Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Luminato and Illuminating the Review

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This past weekend, Globe Arts ran a piece by John Barber about the proliferation of literary awards. The piece came on the heels of the announcement of a new prize for Canadian non-fiction and on the cusp of the awarding of a high profile prize for poetry. These two awards represent numbers two and one respectively in terms of cash handouts to Canadian writers by Canadian-administered awards. For the eventual winners there’s never been a more lucrative time to do their job.

For the lucky nominees, awards are a ticket aboard a marketing and publicity train that runs alongside — and in some cases faster than — the one driven by their publishers. Barber cites George Bowering, whose poetry “would routinely garner dozens of reviews” in the '70s, but is now lucky to snag just one or two. Dwindling traditional review space is a familiar lament within the industry, and publishers are only too glad of third-party help to get their product into consumers’ hands.

Awards aren’t the only literary happening that has multiplied at the rate of a Mogwai in a monsoon since the ’70s. Literary festivals — another marketing and publicity train for the authors selected — are ubiquitous. However we do our solo reading, or more specifically whatever we do it on, some IRL entertainment complements the experience — whether that be on a small scale with our own book club, or on a large scale as we clamour for tickets and stand patiently in line for an hour or more to get our books signed. Paper publishing may be in decline, but the award- and festival-based fanfare surrounding new publications is forever on the up.

From June 10 to 19, one such happening, Luminato, celebrates its fifth cross-disciplinary festival of the arts, throwing book events up against big-budget, big-buzz offerings and Canadian premieres in theatre, dance, visual arts and music. As with all literary festivals, Luminato’s aim is to pair writers you have read (or read about) and loved already with those whose work you might not have arrived at on your own. One of the ways they do that? You guessed it: they look at who’s winning what at home and abroad. One of the most famous writers you’ve never heard of at this year’s Luminato is Joumana Haddad, administrator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (AKA the Arabic Booker) and also the winner of the Blue Met Festival’s Arab writers’ award. Haddad appears in a lineup that also includes: Randa Jarrar (Arab American Book Award winner), Leila Aboulela (Caine Prize for African Writing winner), Elizabeth Hay (Scotiabank Giller Prize winner), Miriam Toews (Governor General’s Literary Award and Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize winner), Ann Patchett (Orange Prize winner), Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize winner), Jeanette Winterson (Whitbread Book Award winner), Joyce Carol Oates (National Book Award winner), Hisham Matar (Arab American Book Award winner) and Khaled Mattawa, whose translation of Adonis: Selected Poems is currently shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. “Award-winning something” adorns almost every biography in the program, the subtext being: you may have no idea what this award is or how it ranks in the general award-ranking scheme of things, but a group of people who know what they’re talking about have confirmed for you that this book is one worth picking out of the pile.

Tickets to this year’s festivities are, I hear, going fast, so if you have a hankering to see any of these literary award winners in person, get thee to the Box Office, and don’t just assume you can pay at the door. If you’re much more popular than I am you can get together with nine of your friends to score a 15 percent discount on bulk buys of ten tickets or more. Or if you buy tickets to three or more events in one go the same deal applies. Some events (literary and otherwise) are free. And there’s a Festival Hub, with free hubby public mingly type things going on every day.

Prizes often hold public events too of course, perhaps none more successfully than the Griffin Poetry prize, which has to keep moving its annual ticketed reading event to a larger venue to keep up with demand. As I write, the Trillium Book Award nominees are landing in my inbox. Congrats to everyone on the list, all of whom you can meet at a free event at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon on June 16. On roll the many carriages of the marketing train.

Yes, there are lots of literary awards. Some are inherently more interesting than others (who doesn’t find a good bit of face-sitting trash talk entertaining reading?). Are there too many? Probably not. Will books sink without trace if they don’t make the list? Of course not. Well, they might, but that’s not really the fault of the festivals or of the awards.

Barber concludes his Globe piece by suggesting that “What we need to counter the pernicious effect of awards...is more of them,” and I can’t say I disagree. Review sections are shrinking, but also morphing into more personal and interactive experiences and multiplying the avenues through which books can be promoted and talked about. Think of every shortlist and festival program as a review of sorts, because if that’s the case the reviews on offer in Toronto this June are more numerous than ever.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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