showing the importance that the Canadian literary community places upon the awards.

To many, literature has an important role to play in constructing a national identity. In Canada, where national identity is still ambiguously defined, the subjects entertained within our high literature are thought to be representative of our interests as a whole. This year’s GG short-lists are filled with stories that reflect distinctly Canadian experiences. Diane Warren’s Cool Water is a psychological drama set in small-town Saskatchewan; David Yee’s Lady in the Red Dress explores the anti-Chinese prejudice in our nation’s legislative past; Alan Casey’s non-fiction book Lakeland contains “Journeys Into the Soul of Canada”; and John English’s Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau is – well, you get the idea.

But how much does a GG nomination really matter? In the end, very few people will actually read these books. According to a survey conducted in 1998, only 61 per cent of Canadian adults had read any book at all in the previous twelve months. Among those who do read, Canadian literature is not the top priority. Only one GG nominee can be found on this week’s Globe and Mail bestseller list: Emma Donoghue’s Room is the sixth top-selling hardcover novel. The much more widely-read categories of paperback fiction and nonfiction are dominated by books like The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and Eat Pray Love. These mass-produced “popular fictions” do well because they are written and presented in ways that appeal to the general reader – using simple prose, for instance – and are supported by massive marketing campaigns.

In the world of high literature, however, profit is seen as secondary to literary accomplishment: few serious novels, books of poetry or plays ever actually make much money. Canadian literature and popular literature are, with a few exceptions such as Life of Pi, mutually exclusive categories. According to a study published in the National Post last January, only half of us can even name a Canadian writer. Literary awards such as the Governor General’s are meant to rectify this both by promoting Canadian authors and by deciding which novels will be the classics of tomorrow. The hope is that with the aid of publicly-funded organizations, Canadian books can achieve a certain amount of popularity without having to completely succumb to the whims and demands of a readership market. If this all seems a bit fabricated, it is. The GGs are part of a very conscious effort to help shape the nation’s identity by creating a recognizable literary ideal. “In nation-building narratives, ‘great literature’ is supposed to be a sign of a nation’s maturity,” said Karis Shearer, a former postdoctoral fellow at McGill and current Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “So certainly it’s in Canada’s interest, as a state, to foster ‘excellence’ in literature, acting like a patron to the arts.”

One of the more obvious ways that the GGs act as a “patron to the arts” is by offering financial awards to winners. Although in its early years the GGs only offered medals to its prizewinners, recognition of the financial hardship that Canadian writers faced led to winners receiving monetary awards by 1951. Today, this award amounts to a whopping $25,000 in each of the seven categories, with additional prizes for the runners-up and funds for publishers to promote the winners making the total value of the awards close to $450,000. This money, however, is perhaps less valuable than the lucrative possibilities this prestigious award creates for its selected authors.

“After we won, we had more offers from publishers, more recognition, more demand,” explained Lori Saint-Martin, who with her husband Paul Gagné has won the prize twice for English-to-French translation. “It was a real springboard for our careers.”

Because the council insists on using peer juries, the chance of running into a conflict of interest in Canada’s relatively small writing, publishing, and editing world can often create a great deal of controversy. In 2008, Jacob Reiner won the award for poetry amid accusations that one of his judges, Di Brandt, had too many ties to the young poet. Reiner had solicited Brandt’s help with a translation for the collection and had thanked her in the book’s acknowledgements. Reiner held onto the award in spite of this criticism, but only after his acknowledgements had become, according to his editor, “the most scrutinized acknowledgments page in the history of Canadian letters.” The incident brought the issue of what defines a conflict of interest to the forefront of the awards.

“As is the case with any prize, the winning book tends to reflect the aesthetic and political values of the specific jury,” said Shearer. “That’s just logical. And it’s one of the reasons, I think, in the interest of being as fair as possible, the Canada Council has developed a mandate over the years that emphasizes its commitment to balanced juries – balanced in terms of age, cultural background, aesthetics, and so on. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been surprises over the years.”

The relationship between these awards and the state is another issue that gives rise to controversy. The Canada Council for the Arts operates, according to its website, “at arm’s length” from the Canadian government, who provides the prize money but stays away from the decision-making process. For some, however, this is still too close for comfort. In 1968, two of the prizewinners, Leonard Cohen and Hubert Aquin, declined the award outright. Aquin, who was involved in the Quebec separatist movement, did not want to accept an award from a government he deemed illegitimate. Cohen, never one to pass up an opportunity for controversy, professed that, “Much in me strives for this honour but the poems themselves forbid it absolutely.” After the incident, the council began asking writers in advance whether they were willing to accept the awards. The controversy did not stop there, however: the next year, during the heyday of Canadian nationalism, a group of poets contested the results, citing the American influence on the jury, and raised $1,000 for their preferred runner-up, Milton Acorn. They called this the “People’s Poetry Award,” and presented it in a makeshift ceremony at a Toronto tavern. Contention carried over into the next year as well, when a handful of Members of Parliament were outraged that bpNichol’s The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid, which they considered to be obscene, had won a state-sponsored award.

For most writers however, the GGs are still viewed as a great honour and a career-boosting opportunity. As Saint-Martin puts it, “There is nothing controversial about the award for us.” That the GGs are contested is – as Northrop Frye noted – to be expected: “…A committee with so august a name attached to it represents an Establishment, to be attacked for that reason alone.” Yet the role that the GGs have played in creating a strong sense of Canadian culture and supporting our literary arts is invaluable. With this year’s selection coming from a number of independent publishers and breakthrough authors, the results will be some of the most exciting yet.

Winners will be announced at La Grande Bibliothèque, 475 de Maisonneuve E., on November 16 at 10 a.m.