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Book awards: Who needs them? Add to ...

While listening to news of the Giller Prize nominees in October, I felt my eyelids slip shut and my mind fog. When the shortlist for the Governor-General's Literary Awards was trumpeted a few weeks later, the drone of repetition caused a reflexive stupor and I almost slipped into a coma. My head slumped forward and my nose was soon blowing milk-bubbles in my cereal bowl. I hadn't been so excited since I painted my living room beige.

And I was enthused to the point of torpor over the choice of jurors for the Giller: Jane Urquhart, Margaret Atwood and Alistair MacLeod. Were these the jurors or nominees? I felt another coma coming on. Urquhart, Atwood and MacLeod. Aren't they the same person? Overlap their literary sensibilities and you wouldn't have a smidgen of misalignment.

They'd all have the same Alfred Hitchcock silhouette cast on the pallid CanLit wall and they'd be mouthing these words, in unison: "Good evening. We are here to honour writers who have already been honoured yet must be honoured and will need honouring again, shortly. We do so because they are our ghastly, yet glorious, companions from the legion of Toronto Lit-Elite."

I know, I know, the words are already on your lips: "Shut up and sit down, you're making too much fuss and, besides, you're blocking my view of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje." I've been clipping recent press photos of Ms. Atwood to erect my own personal shrine, but my house has run out of wall space. Now, I've started on the barn. The chickens don't seem to mind.

Actually, Atwood and Ondaatje are not the targets here. Even the books that were nominated for the G-Gs and Giller are not the targets. The nominees for both awards are all amazing writers. They have worked for what they have achieved and they are extraordinary artists. I mean that wholeheartedly.

But what about the hundreds of writers published by the 40 or more independent presses stretching right across Canada? Not one groundbreaking book was nominated for a Giller or G-G this year. Can anyone, in all honesty, claim that there was not one commendable book published by the independent presses in this country, one book worthy of rubbing elbows with the books brought out by multinational publishers such as McClelland & Stewart (now partly owned by Random House), Doubleday and Knopf?

What about Watermelon Row by Michael Holmes (Arsenal Pulp), or Buddha Stevens by Steven Hayward (Exile Editions) or A Grammar of Endings by Alana Wilcox (The Mercury Press)?

Are the independent presses deserving? Are Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart and Michael Ondaatje deserving? They all launched their careers with the independents.

The problem is that small presses are often regarded as stepping stones to the bigger presses. When the time is right, authors will desert their small presses to step toward conglomerates run by the Germans or Japanese or Americans. And once they do, there's no turning back.

Despite the fact that independent publishers produce the innovative works of fiction in this country, the books that change the face of literature (as it should be changed constantly in order to evolve), they are often ignored. Multinational publishers have more money to promote their books, to run half-page ads on book pages of national newspapers, to attract the attention of journalists who probably work for divisions of the same multinational companies. They can use their foreign money to let everyone know how great a book is and, subsequently, dominate the media and public opinion. In a way, advertisements often buy a place on the Giller and G-Gs shortlists.

Over the past decade, the news media have shifted their attention away from literary ideas to focus on the big-bucks book stories. Before big-bucks books became news, articles about small-press authors had a place in the mainstream media.

What a charmed life I once led, reading about the latest innovative fiction. But in the early 1990s, political correctness worked its sinister magic to obstruct the flow of brash ideas. Money became the sanctioned topic of conversation. Thus, the media's attention shifted to young, cynical, good-looking, turtleneck-clad writers who were well-versed in fashion (fashion being the people's form of expression) and who garnered huge advances for their books (and looks). That became the literary news story. How much money a book was able to generate. Who had bought the film rights and which incredible actors would star in the movie.

Last month, when the G-G loot was upped from $10,000 to $15,000, the news media were quick to point out that the Canada Council was merely trying to keep up with the glitzy Giller. Literary awards competing for media attention through the creativity of cash.

In my estimation, the G-Gs are not as guilty as the Giller of crippling the spirit of Canadian literature. The G-Gs maintain a shred of integrity because the jurors are usually selected from various parts of the country and often have disparate sensibilities. Not so for the Giller. As usual, the titles for the Giller this year were dominated by M&S authors, because -- quite simply -- the jurors are usually M&S authors. The Giller is high-brow formula. It is a rigged award that allows only the big boys to play. It's Jack Rabinovitch (a real-estate magnate) financing an entertainment award, not a book award, because he wants bright lights and fame and tuxedos and television and people salivating to score a ticket to the award ceremonies because it's the place to be and they want to rub elbows with a handful of moneyed literati.

The Giller is about giving out $25,000 so hordes of people will rush out and buy the winning book because it won $25,000 and so is the book to read and the fashion for the fall. Just like a coat, just like a pair of shoes. It must be sported because the product has been properly advertised and validated by money.

Which brings me to the ReLit Awards. It's not just me who has taken notice of the deplorable state of Canadian literary awards. When I announced the formation of the ReLit Awards for independent presses only, cash prize $1 ( ), I received spirited praise from over half the independent publishers in this country. I also received numerous calls from the media, not only seeking additional information, but agreeing that it was high time that something was done about the tiresome state of literary awards.

Why hasn't something like the ReLit Awards ever existed? Because the majority of those in the literary community are a timid bunch, afraid to speak up for fear of treading on someone's toes, and that might mean they won't get shortlisted for a big-money prize or they won't be awarded a Canada Council grant or they won't get invited to read at a particular literary festival.

The G-Gs are old news. The Giller, such a young prize with so much promise, is already antiquated and worn out. Only when we start at the bottom and begin again will we have a chance to celebrate the new faces of Canadian literature. And it must be soon, before we all perish from Atwooditis or inflammation of the Ondaatje.

Kenneth J. Harvey's latest novel is Skin Hound (The Mercury Press). His books have been published by large and small presses, and shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

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