Last year, the public had a say in nominating a book for the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. This year, the Readers’ Choice Award will still be presented, but the title will not appear on the official longlist. In the November 2011 issue of Quill & Quire, writer Laura Godfrey took a look at public voting, and whether organizers have gone too far in democratizing Canada’s most prestigious literary award.*
It’s that time of year again. Bibliophiles and critics alike are poring over nominations for some of the country’s biggest prizes, debating who they think should win the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for non-fiction. But even before the literary awards season was in full swing, the Scotiabank Giller Prize “ the most prestigious prize in Canada and, at $50,000, one of its most lucrative “ was the subject of heated debate.
In August, Giller organizers announced that this year’s longlist would include a readers’ choice title selected by the general public, who could vote online for their favourite eligible book. The contest was administered by the CBC, which had taken over from CTV as the Giller’s broadcast partner, with the three-person jury “ novelists Howard Norman, Andrew O’Hagan, and former Giller finalist Annabel Lyon “ setting the rest of the list.
While the public eagerly championed its favourite books, casting more than 4,000 votes for roughly 350 eligible titles, there was vocal backlash from some members of the literary community who felt the contest took away from the award’s prestige.
On Twitter and in the blogosphere, A.J. Somerset, author of Combat Camera (Biblioasis), argued that choosing a book based on popularity, rather than literary merit, is a step backward. When the quality of the book has nothing whatsoever to do with the amount of attention it’s able to generate, this is cheapening the entire process of talking about books, Somerset says. Now it’s whoever can organize a Facebook campaign and whoever can mobilize their local newspaper to tell people to go vote for the book.
Author Wayne Arthurson agrees the contest devalues the jury’s informed decision, even if he doesn’t always agree with its choices. It’s a way of getting writers who are more confident in pushing their friends to vote for them. And the publishers [are] doing the same thing, he says.
Still, that didn’t stop Arthurson, whose debut mystery novel Fall From Grace (Forge Books) was eligible for this year’s prize, from mounting an email campaign of his own. He concedes that the contest at least gives genre fiction a chance at receiving mainstream literary acclaim. There’s a certain type of book that wins the Giller, so it’s nice to have other people in there who can bring a different perspective to it, Arthurson says.
As it turns out, the winning readers’ choice title, Saskatchewan author Myrna Dey’s Extensions (NeWest Press), had received little mainstream attention prior to the contest. The debut novel, which won with approximately 240 votes (or 6 per cent of the overall nominations), doesn’t stray too far from the sweeping, multigenerational family sagas the Giller has been known to celebrate in the past.
Despite criticism from some quarters, Ann Jansen, a senior producer at CBC Books, believes the contest was a success. The jurors are still making the final decision, so it’s not as if the public is the one that brings it home for the shortlist or the winning book, Jansen says. It just gives one more book the opportunity to be read and recognized by more people. I think it’s mostly a positive thing in terms of trusting the reading public as lovers of books.
Giller director Elana Rabinovitch, the voice behind the popular @GillerPrize Twitter account, calls the contest an enormous success given the number of votes cast and the many readers who wrote in about why they felt a book deserved the honour. When it comes to inviting the public into the process to share their voice on their favourite book, I don’t believe that there’s any danger of tarnishing the reputation of the prize, she says.
Perhaps the biggest problem, one that Rabinovitch concedes was unavoidable, was the fact that some books that were eligible to be voted on by the general public weren’t released until a few weeks after the contest’s Aug. 28 deadline. This loophole gave an advantage to books published in 2010, which had plenty of time to seep into public consciousness, and books by already popular authors, whom readers might have voted for based on their previous work.
Organizers haven’t yet confirmed whether or not the readers’ choice contest will continue next year, or if any changes will be made to address its perceived shortcomings, but Rabinovitch says she would not rule out doing it again in the future, or something comparable.
The contest certainly fits nicely alongside the CBC’s other populist-oriented books coverage, especially the annual Survivor-style showdown Canada Reads. CBC Books associate producer Erin Balser wasn’t surprised by the negative reaction to the Giller contest after witnessing something similar for the 10th-anniversary edition of Canada Reads, in which the public was asked to vote on the 1o best books of the past decade.
Given that the audiences for Canada Reads and the Giller do have overlap, it was safe to assume that not everybody would be happy with this decision. And I think that’s fine, Balser says. As long as people are talking about books and talking about awards, that’s a great thing.
*CORRECTION, Aug. 3, 3012: The original version of this article stated that the winning title of this year’s Readers’ Choice Award would appear on the longlist.