On my way back from vacation, I heard a segment from CBC’s The Next Chapter. Host Shelagh Rogers spoke with writer and academic Randy Boyagoda on a topic related to this and my last post: those books that “fly way under the cultural radar,” the ones that don’t get noticed (or enough notice) to catch the attention of the awards committees or nominators. How do such books (often from small and/or regional publishers) compete with the literary giants and their behemoth publishers? What is the virtue of seeking out the undiscovered “hyperlocal” book?
In effect, selecting off-the-radar titles returns to the reader his or her reading agency – the right to select a book because something about it speaks to the reader rather than reading tastes being pre-determined and/or directed by a list.
Here is a transcript of the pertinent segment (the entire segment begins at 42:10 at the link above):
SR: What’s the conventional way that [hyperlocal] books find readers in Canada?
RB: That’s the challenge…beyond a community of already committed readership that poets and other writers have… the primary means by which books are read and discussed today is the prize or the prize economy….We read prize list announcements….If it weren’t for prizes, many books that otherwise would be very much worthwhile reading would be ignored, and that is…probably the best argument for literary prizes: that they bring to wider attention books that otherwise may not enjoy the hearing that they would deserve. But I think prizes also can have… a negative, a cramping effect upon our literary imaginations.
SR: So what happens these days to books that don’t win prizes or make a long list, even?
RB: ….If it weren’t for those prizes, these books really do kind of slip away because we have such an accelerated understanding of why and how books matter….Books tend to matter basically in this country from late September until…early November and then again during Canada Reads. And it seems…like a kind of strange way to… understand the life of a book. That right after a given prize season….[overlooked books] kind of ‘[wither] on the vine’…a sad image of a book that should have a life beyond a prize season. But why is it? We’re all kind of invested in this…. American English professor…James English… [has] written a book about this called The Economy of Prestige, and it’s basically a study of literary [and other] prizes and their constant, rampant proliferation and why and how these things have come to matter so much to our understanding of what we should listen to, what we should watch, who we should read…I think he makes a very persuasive argument that [prizes] kind of speak to almost a loss of our own self-confidence… why do I want to read this? I want to read this because I think it’s important; I think it’s interesting or this book critic has made a good argument or this book columnist has made this good argument for it instead of I want to read this because it won a prize.
SR: Well, literary prizes are awarded by juries made up of people so there’s subjectivity involved; there’s human appetite, human frailty so it’s not like running a race where there’s the first, second and third place medals that are obvious. How do you think readers should view the mechanics of prize-giving?
RB: [Reading only prize-winners] wouldn’t have been the case… 25-30 years ago when books…had a more prominent place in our culture as… common documents for conversation. So what have I done? In my own reading experience, I kind of reacted against [the prize-award system] in discovering this local, this next door poet and seeing my world around me in a very exciting way.
So in celebration of seeing our world around us in very exciting ways, I offer the next ten titles for your consideration and reading pleasure. Hereafter, I will endeavour to include an under-represented/-read Canadian title in every blog post.
Stone Soup – Kate Marshall Flaherty – (poetry collection recommended by Randy Boyagoda) – Inspired by the poetic folktale… the cauldron of these inviting poems effortlessly blends ingredients both earthy and spiritual, jaunty and tender, compassionate and ecstatic. The poems encompass generations of family and friends and embrace a wide spectrum of cultures and traditions to reveal heights and depths of our common humanity from fresh and surprising angles of vision.
The Wolf’s Head – Peter Unwin – Unwin lays out the history of the lake and its lands… the stories of the…men who sought the Ontonagon Boulder, the strangling dread of Mishipizheu, the maddening determination of voyageurs….filled with extraordinary facts, humorous anecdotes, and an understanding of the people. In simple, witty language that endears and engages, Peter Unwin brings Lake Superior to life like no other writer has, delivering in vibrant prose, the history of the Wolf’s Head.
