LivingArts: Going to the Dogs

On Tuesday, November 10, the Scotiabank Giller Prize was awarded to Fifteen Dogs, a novel by Andre Alexis in which a group of dogs at a Toronto veterinary clinic find themselves suddenly capable of complex thought and human language. Coach House Books, who published Fifteen Dogs, has already extended the book’s print run, expecting to face what’s become known as the “Giller Effect,” a term describing the “dramatic spike in sales for a book after it wins the Scotiabank Giller Prize.”

People have a lot of opinions about literary awards. Australian author Richard Flanagan said, “National prizes are often a barometer of bourgeois bad taste.” Canadian publisher Jack McClelland said, “Better put a fox in a henhouse than to ask an author to judge his peers.” Much of the criticism about literary awards is that the same authors win prizes for the same sort of books; however, Alexis’s win gives me hope. This year’s Giller Prize shortlist had myriad diversity, including a translation from Quebec, a collection of short stories, and multiple books from independent presses. Alexis, born in Trinidad and Tobago, is also a departure from the white men we often see celebrated in literary circles.

Despite their criticism, one thing we can’t deny is that literary prizes are a big deal. Just five years ago, Gaspereau Press found itself in a crisis position when The Sentimentalists won the Giller Prize and the small independent press couldn’t keep up with the print demands associated to a Giller win.

Last month, during the Hamilton Arts Council’s Living Arts Symposium, I hosted a panel discussion about the literary arts, and two of the topics that dominated the panelists’ discussion were how to recognize the literary arts and how to promote the value of the literary arts. In my opinion, literary awards do both.

One of the many findings of the summary report from the National Forum on the Literary Arts, which was held last year in Montreal, is that “valuing creators is a key priority” and participants “lamented the lack of recognition for creative work.”

The report said, “Literary awards were seen to be a very influential element of book dissemination as they affect what works are being read. The downside to this influence was described as a “winner-takes all” approach to marketing and media coverage. This trend of celebrating a small number of recognized books creates a limited perspective of the diversity of the supply of literary works.”

The problem with literary awards is that we often celebrate the same people. Who we honour is important. When we diversify our award winners, we diversify what people are reading. For the first time this year, my own parents watched the Gillers broadcast, and because CBC valued the literary awards enough to broadcast them, my mom now has Fifteen Dogs on her reading list. Bringing a book written by a person of colour, published by an independent press, told from the perspective of dogs to a mainstream audience is no small feat.

When we honour artists, we tell them that they matter. We tell them that their work is valuable. In the case of international prizes, we also tell the world that Canadian literature matters. (Shout out to Alice Munro and her Nobel Prize!)

Just like books themselves, literary prizes come in all shapes and sizes. The Lammy’s, or Lambda Literary Awards, “identify and celebrate the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year and affirm that LGBTQ stories are part of the literature of the world.” Here in Hamilton, the Hamilton Literary Awards shortlist was just announced, with the goal of recognizing and celebrating the best of our city’s published authors. In a city where books coverage is extremely lacking, the Hamilton Literary Awards are a crucial part of recognizing our writers.

Literary Awards create excitement, not only about the books that are nominated, but about Canadian literature. I can’t help but think that matters.