The envelope, please

A small discussion about honours and awards in literature was started over on Twitter this morning, when one of the coordinators of a good sf-focused website nominated Tigana as the ‘best fantasy ever’ in a competition on their site. (They are limiting it to books that can be read and fully-appreciated on their own, not only in a series.)

I did a Twitter-note on it, because it was a well-written appreciation, over and above the touching generosity. Alec and Elizabeth linked it to the Facebook page and a lovely number of people seemed to have given the idea a thumbs-up there in an hour or two.

All of this will obviously make any writer feel rewarded. I wrote something earlier this week trying to suggest that it is not just egotistical it is imbecilic for an author to take readers’ support for granted. For one thing, there will always be people who say ‘Meh!’ – or worse – about any book. (I do a good meh! myself.) For another, intelligent, thoughtful responses are golden, or oxygen, you pick your image. ‘You rock!’ is great (really great!), but I cited Randall Jarrell’s two long, brilliant, illuminating essays in appreciation of Robert Frost as what writers long for.

But I didn’t want to write here about Tigana, whether it is even my own best book or not. I wanted to use what this discussion started me thinking about as an opening to do my usual thing here regarding the nature of the book world today, to say a bit about awards, because they are absolutely a major part of the industry.

In the world of literary fiction it has become increasingly the case that come the ‘awards season’ publishers and authors get increasingly edgy and agitated, waiting for the nominations. Indeed, to push the publicity benefits even further, we tend to see longlists now, which are then trimmed to shortlists some time later, extending the attention window. In Canada, the Giller Prize (and to a lesser degree the Governor General’s), in England the Man Booker, in the US the National Book Award and the Pulitzer – there are others, and other countries have their own, various genres and categories (picture books, say) have theirs, too.

What’s happened is that for a certain kind of book, not obviously commercial, not by a known literary bestseller (say an Ian McEwan or a Hilary Mantel now), just about the only avenue to a ‘breakout’, short of Oprah, is one of the big awards.

I have known established writers and publishers hold a title back to get it into a different year from some literary star’s ‘feared’ book. (And of course the next year will almost always have its own star power.) Book people talk with a mix of hunger and chagrin, it sometimes seems, about awards. Recently the Pulitzer gave ‘no award’ in fiction and there was outrage, in part because that meant that no winner would reap the  boost the award gives. The feeling wasn’t that ‘all the other literary works will share’ it was a sense of a sales spike for one book utterly missed. (There were other elements to this story, too.) Being nominated is nice, but it is the prize-winner, in almost all cases, that gets the massive reprint and sales.

Some authors (this isn’t just a book issue, but I’ll keep it there for this post) lament the whole process or aspects of it. I am one of those, for example, uneasy with the idea of lobbying for reader-based awards, others are specific about the way internet voting and campaigning changes what is going on. Some take a Woody Allen approach and dislike awards applied to art, period. Others worry about the politicization of the process, one kind of politics or another – though there really is nothing new about that, either.

But in the publishing world, with the big awards the bottom line is the bottom line. It is harder and harder to sell books once you get past the Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings, the established stars or the newest YA dystopia. Awards season means that what newspapers are left  run pieces on nominees (or even earlier articles on potential nominees). Websites debate and assess. Oddsmakers (especially in the UK) let you place bets. Books are in the news for a while. That is, everyone in the business agrees, a good thing.

Or, well, a few books are in the news. The downside becomes, of course, that those literary works that don’t show up on a major list, for reasons of merit or politics, trends or karma or the accident of who is on a jury in a given year, are likely locked in to their more limited, dispiriting sales. The winners get cheques and photos and reprints and a major offer for their next. The un-nominated go home to … write another book. This isn’t to say all such books deserve to make their authors household names, it is just to note that an award can make it happen, and missing the list means that door’s closed for another year.

Be prepared for a fair bit of ironic shrugging and blasé eyerolling among authors you know when the season comes. Be also aware there is often a duck-like churning of legs beneath the surface of the water, sometimes from these same people. A lot is at stake, in a crowded, diminishing duck pond.

It feels important, as in so many spheres, to try for balance and perspective, and these aren’t always easy. (‘That book won? Are they crazy?’) I remind myself when honours or simply praise come to one of my books that there are those who have hurled that same book, unfinished, against a wall, and blogged their disdain. Books can be in current fashion or out of it, while remaining exactly as ‘good’ as they are. I try to remember that obvious ‘campaigners’ are doing something to feed their children, and it has a long tradition in many different areas of endeavour.

And I try to hang on to the idea that if we are serious about our art and craft, we are working towards a longer horizon.

One thought on “The envelope, please

  1. Ah! The ‘reality’ of the merits of success and the acceptance of popularity, in publishing.

    The duck feet beneath the water in the pond analogy is certainly the most apt Mr. Kay.

    Then of course the illusionary pedantry of an 800 pound gorrilla can divebomb all the water out of the publishing pond in any given year, leaving those furious feet churning nothing but their own hot air.

    I really enjoy opportunities like this sir. My love of your work led me here, but my admiration of your insight and outlook outstrip that by far.

    Many Thanks Mr. Kay.


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