One the same day as I received notice I didn’t win a short story contest I’d entered, six authors gathered in Toronto at the Giller Prize award ceremony. One walked away the winner.
In following the tweets posted during the ceremony, it seemed Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was the popular favourite. It was, however, a debut novelist, Sean Michaels for Us Conductors, who received the $100,000 cheque.
In an age when we hear more laments than praise about the state of the publishing industry, and discussions about the paltry income of authors, it was lovely to see a room-full of men in black tie and women in jewels spending an evening praising literature. Although it wasn’t the Academy Awards, the ceremony was still afforded a Canadianesque, best of CBC treatment. And—let’s not forget—there was a full $100,000, plus $10,000 for each of the non-winners, on the table.
At the same time, though, in a humorous, self-deprecating way, the event highlighted everything that’s wrong with Canadian publishing. There was huge emphasis on the big pot of money: though someone as successful in a different career, say engineering, could pull in $100,000 every single year—not as a one-time, fingers-crossed, please, please, please prize.
And then there was Rick Mercer’s bid for laughs as he said some bookstores are actually thriving; in fact, he went into Chapters and bought lovely home decor. And Toews’ wish to spend potential winnings on a pair of Sorel boots, and Mercer’s comeback: “Dare to dream.”
On an interview on CBC’s Q the next day, Michaels reflected the sentiment by saying, “It takes a lot of work to keep your head above water, and certainly it takes a lot of work to keep your head above water for a long time.”
Beyond the thinly veiled bitterness, though, the event had meaning. A public appreciation for an art some of us feel compelled to do, no matter the challenges or earnings. A tackling of tough issues—from terrorism to the right to die—in a way that touches people’s hearts.
At one point, Mercer told the audience: “Buy the books.”
But the call doesn’t make me want to just buy the books of the winner and finalists. It makes me want to buy the books of the many authors who didn’t make the Giller, who never will, who may not even aspire to. Who in their own ways are answering to their art, prize-worthy or not, who must work non-writing jobs to survive, yet keep going. For not everyone will win a prize, and a prize isn’t the only indication of worth.