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Prize Culture, David Suzuki, and Writers’ Trust

Since last July, the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding literary careers in British Columbia, has been conferred on three people. The award, which from 1995 until now was an annual affair, was awarded on its expected 2010 schedule near the end of July first to Ann Cameron, a novelist, playwright and longtime animateur of aboriginal and women’s causes. In October, another Woodcock was conferred on longtime broadcaster and local historian Chuck Davis, the author of The Vancouver Book (1976), The Metropolitan Vancouver Book (1997), and the forthcoming (from Harbour Publishing) The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, which Harbour’s Howard White says is now likely to be retitled Chuck Davis’ Vancouver. The likeable and popular Davis died of lung cancer six weeks after the award was given to him, and moving it up so he could enjoy it before he died requires no explanation.

But a third Woodcock in a single year—this time with Margaret Atwood presenting it to environmentalist David Suzuki at a February 3 Writers’ Trust fundraiser at the Hotel Vancouver—does require an explanation, and not just about why the award was given out three times in a single year. David Suzuki is a charming man and a persuasive advocate for the environment, but he is an environmentalist celebrity first, a television host second, a fruit-fly biologist somewhere in the past and barely a writer at all, since he has co-authored all of his titles with a series of what are called “co-writers” by polite folks—and by people like me, “ghost-writers”.

In the real world, Suzuki’s books are committee-produced books, the fleshing out of carefully-calculated outlines settled by the Suzuki Foundation to secure and hopefully enlarge their support base without offending any subcomponent of it. Because the environmental movement is a mélange of different and often contradictory values, this is subtle work, sort of like political speech-writing, in which staying on point is more important than penetrating accuracy or the resolution of ambiguity: propaganda and advocacy, however warm and fuzzy often trumps complex truth. Contemporary environmentalism is particularly riddled with ambiguities: Suzuki’s brand, for instance, is obligated to ignore the crucial issue of human population control because any attempt to control birthrate contravenes women’s reproductive rights and the values of most of the world’s religions.

The degree of editorial participation the busy Suzuki himself has in producing his books is up for debate, but common sense and a glimpse of Suzuki’s packed-to-the-rafters schedule of public causes and events suggest that his participation in this sort of work is likely to be conceptual and broad-brush, and that the donkey work, along with most of the deep thinking, is done by others. I’m not suggesting that Suzuki is endorsing the books under his name the way Naomi Campbell does, just that writing is neither his occupation nor his avocation.

That Suzuki and his ghostwriters propagandize for causes most people in the arts happen to support tends to obscure the fact that his intentions are distinctly political rather than artistic. Political and artistic merit have, however we might want to cut this, distinctly different protocols, and the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award is supposed to be an award for literary and artistic achievement rendered inside the geographic boundaries of British Columbia. So really, what the hell is going on here, aside from some out-of-control and possibly inappropriate prize flinging?

Awarding the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award to Suzuki appeared to be tied to a publicity op: a fundraiser in Vancouver on behalf of the Writers’ Trust of Canada headlined by Margaret Atwood. The Writers’ Trust, I also note, was listed for the first time as a sponsor of the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. Is it the case that the award is a publicity stunt to announce a marriage between the two organizations, one that tries to raise their mutual profile by bringing in Atwood, an acknowledged cultural superstar, to hobnob with environmental superstar Suzuki. As backroom stratagems go, there’s at least decent logic to this: Suzuki gets another campaign medal to add to his CV, Atwood gets a larger audience for her fundraiser, the Writers’ Trust gets some funds raised, and the Woodcock Prize gets some profile without having to give the award to Justin Bieber, who, whoops, actually does write his own material, such as it is. But aside from that, is there anything really objectionable here, except the faint vapours of cynical self-service, hardly criminal in, as they say, a market-driven economy, which is all we seem to find these days when we go casting about for the public realm.

