Ruth E. Walker
Awards. What writer would not want to win an award for their writing? After all, we write with passion and know that few of us will be compensated for the hours and hours we devote to our craft. So awards and grants are a welcome bonus. A recent article in the Toronto Star newspaper about Canadian writers of commercial fiction got me thinking about who wins the major book awards and who gets left out.
In Canada, we have some lovely prizes for fiction writers. Notable among them:
Arguably, the “Giller” is the glitziest party with hefty prize money for the winner: $100,000. The four finalists each receive a very nice $10,000. The prize is awarded each year to a novel or collection of short fiction.
While the Scotiabank Giller prize is rich in monetary rewards, there’s no denying the cachet connected to the GGs, a national recognition of literary merit since 1936. Expanded over the years to the current seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, young people’s literature — text and illustrated — and translation. The Canada Council for the Arts hands out prizes for English-language winners and for French-language winners. 14 prizes in all, with writers, illustrators and translators receiving $25,000, their publishers receiving $3,000 and finalists receiving $1,000.
Like the Giller, this prize is awarded annually to a novel or collection of short fiction. The $50,000 purse is impressive and finalists receive $5,000 each.
Inspired by the one-book, one-community phenomenon, CBC launched Canada Reads where five diverse panellists each champion a book that they think all of Canada should read. There’s no prize money; however, finalists and winners have all seen significant increase in sales for their books. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion sold 70,000 copies after being declared winner in 2002, fifteen years after it was first published.
There are also many regional, provincial and municipal awards for literary fiction. But where is the prestigious prize for popular, commercial fiction? Generally sponsored by writing associations and groups, genre fiction has some great prizes. For example:
- Crime Writers of Canada — Arthur Ellis Awards
- Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association — Aurora Awards
- Stephen Leacock Associates — Leacock Medal for Humour
According to Wikipedia, there are more than 50 literary awards in Canada for writers of adult and children’s fiction. In Canada, literary awards of serious prize money and prestige most often means serious fiction — elegant text, subtle layers of meaning, imagery and metaphor that bring us to tears with their beauty.
What about the joy of reading a terrific book? Commercial fiction, also known as “popular fiction”, is that book you can’t put down because the fascinating characters or plot are like musical earworms you cannot get out of your head. And the suspense or romance is pulling you along. There may be precious little imagery happening or subtle layering, but does that mean it is “less than” a literary gem anointed by a panel of literary judges?
I once taught a workshop where a participant was shocked that I referenced Stephen King as a strong and compelling writer. She once said a similar thing in her university English literature class and was shamed in front of her classmates by her prof’s seething rejection of “that hack.”
Victorian-era best-selling author Charles Dickens was considered to be a hack, I told her. And like Dickens, Stephen King’s work has found its way onto more than one postsecondary syllabus.
Of course, there’s also some satisfaction in King’s earnings as an author of popular fiction. But even bestselling Canadian authors of popular fiction are unlikely to find themselves on the Giller prize list or anticipating a nod for a GG.
Maybe we should take a page from the National Book Awards in the U.K. Launched as the Popular Fiction Award in 2006 and now dubbed the Fiction Book of the Year, the shortlisted and winning books have included thrillers, romance and humour. Currently sponsored by a corporate giant in vision care, they are now known as the Specsavers National Book Awards.
Seems like a good idea to me. And I suspect our many popular fiction writers would agree.
Ruth is delighted to confirm the Writer in Residence for the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands is bestselling Canadian author of decidedly popular fiction, Susanna Kearsley.
Her latest book, Bellewether, is Haliburton Reads & Writes pick for The Big Book Club and readers are invited to join Susanna in Haliburton on September 15 to talk about Bellewether and ask Susanna questions about the book. The Big Book Club will be live streamed so that anyone can join in and participate in the discussion and Q&A. Check out the Facebook page for details.
Susanna’s books, published in translation in more than 20 countries, have won the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize, RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, a RITA Award, and National Readers’ Choice Awards, and have finalled for the UK’s Romantic Novel of the Year and the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.