Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What Kind Of Impact Do Awards Actually Have?

My computer guy reads The Globe and Mail regularly, because the Canuckistanis are our neighbors to the north, and he believes that someone really ought to be keeping track of what they're doing. So he referred me to Literary awards are abundant in Canada, but some see a downside.

I nearly forgot about it, but I'm behind in my Bookslut reading, and while I was there catching up, I noticed posts about this prize and that prize, and this other one and oh, my goodness, another. Whoops. I missed one. It appears that literary awards are abundant all over the place.

Evidently you can make some serious bucks in Canada winning literary prizes. Maybe similar to that woman who supported her family with prize winnings. Supposedly a literary prize for poetry has made poetry cool in the great icy north, and I certainly have to respect that.

But, The Globe and Mail article says, literary awards also "have become as essential to the business of marketing books today as retail stores once were..." Jean Baird, an independent scholar, is writing a book on award culture and disputes just how effective this marketing is. Except for the Giller Prize, she says awards don't seem to raise sales. "Even the Booker doesn’t really sell books – unless you win," she claims. Nonetheless, she says there is a sense that if your book hasn't won an award, it has lost them.

I am not the type of person who has any great expectations or worries about winning awards, whether they are literary, academic, or service. I've even gotten over not being in the running for World's Greatest Mom. But I would like to see my books read, which means a little spreading the good word of their existence. That's my objection to award obsession, which occurs here in America, too. When children's literature listservs are hosting discussions in March about what books have already been published that year that could be considered for the Newbery, that encourages its members to read those books and may even create a self-fulling prophecy. The same is true of keeping some kind of spreadsheet on starred books and dishing about it regularly. Award and starred book discussions encourage readers to focus on those limited titles. Thousands of children's books are published each year, and while I will instantly agree with anyone who claims that a certain percentage of them are dreck, I also believe that more than the handful that are perceived as award books and garner stars are worth reading. But people have to learn about them, which is difficult to do if the literary discussion is limited to what are perceived as award contenders.

And I'm not even getting into the perception question: What is perceived as a potential award winner and who came up with that? Someone could also ask if it's possible to write to the award. I'm just saying the pack mentality that chases award winners (hmmm...the literary equivalent of the popular kid?) actually hurts reading in general, to say nothing of sales.

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