Maybe the right question to ask is this one: what exactly is the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and what is it doing in Vancouver giving prize money to David Suzuki? The Writer’s Trust of Canada—formerly “The Writers Development Trust of Canada”—was created in 1976 by Graeme Gibson, Margaret Lawrence and Pierre Berton to, (according to its Letters Patent) “Promote interest in and the study of literature, and to advance knowledge and appreciation of Canadian writers and literary works.” In the early days, that took the form of promoting Canadian literature as an integral part of the Canadian school curriculum, , among other things, and at one time the Trust spent most of its energy doing exactly that, producing and disseminating educational material about Canadian writers and their works to the various apparatuses charged with educating our children. It’s basically the Disney strategy: capture the kids, and you’ve captured the adults when the kids grow up.

The Writers’ Development Trust was the product of that enlightened period in Canada’s history where politicians and bureaucrats in our Federal government recognized that Canadian sovereignty was much less a matter of having Canadian military planes and ships polluting the Arctic or shooting up foreign tyrants than it was about what images and stories Canadians used to define and describe themselves—and about where those stories originated and who and what processes maintained those images and stories. For the price of a few supersonic jets that weren’t going to protect us from the thousands of ICBMs the Soviets had aimed at the Americans and collaterally at us, Canada was able, inside a couple of decades, to produce its own indigenous culture, complete with authentic images and narratives so dense and local and multiple that we were able to withstand the true threat to our sovereignty, which was the culturally overpowering if intellectually shallow onslaught of images and tropes being generated by the powerful media apparatus of the United States, which was intent on numbing us and dumbing us down into a docile cultural satellite of Mickey Mouse and other images televised-and-American.

As strategies go, this Lester B. Pearson/Pierre Trudeau-instigated national defense by culture building was both wildly successful and extremely cost-effective. The Writers’ Development Trust was a fairly thoughtful if minor part of that larger initiative, and it was, in its way, extremely successful. Partly as a result of its efforts, for a decade or so in the 1980s and into the 1990s, Canadian literature was taught in a substantial percentage of our elementary and secondary schools, and Canadian Literature courses were established in most of our universities. Most of that inclusion has since decayed in our school system, and the ossified university CanLit departments are mostly teaching the same writers and texts they were teaching in 1990 even though nearly all of the original stars, save Atwood, are now dead or irrelevant. Like the rest of us on the liberal/left, the Writers’ Development Trust had the ball—and then tossed it into a cupboard, thinking that the battle had been won.

What I’m saying is that somewhere along the line, the Writers’ Development Trust seemed to lose interest in its educational mandate. Energized by a generous legacy from George Woodcock’s estate, it took to bailing struggling writers out of trouble (it gave out more than $100 G last year to them, there being a lot more writers around to struggle than there once were). But over the years the Trust has also accumulated an array of reasonably generous literary prizes, which it has conferred on the winning writers seemingly without any serious thought to after-the-fact publicity for the books. (Anyone not onto this should compare the three hours of television coverage and other vigorous promotion done for the books and authors nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize with the recent Writers’ Trust Gala, at which the organizers seemed so focused on authors having cocktails with the Trust’s corporate board members and so uninterested in the books being feted that there wasn’t even a bookseller present to sell books.)

Lately, the organization—recently rebadged as simply The Writers’ Trust, has seemingly become progressively more enamoured of the prize podium, and there is a lot of back-channel talk about it seeking to fulfill its mandate to promote Canadian writers and their work by elevating its array of prizes above those of the Giller, Griffin and Governor-General’s both in terms of monetary value and prestige. Presumably The Trust’s sponsorship of the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award and the already elevated prize money offered, is the first foray of that general elevation.

Leaving aside the wisdom of shifting the focus of a major literary organization from getting Canadian literature into the core curriculum of Canada’s schools to a laudable focus on the welfare of writers-in-tailspins and then to the market-driven splendours of literary prizes for others to puzzle over, let’s see what we find if we dig deeper into the giving out of the three Woodcocks in one year, two of them to people who, I think we can safely say, aren’t/weren’t prone to have orgasms whenever they manage to land a shapely sentence on the page—thus making them, if nothing else, non-avocationist writers.

