CanLit Constructs: The social process of value, prestige, and taste production in Canadian literary prizes
Originally submitted April 17, 2015 for “Art Worlds & Communication” (CMNS 488) at Simon Fraser University, professor Jan Marontate
In March 2013, Madeleine Thien, an award-winning Canadian author, wrote a special for the National Post about the transparency of literary prizes. “A jury can coin toss their way to a winner for all we know, they can choose their cousin’s wife’s brother’s uncle, for all we know, they can throw the books one by one out their back window and see how they land. They can even read every single one cover to cover. We don’t know because they don’t say … The jurors, celebrated as leading practitioners of their art, are apparently so fragile we can’t even know what they read, let alone how they measured (or, perhaps, didn’t)” (Thien, 2013 March 12). Thien’s criticisms came after reading a shortlist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, where her name was appended as a jury member, although she had not read a single title. This particular prize has a head juror select a shortlist, which is then sent to the other jurors so they can select the winner. Other prizes, such as the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the process is a carefully guarded secret where even the nominated titles are not made public. Who decides what is award-worthy and upon what criteria is this decision based? This is the core of the debate around literary value: who determines what is “literary”? As can be seen historically, the nation is “constructed by elites who have the power to define the national in ways that further their own interests” (Mayer, 2000, pg. 12); the same is true of literary awards.
Literature is often depicted as ‘proper’ versus ‘pulp’ where the high quality literature is not as accessible by the masses. The idea of ‘quality literature’ raises issues surrounding value, class, and taste, but literature is also deeply embedded in the consumption ethic. Books are physical artworks; examples of explicit culture, which Acord & DeNora (2008) state are anchored by more implicit cultural practises [sic], namely conventions, taste preferences, and cultural inequalities (pg. 225). As English explains in The Economy of Prestige (2005), “Cultural value cannot emerge in the absence of social debts and obligations, of the (very unequally distributed) credit or respect that certain individuals are granted by others; its production is always a social process. Neither can it emerge in a political vacuum, the participants uncolored [sic] by and indifferent to prevailing hierarchies of class, race, gender or nation; its production is always politicized. And neither can it emerge in perfect independence of or opposition to the economic marketplace itself; its production is always implicated, in multiple ways, in the money economy” (English, 2005, pg. 27). Books, these physical artworks, then become “instruments for accomplishing forms of social action” (Acord & DeNora, 2008, pg. 225). Drawing on social action theory, we can argue that literary activities such as awards and prizes are used to create meaningful comprehension within social situations.
Roberts (2011) also situates literary prizes as part of a social process, using theories of the economic marketplace and marketing. The process of taste-making and value creation is nuanced, context specific, and also subjective. Roberts (2011) explains how “literary” value has been traditionally associated with cultural value; hierarchies of class, race, gender, and nationhood all influence the perceived value of a piece of writing. We see particular literature, that which reinforces the dominant hegemony, experience increased success. This literary success—both through media attention and awards—then becomes engrained within the text and the author’s status both in the literary world and in Canadian culture. “Prizing Literature argues that what might otherwise be designated as ‘outside’ literature, namely significance, influence, and implications of literary prizes, operates alongside, and in relation to, the texts themselves” (Roberts, 2011, pg. 6). The process of winning a prize conveys a sense of pride to the recipients and their identified community; the prestige of winning a coveted literary prize thus “rubs off” onto the book and the author’s reputation. “[L]iterary prizes contribute to ‘constructing and reshaping notions of literary value and taste’” (Squires, cited by Roberts, 2011, pg. 18).