Kissing Keeps Us Afloat – Laurie MacFayden – “Kissing Keeps Us Afloat is humorous and joyful, uninhibited and sassy. In love with words and images, MacFayden positively swaggers in these exuberant poems that are loose and open and stylish. The poems touch on fear and loss, revenge and regret, but come back to the sensual, back to love, and to the beauty of the world.” – Shawna Lemay
Crown Shyness – Curtis Gillespie – “’Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what’s happening around him knows that what he’s doing is morally indefensible. He is like a confidence man, preying on the vanity, loneliness and stupidity of other people, gaining trust and then betraying them.’ In many ways, this quote sums up Crown Shyness….Gillespie’s tale is powerful… ending with a gut-punch climax.” – Quill & Quire
Gaits – Paulette Dube – A poetic look at movements made by animals and humans during a cycle of four seasons. The poems are rich in their simplicity, and convey the depth and mystery of the animal-human connection. Reverse anthropomorphism occurs and the humans come away having (un)learned something about the citizens of the forest while deepening an understanding of themselves….that as a species we are lost and lonely without our connection to the land, but that this connection reverberates with consequences.
The Alchemists of Kush – Minister Faust – Two Sudanese “lost boys.” Both fathers murdered during civil war. Both mothers forced into exile through lands where the only law was violence. To survive, they became ruthless loners and child soldiers, before finding mystic mentors who transformed them to create their destinies.“The Alchemists of Kush is both a powerful and vital contribution to Canadian literature that looks at contemporary Edmonton from an African-Canadian perspective.” – Wayne Arthurson
Spider’s Song – Anita Daher – Stuck in Yellowknife with her crazy grandmother, AJ is one angry and lonely girl. Her blog has become her main source of contact with the world where she reveals her innermost hurts—the absence of her mother and of her father, who abandoned AJ when she was just a little girl; and the moving around she and her mother have had to do every few years for reasons she has never understood. And recently, she’s begun to cut herself—a powerful habit and shame she is trying to overcome. A gripping, chilling tale.
Body Trade – Margaret McPherson – Weaving together two stories of survival, the main narrative follows Rosie and Tanya, two young Canadian women who leave NWT and head south on an ill-conceived road trip through California, Mexico and Central America. The story takes a life-defining twist when their search for freedom and adventure beings them into contact with predators of the Central American sex-trafficking trade. Body Trade asks: To what terrifying places will we journey, and at what cost, in order to save our own lives?
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches – Gaetan Soucy (trans. Sheila Fischman) – The peculiar narrator of The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is an unnamed adolescent unsure of what to make of the world or who they are, even whether they are male or female. When the family patriarch dies, the family’s isolation is broken, and shocking secrets are revealed. Filled with intrigue, suspense and flights of fancy, Gaétan Soucy’s novel is an original and challenging work of fiction. Heralded as a literary star in Quebec, Soucy deserves to be read everywhere in Canada.
Fruit – Brian Francis – Fruit tells the story of 13-year-old Peter Paddington as he tries to fix everything wrong about himself before his Grade 8 year ends. Specifically, to lose weight, get a boy friend and silence his talking nipples. Although lauded by CBC Canada Reads in 2009, I’d hate to see this novel fade into oblivion. It deserves to be read and re-read (and taught) across the country. “Laugh-out-loud funny.” – NOW “Hilarious and gentle.” – Booklist
(And thanks to all who suggested The Book of Mary by me! Shucks.)
* You’ll note again a decidedly Edmonton/ Albertan bias, but that’s just fine.
Writing Quote about prizes: “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.” – Katharine Hepburn, American actress, memoir writer (1907-2003)
Writing Tips: “Want to win big literary prizes? Make sure your story is about men” – The Guardian
Writing Prompt: A man down on his luck realizes he has psychic mind-reading abilities. He improves his life by playing poker. Everything goes really well for him until one day he comes across another psychic at the tables.