Monday, October 18, 2010

Not If You Tell Me To - rejecting prize winners

It's book award season and the press is abuzz with the latest winners and nominees for all the big name prizes. Is it just me though, or are book prizes and the like taking a bit of a respectability hit these days? Their authority seems to be questioned as often as their winners are celebrated.

I was browsing through a few of my favourite book focused web sites recently and came across the "Not the Booker" a prize that the Guardian Books blog put together last year to allow them "the fun of complaining about the Man Booker prize". In their announcement about the prize last year they give a good overview of the types of reasons why people complain about the Booker Prize winners and talked about their reasons for setting up a competing prize. The winner receives a mug, and surely a bit of an increase in attention. This year they gave the nod to two books: The Canal by Lee Rourke and Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was announced almost two weeks ago, and, as it seems to be every year, the selection was met with some grumblings. The prize went to Mario Vargas Llosa, who hails from Peru and has long been a celebrated author. Leading up to the prize though, Vargas Llosa was largely absent from the speculation about who would take it. I love the fact that the British seem to bet on just about anything under the sun, including potential Nobel Prize winners. Last week betting companies were predicting that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o would take the prize, but he did not. The Guardian posted a story on why they think he should have.

It's not just the Brits who are calling into question the official version of things, it happens in Canada too. Last year it was CBC's Canada Reads: almost immediately after announcing the titles that would be included in the popular contest last year, folks from all corners hit the internet with complaints about the titles that were selected and the ones that should have been considered. One of the biggest complaints was the number of big name books that were up for consideration by Canada Reads, with people wondering why we weren't celebrating lesser known books. The National Post's Afterword blog was probably the most vocal and the most vitriolic in their commentary, and they started up a shadow competition called Canada Also Reads. In the end they picked Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise a first novel from a young author. Ironically, when all was said and done, the CBC contest saw the title that was arguably the least well known across the country win. Nicholas Dickner's Nikolski had been a prize winner in French, but largely unknown in English Canada.

In the US, the latest scandal seems to involve the National Book Award, whose nominees were announced this week. In contrast to the Canada Reads complaints, the National Book Award skeptics are wondering where the big books are. The fiction prize has a great looking list of nominees:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

But the first press I saw about the award questioned where Jonathan Franzen was on the list.

You can't make everyone happy, and in the internet age, you get to hear that unhappiness, I guess. If you want one last testimony on this topic, check out this editorial called Writing and Winning from the New Yorker, or join in on the discussion and add your thoughts below.

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