As shown by Thien’s editorial, the literary prizes’ jury—or whoever decides what is “worthy”—is important to consider. The role of the critic is hierarchical, explains McDonald (2007); the critic’s opinion is held in high regard, and they are considered an expert in that artform. English (2005) scrutinizes these critics: they are part of this dominant hegemonic system and they have cultural authority within the industry, which they have failed to consider or use advantageously. Luhmann (2000) also examines the hierarchy of valuation in reference to how humans value certain senses or types of reasoning—logic over emotion, eyewitness accounts, written testimony, et cetera. But according to McDonald, the respected role of the critic has “fallen victim to the wider shifts in social relations, away from deference and authority” (viii). In his book, The Death of the Critic, McDonald feels that healthy public criticism has been killed by a shift in academic criticism to look inward and for journalistic criticism to become more democratic, into the hands of the readers. However, according to Luhmann (2000), some sort of authority needs to be involved in taste and value judgments. “Aesthetics has always claimed that the mere perception of the “material” of art does not yet make for aesthetic pleasure. An additional, selective reworking of the material must endow it with significance and, in simultaneously devalorizing and revalorizing it, transform it into the elements of an artwork” (pg. 10). Luhmann is referring to the process of shaping and constructing a dominant perception of worth, and what type of cultural or creative work can be called ‘art’. Although critics cannot agree on who should make these value judgments, it is clear that literary value is highly subjective. While we can see a certain level of popular criticism with the rise of social media, many of these readers still look to places of authority for guidance. The lists of literary awards and bestseller lists frequently guide readers to developing their own lists through blogging or reader platforms like GoodReads and LibraryThing. Therefore, because of the subjective nature of literature, a jury or book reviewers or literary critics from a variety of demographics and diverse cultural backgrounds can go a long way to producing an inclusive list.
Different literary prizes also hold different levels or types of prestige: the Giller awards $50,000 to a single author in a winner-takes-all model and includes a televised ceremony, while the Governor General’s awards eight winners in the two official languages with $25,000 each (Roberts, 2011). Although the Governor General’s award gives more money overall and is a prize distributed by the government of Canada, the Giller nominations result in a sales boost known as the “Giller effect” in the industry. The Giller is one of the few awards that produce a legitimate spike in sales, a sales boost that affords the winning author and publisher additional economic capital as well as cultural capital. Another competition that has high economic capital yet even lower prestige is the CBC’s annual title fight, Canada Reads. “Canada Reads has helped to open up Canadian literary works to a large market, says Moss (2004), “It has become an important indicator of public support of the literary arts in Canada” (pg. 7). Canada Reads has increasing economic and cultural importance, although, the nature of its format as a competition limits its literary prestige. Canada Reads is presented as a popularized debate, harnessing social media, voting from the public, and use of celebrity panelists. Mass reading events—like Canada Reads, or “One Book, One Community” programs—create what critics call a ‘reductionism’ of diversity, nuance, and meaning. Fuller (2007), quoting critics such as Henighan and Moss, states that these type of events have attracted criticism for their “vulgarization of a cultural practice (literary interpretation)” as well as a “pandering” to showbiz and blockbuster mentality (pg. 11). However, Moss (2004) recognizes these mass reading events as part of a global market economy as well as various institutional and ideological structures.
Artworks, especially physical works such as books, are inherently products and thus subject to the traditional rules and structures of the market economy. One of the dominant approaches identified by Acord & DeNora (2008) is art as a commodity, whereby scholars can “measure the impact of social organization on cultural systems” (224). Consumption of commodities has become a dominant framework in how we understand our lives; we develop and assess our relationship to others and express who we are through these products, including music, fashion, and house wares. Books, as intellectual property, are commodities of the cultural industry and are subject to the dominant capitalist culture. Bourdieu (1986) classified books as objectified cultural goods, and one of the three forms that cultural capital can exist in. However he notes that cultural capital can be acquired unconsciously through our class position in the social hierarchy. Bourdieu focuses on education and the research he uses supports this unconscious acquisition of capital by correlating the education level of parents to a child’s academic success. “Because the social conditions of [cultural capital] transmission and acquisition are more disguised than those of economic capital, it is predisposed to function as symbolic capital” (Bourdieu, 1986). He also notes that unequal distribution of capital effects the functioning of capital equally: those who already possess social capital can more easily obtain more social capital, thus perpetuating the systemic disproportion. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is central to understanding how different groups express tastes and lifestyle and how social conventions are enacted and maintained within society.
Even though Canada Reads unquestionably “showcases Canadian writing, promotes Canadian writers, encourages literacy, and supports the publishing industry in Canada” (Moss, 2004, PG), from a literary standpoint, the prestige value is lower due to the nature of its format. Although one could argue the difference between high and low literature, this would be doing a disservice to the titles nominated, as many of the books involved in Canada Reads have also been nominated for and won traditional literary awards. One recent example is The Orenda by award-winning Joseph Boyden, which won Canada Reads 2014 and was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and longlisted for the Giller. But what Canada Reads really emphasizes is the socially constructed aspect of literature. “[T]he competition hammers home the power of reading not only as a individual activity, but also as a collective one” (Lorenzi, 2015 March 20). Recent media studies and research show that people do not consume media passively, and they frequently reinterpret texts and engage with them, sometimes in unintended ways. According to a study by Hill Strategies (2008), Canadians are cultural omnivores: dabbling in a variety of types of culture with little to no regard for its cultural status; the concept of high and low art being distinct and related to social class is not reflected in modern cultural audiences. The study found “[c]ultural experiences are more important than demographic factors in four cultural activities,” one of which was reading a book (“Factors in Canadians’ Cultural Activities” 2008). “The only demographic factors that have a substantial impact on book reading rates are education and sex” (“Factors”, pg. 3). The lack of prestige in the Canada Reads competition does not seem to affect its cultural uptake— CBC Books’ dedicated social media and voting campaigns have engaged the audience. With the increase of media technologies and the ability to use and access these tools, multiple aspects are shaping the publication, dissemination, and reception of Canadian writing.
