Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Wouldn't you love to know?

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Saturday’s closing day of the IFOA made for some extraodinary readings and some very busy folks. While most writers dream about what it would be like to ever be nominated for even one literary award, ever in their lifetime, this year three Canadian writers, Esi Edugyan, David Bezmozgis and Patrick deWitt, all still young with their full careers ahead of them, have had the overwhelming honor to be nominated for several. Saturday was indeed a day of congratulations and celebrations.

Of course it can’t possibly be a happy coincidence. This morning I’m so curious, I find myself wondering non-stop about the process. How did such an interesting confluence of the minds about something so personal and subjective as judging a book, not only occur, but reoccur? Can it be as personal and subjective as it seems if diverse panels of judges all come to the same conclusions? Wouldn't it be interesting if all panels routinely did what the Man Booker panel did this year and publicly explained their thinking?

Obviously, Esi Edugyan, David Bezmozgis and Patrick deWitt, have achieved literary excellence however defined by any number of diverse panels. Panels and panelists have the absolute right to define that excellence any way they please. I am definitely not suggesting that juries should indulge in any kind of post-award comparisons or critiques of individual books. I’m just asking if maybe it would be interesting and worthwhile, maybe before the award, maybe after it, for panels to explain in general what kind of criteria were important to them and affected their thinking.

Would it lead to a healthy debate or a hurtful one? Or maybe true debate is necessarily a bit of both? Please see this post from a British blogger livid at the criteria released by the Man Booker judges: www.practicallymarzipan.com in The Booker and readability and similar imbecilities:

Unfortunately, the judges chose to come out and explain their criteria for selecting the books. Dame Stella Rimington, the head of the panel, claimed that she wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”– implying that this (being bought and not read) was the usual fate of Booker-shortlisted books. Her fellow judge Chris Mullin claimed that a major factor for him was that the book should “zip along” .

The furor around these comments shifted the debate entirely. It is obvious that the ability to “zip along” is not the primary factor for which the Booker judges should be looking …. Literariness is an intangible quality, and one that is hard to defend against the more easily counted factors of sales and popularity, but the very existence of literary prizes rests upon the assumption that some books are better written than others. The question of “readability” is a strange one. Even ignoring the silliness of the term – most books can be read – the Booker hardly has a history of promoting difficult experimental fiction.

While I personally think readability is a very worthwhile criterion, I wonder about what other criteria might also qualify? Craft of story telling? Currency? Use of fresh imagery, symbol and language? A window into the human experience? I spent years trying to define the concepts of literary quality for high school students and I’m still not sure I know what it is. I do know I would love to hear more about it from those who make such decisions. It would only whet our appetites to write to higher standards and to read looking for them. Sigh. We would all so love to know.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page