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Literary awards are abundant in Canada, but some see a downside

Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Giller Prize, with prize founder Jack Rabinovitch: Winning made sales of her book "The Sentimentalists" take a huge jump.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

University of Ottawa professor David Staines was shocked by an unexpected reaction when his friend Jack Rabinovitch founded the Giller Prize to honour the best in Canadian literature in 1994. "I couldn't get over the negativity that was out there," he recalls. "People said, 'We already have the Governor-General's award, why do we need another prize?' And these were publishers!"

Few stories could better illustrate the enormous shift the new prize helped set off. Not only have book awards proliferated madly since then, they have become as essential to the business of marketing books today as retail stores once were - the virtual display windows of a new era. But while most celebrate their effect in drawing attention to all manner of literary endeavours - and raising sales - other observers are beginning to worry about the cumulative effect of competitive spectacles that inevitably identify far more losers than winners.

Still, as paper publishing declines, few complain of a surfeit today. "The more awards the better," says Staines, who went on to help found the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, which has since been joined by a retinue of other high-dollar prizes for the same craft, including the new $60,000 Hilary Weston Prize, announced earlier this month.

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Once the recipients of hearty handshakes for prize-winning efforts, Canadian authors now stand to win semi-serious money, at least on par with that dispensed by more famous international awards. The winner of the Giller Prize gets $50,000, while the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction gives out $40,000. After doubling its purse to $200,000 in 2010, the Griffin Trust now awards $75,000 to two winners. By comparison, the famous Man Booker Prize is worth about $80,000, while Pulitzer Prizes come with a cheque for $10,000.

(For a list of the top 20 prizes for which Canadian authors and poets are eligible, go to the bottom of this story.)

Next week's presentation of the Griffin poetry prizes in Toronto - to be preceded by a sold-out reading before an audience of more than 1,000 people - typifies the new breed of patron-driven prize programs. Founded by businessman Scott Griffin in 2000 as what he calls "a really premium, class act," with the participation of such leading literary figures as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, the trust today awards a total of $200,000 in prize money annually to Canadian and international poets drawn from 37 different countries.

The annual prize-giving has not only succeeded in raising the profile of poetry in Canada, it has even made it trendy. "I don't know if we hit the wave at the right time or if we had something to do with creating the wave," Griffin says. "But poetry seems to be back in fashion."

Spurning corporate or political sponsorship and ignoring media demands for deadline-friendly scheduling, the annual Griffin gala gathers a Bohemian elite into what is routinely the liveliest, dancingest event of the literary calendar. At the same time, the trust is establishing a national program, called Poetry in Voice, to inoculate high-school students with the sound of verse. "So we're coming at poetry from both ends," Griffin says.

As glamorous as it can be - something unthinkable pre-Giller - celebrating literary accomplishment requires commitment deeper than a willingness to cut cheques. "It's like having a wedding every year," Griffin says.

"I remember talking to Jack Rabinovitch early on," adds Noreen Taylor, chairman of the Charles Taylor Foundation, "and he said, 'You realize you have to give up six months of your life.' "

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But it's all worth it, according to Taylor, who sees the subsequent proliferation of prizes similar to her own as proof of its success.

"It's obviously been an enormous influence on what's being written by writers, what's being published by publishers and hopefully what's being read by readers," she says. "Public attention has allowed writers to open other doors. These books are now possible."

For writers, the new opportunities are often double-edged, with each new prize multiplying the chances of not winning. "I understand that some writers may feel that if there's a winner, there are obviously losers," says Elana Rabinovitch, administrator of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. "That's hard because right now we have a culture of prizes. But it's the only downside."

B.C. native George Bowering, Canada's first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, notes that he has published 40 books since the inauguration of the B.C. Book Prizes 28 years ago - and has yet to win. But the attention he most misses is different.

Books he published as a young man would routinely garner dozens of reviews, according to Bowering. "Now that I am older and a better poet, my books will be lucky to get more than one or two reviews in the papers," he laments. "How did I know that 1970 was the golden age for books in Canada?"

Bowering's concern about a new era of gala publicity is shared by his wife, independent scholar Jean Baird, who is writing a book on awards culture based on a reading of every nominee and winner of the Man Booker Prize since 1968. "Prizes are becoming increasingly important, and I find that alarming," she says, disputing conventional wisdom that prizes elevate standards or sell books.

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The one exception, Baird acknowledges, is the Giller Prize, which is renowned for its effect on sales. Only a few hundred copies of Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists sold before it won the Giller in November. Since then, tens of thousands of copies of a hurriedly produced new edition have sold.

But the Giller effect is rare, according to Baird. "Even the Booker doesn't really sell books - unless you win," she said. She commends the non-commercial Griffin "for not even trying to sell books."

Nor do prizes properly honour writers, according to Baird. "For a lot of writers, it's total agony," she says. "If your book doesn't make the short list, you might as well fold up shop and forget about it." The message is reinforced by publishers who rely heavily on past and hoped-for prizes to shape their lists, according to Baird, often including bonuses for nominations and wins in writers' contracts and discounting future advances extended to "failures."

"It's not as if awards shouldn't exist, that's not what I'm suggesting," Baird says. "But the emphasis that has been placed on them seems out of proportion." She would prefer that patrons concentrate more on honouring lifetime achievement than new books.

What we need to counter the pernicious effect of awards, therefore, is more of them. Today even the critics seem to agree that there can never be too many.

The top book-prize jackpots open to Canadian writers, in order of value (all amounts in Canadian dollars):

1. Nobel Prize in Literature: $1,555,870

2. International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: $139,000

3. Man Booker International Prize: $96,487

4. Man Booker Prize: $80,400

5. Warwick Prize for Writing: $80,400

6. Griffin Poetry Prize: $75,000

7. Cundill Prize in History at McGill: $73,345

8. Writers' Trust Hilary Weston Prize for Non-Fiction: $60,000

9. Scotiabank Giller Prize: $50,000

10. Montreal International Poetry Prize: $50,000

11. British Columbia National Book Award: $40,000

12. The Donner Prize: $35,000

13. Governor General's Literary Awards: $25,000

14. Rogers Writer's Trust Award: $25,000

15. Marion Engel Award: $25,000

16. TD Canadian Children's Literature Award: $25,000

17. Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction: $25,000

18. Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: $25,000

19. Trillium Book Award: $25,000

20. Matt Cohen Prize: $20,000

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