Friday, November 29, 2013

Stupid Voices

I have a few things to say today. None of my posts are really organized or planned well, so probably there is no need to say this anyway.

I am judging three books now for an award, and it's become quite apparent which one will win, though I want to finish it, of course, before I am sure. But this leads me to the idea of awards. I want one, of course. No, more than one. I would like the security it might bring. I get tired, as everyone does, I am sure, of shopping my books around to various publishers. I'd like to write a book knowing from the start it has a publisher.

But I am really curious how these awards are decided, the ones with juries, I mean. Are they mostly a compromise? Looking at the Canada Reads finalists this year makes me wonder how far off its process is from other prizes, despite it not being right now as a bad as it was during its social media voting frenzy a few years back.

The trouble is I see the writers out there at conferences and reading series and it is almost always the ones with the least remarkable things to say, and the least remarkable ways to say them, that talk for the longest. There is a precise mathematical equation that describes this, I am sure.

Or sometimes I have been on juries that create shortlists and found that one book we all dismissed has gone on to not just be short-listed, but also to actually win some other award. Why is this? It cannot be a simply a matter of taste. I remember another time creating a short list and including a book that was maybe sub-par but its subject matter appealed, and it made the list diverse. I felt fine including it in the shortlist but never thought it would win.

Probably the one question that's most difficult to answer is what makes something literary, as opposed to commercial. I think the line is blurred in Canada maybe more than in other countries. You attend readings here, for instance, by writers who have won awards, or who have not, and there are dramatic differences in the audiences to which they speak. Too often there is an evangelical redemption story at the beginning, about how writing has saved the life of the writer. That's bad enough, but then some writers feel the need to perform as if the audience is made up of children.

I am not against that, if the audience is children. As a small aside, one of the great pleasures I have right now is reading to my daughter, who is not yet a year old and who smiles and fidgets with anticipation as I read through her 50-word board book on the activities friends might do together. It's beautiful.

But it's disheartening to hear the volume and the velocity and the tone of the reading voice lauded, or see the gestures that resemble some kind of acting out of the action. I may be alone, but I hope not. I don't want to hear an adult read in a funny voice to me. It's embarrassing. If it's John Cleese, I get it. It's funny. If it's not, it's still funny, and the gravity with which the writer comments between reading sections . . . well, I would rather step outside and get a little fresh air.

Can we assume that even if we are reading traditional realism the audience is at least capable of imagining a voice?

Maybe part of this comes from a sad hypothesis I have, that writers themselves rarely read anymore, that they watch movies and television and write with the primary goal of describing the framed scene and action moving in and out of that frame. The over-writing comes in the desire to give direction to the actors in the future movie. On the page it's annoying enough. On stage it's ridiculous.

I recently read a book in which a character was described as hyperactive in the beginning of the sentence, and her movement was described as "ambling" at the end of the sentence. It's as if there is no word that actually matters, but the author for some reason requires an adjective.

It doesn't instill confidence.

And what's worse is the celebration of award-winning authors simply because of their money. It's funny. You look at some of them and know their last book was horrible. It would never have been published if the previous had not done well, but we fall all over ourselves to praise them, hoping they will be on a jury sometime and remember what we said.

On the positive side, I am teaching some great books next year, so I know they are out there. And Lynn Coady won the Giller, which is great, but should have happened already, when The Antagonist was the best book.

Two great things in Canada for the short story -- Lynn Coady and Alice Munro winning their awards. I hope that results in a new faith in the form on the part of publishers in Canada, for purely selfish reasons, of course. My first book was short fiction, and got some good reviews, but it's take me about 7 years to find a publisher for the next book of short fiction.

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