Book Award Winners - Worth Reading?

It's fall, and that means it's awards time in the book industry.

I've always been a little suspicious of awards; who are these judges, to arbitrarily decide what books are worth reading, what authors deserve whatever sum of money the prize awards? No one ever really seems happy with the decision.

Monday morning, the Govenor General Award nominees were announced from Nicholas Hoare (an independent book store near the St. Lawrence market). (Read Leigh's interview with nominee Ted Bishop here).

This list follows the recent announcements of the Giller Prize nominees and the Man Booker Prize winner.

The GG's have a wider scope that the others, with an array of categories and prizes for books in French and English. The Giller is supposed to "celebrate the best in Canadian fiction," much like the Booker prize representing the "best in contemporary fiction," by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

Rumors about contention over the prizes seem to sprout up every year. Some folks were apparently miffed by the omission of Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road in the Giller shortlist. And Judge (!) Boyd Tonkin at the Independent freaked about Booker winner John Banville's The Sea (which isn't available in Canada until 2006).

Granted, I think


Kazuo Ishiguro was robbed (read Never Let Me Go, it's amazing).

But really, it's not like any of the nominees need the cash. Don't get me wrong, no one's going to refuse 50,000 pounds or the increase in sales, but really, all the authors are already selling well. There was no dark horse or unknown, even on the long list.

So, who does choose the winners? Usually a changing panel of writers, publishers, academics, critics and suchlike. There are some (like the new Quills) readers' (or in the case of the Quills, 'consumers') choice awards. But then, who trusts the choices of the masses? (Or am I the only one who shies away from NY Times Bestsellers?)

There's an article up at


CBC.ca that examines the sorts of books that win such prizes (trick number one: 'Be Alice Munro'). As much as I like to sound all intellectual and deep with my reading selections, their observed 'winner' qualities sound like stuff I was forced to read in grade ten, rather than stuff I would actually enjoy.

All in all, I find that the recommendations from friends, booksellers (just tell them other stuff you like - they can do more than ring up your purchase, you know), and reliable reviewers is far more likely to satisfy.

For example, I've been slogging through Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It's supposed to be a modern classic, right? Quintessential Canadian masterpiece (and Booker winner, by the way). It's very pretty and all, but it's not gripping. I could stop reading now and not give a hoot about how it ends. And a friend of mine just told me that In the Skin of a Lion is better - does she know better than whoever decided the Booker that year? Who knows, but my money is on her pick being the more satisfying read.

Image from ADA Evidence Library

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