The man who has been the driving force behind the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Awards from the beginning is Alan Twigg, who also runs BC BookWorld, which for 22 years, has been the West Coast’s unique and mostly admirable booster of local books, publishers and authors (anyone curious about its uniqueness should check out both its widely-distributed magazine, published 4 times a year, and its huge, opinionated and thoroughly useful database at http://www.abcbookworld.com/ ).

Somewhere in the ABCBookWorld website, you’ll find this explanation of Twigg’s literary and editorial attitudes, which have been aggressively practiced at BC BookWorld: “The general public is understandably turned off by the traditional book reviewing process, because most book reviews tend to be corrupt or tedious, or both. Your average book review consists of one literary aristocrat trying to tell other literary aristocrats how to think. Too often the reviewer is so busy trying to impress the reader with his or her intelligence and writing skill that he or she neglects to pass along basic information about what the hell the book is about.

“Because most reviewers are grossly underpaid, they tend to ‘pay themselves’ by abusing the public platform, co-opting the space as an advertisement for themselves. The public by and large senses this and shuns the exercise. Trouble is, when poorly paid reviewers irresponsibly slag their enemies and support their friends, it’s very hard for an editor to ask for a re-write. Only higher pay will engender higher standards.

“With B.C. BookWorld we evolved a publication that favours lively, up-to-date news rather than opinions. We take a high-brow subject – books – and marry it with a low-brow  format – the tab newspaper. The end result is a middle-brow product that everyone can enjoy and use. It’s pretty simple. And yet when I look at most other publications about books, it still seems to be unique. Why cater to ten per cent of the population, the literary aristocracy, when you can reach the 80% of the population who like to read books?”

This hasn’t quite resulted in plot summaries, quotes from the jacket blurbs and the conclusion that all B.C.-produced books are good ones unless the author has left the province for more than a month or has otherwise run afoul of Twigg. As in every literary community, this one has its darlings and its black sheep, and “positive and fair commentary” may be its laudable ideal, but not always the reality. Yet it is a comparatively healthy community, and most writers in British Columbia have reason to be grateful to Twigg for his efforts.

Twigg’s populism, as reflected in his editorial policy, is typical of a strain of B.C. cultural populism that has been around since the heyday of Social Credit. Twigg himself once wrote a very good biography of Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm, and here, he’s performing the Socred maneuver of more or less openly reserving for himself and his circle of non-elitist middle-browers  the sole right within the pages of BC Bookworld to support their friends and slag their perceived enemies—the “literary aristocrats”, wherever or whoever they are. He does own the magazine, after all, he’s done most of the bloody work, and if you don’t like it, you’re obviously one of those literary aristocrats and you can go straight to hell.  And by the way, Jimmy Pattison operates the same way.

Until now, the recipients of the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award have pretty closely reflected Twigg’s eclectic view of who and what matters in B.C. writing: Eric Nichol, the first recipient, was a humourist and newspaper columnist who mostly wrote for the Vancouver Province. Barry Broadfoot (1997) and Paul St. Pierre (2000) were similarly longtime newspaper reporters—both of them for the Vancouver Sun—before they wrote in longer forms. But then purely literary writers have won the Woodcock, too. bill bissett (2007) P.K.Page (2004) and Audrey Thomas (2003) were or are extreme poets’ poets or novelists’ novelists. Logger-poet Peter Trower (2002) has also been a recipient, as has local historian and journalist-turned children’s writer Christie Harris (1998). The Woodcock selection process has been, throughout, conceptually clear (“There is no discrimination with regards to genres of writing other than all recipients must be authors of books.”) and administratively opaque—another trait of Social Credit populism, as it happens. “Winners” the Award website ambiguously states, “are nominated by letters from the general public. A selection committee consists of the board of directors of Pacific BookWorld News Society”—the same society that in theory runs BCBookworld. It then goes on to offer a non-inclusive list of people who, if you read the careful phrasing, have been on the board, but aren’t necessarily on it now, and may not constitute the entire board, etc. Like I said, it’s Twigg’s paper, and really, the Woodcock Award is his, too—or was until now.

