On being … illusion-shattering

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember feeling crushed when you found out there’s no Santa Claus? Or maybe it was learning the truth about the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy that started you on the road to cynicism.

To be honest, I don’t remember how I felt when I lost those innocent beliefs. But, given how crushed I was recently when I read an article about big name literary prizes, I can only imagine my reaction on learning the truth about Santa.

Here’s what happened. A couple weeks ago I was leisurely reading the Saturday Toronto Star when I came across this headline in the book section: Burning Book Prize Questions. I immediately thought “Oh, this’ll be interesting. I’ll bet they’re going to talk about the odds of different books winning the Man Booker Prize (a £50,000 international award), or maybe the Scotiabank Giller Prize (a C$100,000 prize for fiction) or maybe the Governor General’s Award (another big Canadian literary prize).

Turns out, that’s not what the article was about at all! The burning question for discussion was whether all the jurors – those people who decide who wins the award – really read all the books. That question NEVER entered my mind. Ever. In fact, I thought it was a downright stupid question. Of course the jurors read all the books. How else could they decide who gets the prize?

Now, I know that when a writer submits a manuscript to a publishing house, the manuscript’s first stop – and maybe its last – is the desk of some young personal assistant. Yes, a nameless, low-paid worker is the writer’s first hurdle on the road to fame and fortune or the rejection pile. But, if a book beats the odds and actually makes it onto the long – or better yet the short – list for a particular literary prize, surely the author gets treated with more respect. The way I see it, those charged with bestowing the prize owe the authors – and the reading public who pay attention to such prizes – the courtesy of reading the chosen books. So, as I said, what a silly question! Nonetheless, I continued reading…

I didn’t have to wade too far into the article before I was speechless. One of the Giller prize jurors who had actually won the award himself, apparently also found the question silly – but for very different reasons. Pointing out that there are a lot of books, he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would think that the jurors would read them all!

Mind you, that’s not the only reason he gave for not reading all of them. His main justification was that there are books by people that he finds “problematic in their sensibility”. I’m sure that’s true, but then why agree to be on the jury? (The cynic in me suspects that being a juror is a good way of keeping your name in circulation in the literary world. But I digress…) Apparently he reads the first 50 pages but only continues if he feels compelled to. Besides, he reckoned that the four other jurors – each with their own sensibilities – could have caught something he might have missed. He went on to also note that he knows that some of his peers on the jury did, in fact, read all the books.

Thankfully, one of the other jurors interviewed for the story – a writer that has been short-listed for a major literary prize – said he believes in giving each book a fair shot and so he read each one in good faith and with an open heart. Now that’s more like it, I thought…

I was really quite stunned by the idea that someone who is helping decide which book will win an award would do so without having actually read all the books from cover-to-cover. It’s not even that it’s illusion shattering -- it seems downright wrong to me. Why should anyone ever put any stock in the quality of the books that are short-listed or even that win?  

I guess this just means that from now on, when a critic recommends a book or when someone recommends one because it’s an award winner, I’ll take the advice with a pound of salt instead of just a grain. Or, better still, maybe I’ll just stick with the tried and true – reliance on recommendations from friends.

So, read any good books lately?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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