For the advocates of literary prizes as statements of prestige value, the popularity contest that is CBC Canada Reads is part of the problem. Moss (2004) describes it as a “disjuncture between the program’s nation-building rhetoric and its depoliticization of the literary works … Canada Reads has become a new instrument of culture formation. It is intent on drawing Canadians together by creating a shared cultural background. The winning titles reinforce certain popular notions of Canadianness” (Moss, 2004, pg.7). Although more recent editions of Canada Reads have had themes—such as Breaking Barriers in 2015—earlier years did not. The competition frequently returns to a debate of cultural identity as Canadians and the search for nationhood. The question of “how Canadian a book needs to be” has produced conflicted responses from several award nominees: “I don’t know what the heck Canadian is supposed to mean, anyway. Our local writing happens in our own body,” said Marina Endicott, whose novel Good to a Fault, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Caribbean. Esi Edugyan, whose novel Half-Blood Blues won the 2011 Giller Prize and was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, stated “Must all of our national literature be set only in Canada? That seems strangely limiting…” (Tonye, 8 November 2011). What we determine as ‘Canadian’ is fluid, changing, and constantly under debate as we can see from ample scholarly literature (Mount, 1998; Lecker, 1993; Keith, 2000; Miki, 2004). Many critics have asked “upon what criteria do we determine ‘Canadianness’ in authors and literature?” and the responses vary greatly. A commonly held believe is that national literatures, such as Canadian Literature—what is commonly referred to as “CanLit”—are reflections of the unique character and experiences of the nation, generating a national collective consciousness. Lecker (1991), in writing the introduction to a collection of essays on Canadian literary canons, emphasized the plural of ‘canons’ to “reflect the multiple and shifting forms of recent canonical debate … interrogating the forces that constitute and determine canonical activity” (3). Canonical debates question the existing power structures, testify to differences in perceived value and literary merit, and contest the authority of cultural, social, and political institutions. Similarly, Corse (1997) states that national identity is “socially constructed under identifiable political and historical circumstances” (pg. 4) and these historical and political situations frequently reinforce the dominant hegemonic practices. “[T]he inclusion or exclusion of writers and works is based on value judgments which can be influenced by discrimination, racism, bias, ignorance,” states Young (2001). Yet Bennett (2007) warns against this “a tendency to merge culture and the social so closely together that they become indistinguishable” (pg.32). What Bennett meant was that by examining the values, beliefs, and meanings that connect culture and the social, they should not irreversibly be joined. The social action work of culture—both the act of making it, and what it achieves—should not be overshadowed by the development of meaning and value through the culture. Using Bennett’s ideas to interpret the literary realm, we can say that although literary awards aid in the constructing and reshaping of concepts of literary value and meaning, they should not become the sole and essential element in determining literary taste. When scholars examine the literary history of a text, context is important. The same can be said for national identity in literature—the circumstances of a given time of writing, publishing, as well as influences of previous works—all affect the end result. If we point to a specific text as exemplifying the national literature, we must also consider the social and political circumstances of its history.
Although English (2005) summarizes both sides of the debate regarding cultural prizes succinctly, we can see that it is rarely that simple. The supporters celebrate the rewarding of excellence, the display of pride, quality, and art, while the critics believe that prizes just reinforce established artists and the status quo of ‘acceptable’ cultural products. These statements may be true to some degree, but the social process of taste-making and creating meaning is more nuanced. The role of peers, critics, juries, and economics all influence value judgments of individuals. People are not passive consumers of literature, they build meaning and make decisions based on the situation they are a part of and the context in which they are reading. Even if it is not consciously made, choices of taste and value are rational acts shaped and directed through social processes.
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