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At Large - Runners-Up
by Michael Coren

Did Quixotic and somewhat absurd gym teachers actually mean it when they told generations of their charges that "it is not the winning but the taking part that is important"? Surely not. Most of us would commit every crime in the canon to triumph in our chosen race. I worked for some years with the screenwriter Colin Welland, one of the most honest men in the British literary community. When he won an Oscar for writing the script of Chariots of Fire he evinced virtual euphoria. The press condemned him. When he failed to win the UK's equivalent of the Academy Award he exhibited regret and chagrin. The press condemned him, Prizes are a conundrum.

It needs to be stated at the outset that there are several positive aspects to literary prizes, especially within the Canadian context. They bring a fresh and particularly necessary spotlight to the literary community; they increase awareness of new books and new authors; they increase the sales of a particular book; they award money to authors at a time when the Canada Council is being savaged by a parsimonious and antediluvian government.

Yet there are also less attractive factors involved in the equation. The Canadian Book Marketing Centre is currently compiling a directory of the literary prizes open to Canadians. They have listed 116 thus far, but are still working on the project. We are all aware of the Governor General's Award and the first-novel prize cosponsored by this magazine, but what about the Ann Connor Brimer Award, the McNally Robinson Award, the Harold

Adams Innis Book Prize, the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, the ... ?

There is an extraordinary proliferation of literary awards, and we have to ask ourselves whether there is a sufficient number of Canadian writers worthy to be laureates. It is possible that Canada is more blessed than other countries when it comes to gifted authors, but surely there are limits. If we are not vigilant, literary awards will begin to resemble the Order of Canada; so devalued by the quantity of its recipients -and the quality of many of them - that those who have not actually been given the damned thing now constitute a statistical minority and might consider applying for government assistance.

In Britain literary awards are not as numerous as in Canada but are often much more fatuous. The pinnacle of pointlessness is the Arthur Markham Memorial Prize, for the best book written by a manual labourer who has been injured when working in or around a coal mine. The judges must spend tens of moments on that one. It is worth recalling, however, that the staff of Books in Canada once discussed initiating a "Second Novel Award." They were in jest, but only just. There is some logic to awarding a prize to the best second novel; most writers will agree that second birth is far more arduous than first and that it far more accurately represents a novelist's capabilities and direction. As to the argument that younger writers require financial assistance, two of the writers on the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel short list this year are 46 years old, and all are over 30 - hardly novices in dire need of a monetary boost.

The select group of actors who have refused to accept an Academy Award propound that it is invidious and insidious to compare different performers in different productions. G. K. Chesterton once pronounced on a not dissimilar theme that it would be akin to comparing the colour black with the shape triangular. Is it equitable to tell one author that he is superior to his rivals; fair to that writer, fair to his comrades? And who are the judges and whom do they represent? It is still genuinely staggering that Mordecai Richler's last work of fiction was not even nominated for the Governor General's Award. Do we seriously have such an abundance of novelwriting talent that someone of Richler's stature and abilities can be left from the list of the best of the year? It was, in fact, that very stature that probably kept him off the list. Nobody dislikes a winner more than a loser.

To respond to your charge of hypocrisy, yes, I would accept a nomination or a prize; I have done in the past, on several occasions. The Nobel Prizewinning economist Milton Friedman lived in a rent-controlled building but lambasted the policy of rent control. He justified what opponents condemned as a crass double standard by arguing that his taking advantage of rent control would not aid rent control, while refusing to take advantage of it would do it no harm. By the way, the literature division of the Nobel Prize has been won by the likes of Paul Heyse, Carl Spitteler, and Pearl Buck; no James Joyce, no F. Scott Fitzgerald, no Graham Greene, no Margaret Atwood, no Robertson Davies.


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