If the Writer’s Trust’s involvement in the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award process has anything to do with the third awarding of the Woodcock in a single calendar year, and if David Suzuki is going to be typical of future recipients, Alan Twigg’s autocratic but at least locally-focused populism is about to be replaced by something rather different. The new way, one suspects, will be much more amenable to big publisher and chain bookstore marketing approaches, not quite to the level of basing awards on unit sales figures, but on a mix of that, exportability, and god knows what else the increasingly corporate funders of the Writers’ Trust base their judgment of cultural value on—and are no doubt bullying the Trust’s officials about at their weekly cocktail parties. I’m pretty sure that the Pacific BookWorld News Society will vociferously defend the selection of Suzuki for this prize, but all the same, tracking the interactions between the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award’s apparatus and the Writers’ Trust in the near future will likely be, um, educative.

So let’s go back, for a moment, to the slippery slope of conferring the prize on people who aren’t first and finally writers. Both of the latter 2010 Woodcock recipients, let’s face it, are being honoured for their socially-virtuous activities, not for their literary skills. Both awards, particularly the one to Suzuki, endanger the neutrality of the awarding apparatus and make it a de facto political lobby. Whether the corporate CEOs on the Writers’ Trust board will allow this to continue isn’t clear, and it will no doubt soon enough be played out decisively in the back rooms if not the cocktail parties. But here and now, let’s pose a pointed question of a different dispensation, as a general enquiry into the entire culture of literary prizes: is an organization set up to reward and protect those who practice fine literary writing in the process of abandoning those things, and is the abandonment an acknowledgement that such skills are now societally and culturally irrelevant?

To answer this, I think we have to look at what “prize culture” is actually a reflection of, and where it is likely to lead. It seems to me that publishers and writers have been studiously avoiding both the origins and the cultural implications of the prize culture that, in the last decade, has more or less replaced the discourse that once revolved around book reviewing. Notwithstanding Twigg’s notion that book reviewing is—or rather was—gangs of “literary aristocrats” trying to tell one another what to think, it was a key component of the larger collective discussion by which we try to figure out why we do what we do, and where it is going to lead us individually and collectively.  In the absence of that discourse, we’re left, no longer citizens but mere consumers to buy books because they’re “fashionable” or are being hard-sold at us as merchandise.

In practice “prize culture” is a simple-minded response to a general merchandising strategy—instituted primarily by chain bookstores—that treats books as fungible widgets in a narrowly-conceived shelf-space economy. Whether the constant reduction in the number of titles currently practiced by chain bookstores is even a viable strategy for bookselling remains to be seen. Given that bookselling is an information/knowledge based industry, the reduction in the number and intellectual range of titles along with the staffing of chain bookstores with minimum-wage kids who’d just as soon be selling sweaters or automotive accessories, could eventually drive the chains themselves into irrelevance (or to selling candles and bric-a-brac) if not bankruptcy.

The effects of Chapters/Indigo’s trade practices have been documented elsewhere, and are little different than those of chains in other countries, except that in Canada, book publishers must deal with a single near-monopoly. Less well understood are the intangible changes such risk-averse merchandising habits have wreaked on both the psychology of book publishers and book writers, and how much more damaging they are because they involve a monopoly that permits a very small number of book buyers to effectively dictate what books will be published. The situation has already led to a narrowing band of acceptable conventions in both form and subject matter: novels, mainly, usually about either the sort of people who read novels, or what is topical and/or artificially exotic. The result has been the emergence of neo-potboilers that serve mainly to enliven current prejudices and/or cultural fashions, and leaves “serious” literature trailing in the wake of market culture, not acting as its avant-garde.

Prize-driven merchandising doesn’t begin and end at the point of sale. It begins at the book acquisition phase, and worms its way into the heads of editors as well as to publishers’ marketing staff and their sales force. This leaves the entire industry competing for a few prizes, with progressively-narrowing editorial formulae. This will achieve several things, none beneficial. An increased volume of “loser” novels (along with their publishers) will be one consequence; a progressive loss of variation within the fiction that is published will be another; and a third will be generation of writers trying to achieve “perfect” conventionality. “Prize culture” is, in and of itself, a pyramid scheme, as the proliferation of literary prizes across the country suggests. Several prizes, most notably the Governor General’s array of awards, have already lost much of their prestige and have ceased to have significant commercial or cultural impact. As prizes proliferate, the relative prestige and effectiveness of each diminishes, and the race to the top of the pyramid becomes more urgent—and eventually, more vicious.

Prize-focused book publishing and merchandising works against the interests of publishers and writers in several other ways. A little-examined but already visible effect is that it sets everyone—writers, editors and publishers—competing with one another within an extremely narrow band, both in the mercantile and artist sense. One already visible result is an oversupply of highly conventional novels of limited cultural interest that have failed to penetrate the prize zone, and are thus without mercantile shelf life or artistic staying power. What isn’t yet visible are the consequences, in a small diverse  country like Canada, of competing within any narrow and conventional commodity market. Common sense suggest that, given our small population and relatively high labour costs and overheads, that it is economic suicide.

But what matters more than the health of the book industry or the incomes of individual writers, is that prize culture is a recipe for cultural suicide. With a country as culturally diverse as Canada has become, any triumph of conventional behaviors over content and complexity will contribute not only to a concentration on a narrow band of shallow cultural experience, it will lead to increasingly Darwinian competition between partisan enclaves for the attention of the marketplace: a recipe for disaster and an abrogation of art’s inclusive mandate. It will also give credence to already-growing charges that what is getting published in Canada fails to respect or reflect our national and regional diversity, and similarly fails to foster intellectual excellence, which is usually driven by the experimental and exploratory spirits who will be the first victims of a system that mirrors the values and practices of market capitalism. It’s not quite a joke to suggest that Prize culture might be condemning books to the informational preferences of a shrinking demographic of, to speak bluntly, elderly, novel-reading ladies.

My sense is that in the long and even medium term, the current mercantile practice—of which prize culture is a direct product—is something we will sooner or later pay for in several ways: with the cultural irrelevance of books and, in Canada, with widespread bankruptcies amongst Canada’s publishers, with the further impoverishment of writers, and with the further collapse of cultural subsidies. If we’re simply aping global merchandising fads, we won’t be securing Canada’s cultural aspirations accurately or effectively, and we will cease to deserve the subsidies, or the trade protections culture currently enjoys. That said, there’s little I can see to be done about the growth of prize-culture merchandising so long as the current Chapters/Indigo monopoly continues unchallenged, even though following the prize syndrome to its logical end is suicidal in virtually every way I can think of. How to remove the effects of a monopoly or dismantle the monopoly’s trade advantages is beyond current expertise in any branch of political and economic understanding, and it is clearly beyond the political will of current Canadian governments. It would require a degree of market intervention we’re unlikely to see, because it would require greater government perspective and intelligence than we’ve experienced for at least thirty years.

So I guess what I’m saying here is that the Writers’ Trust ought to make a time-out before it embarks on an all-out assault on the prize podium. It should re-examine its original mandate, and ask itself what the real interests of writers (and Canadian readers) in the twenty-first century are, and how best to serve them. Writers themselves also need to do this, and so do book publishers.

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March 30, 2011  4000 words

Gordon Lockheed

Gordon Lockheed

Gordon Lockheed is a hard-to-find Toronto writer and the editor of www.dooneyscafe.com

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