When Andrew Preston last week received the Charles Taylor Prize for Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, the non-fiction award season for 2012 officially came to a close.
The four big non-fiction prizes generated four different winners, but this should by no means be taken as an indication that this year’s crop of non-fiction was in any way lacking. In fact, I would argue that this was one of the strongest fields we’ve had in years; the decisions of the respective juries cannot have been easy, and several noteworthy books were left unrewarded this prize season.
I have always thought that prizes were important, and for non-fiction this is especially true, though perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. While fiction awards invariably generate a serious increase in sales, that’s often not the case with non-fiction awards. I remember the look on Richard Gwyn’s face when I told him that no matter how many awards his book won, that there would always be a significant segment of the population that would not under any circumstances want to read a biography of Sir John A. MacDonald.
Richard’s book went on to become a bestseller, (what do I know?) but a prize does not automatically generate stratospheric book sales for non-fiction. In most cases the prize is vindication, and a public salute for a long and arduous job well done. And money.
For at least a brief period of time book sales become a secondary consideration. For those who fund these prizes we all owe a significant debt. Non-fiction conveys us to ourselves as powerfully and heroically as does fiction, and in many ways is much more exacting in its demands.
This brings me back to the Charles Taylor Prize, which is very dear to my heart. The Taylor Prize was created (by the redoubtable Noreen Taylor, in memory of her late husband, journalist and author Charles Taylor) to recognize good writing. This is a prize awarded for style as much as substance, (“no wonder Ben McNally likes it,” I can hear you thinking) which guarantees a shortlist scintillatingly disparate and one which makes no concessions to trendiness.
Furthermore, the impressive Taylor team tirelessly and vigorously promotes the books and the authors between the announcement of the shortlist and the naming of the winner, and with the help of RBC Wealth Management, the winner is taken across the country for a series of personal appearances.
The prize has become the most coveted of all the non-fiction prizes, and it certainly has the most impact.
Quite frequently, at one or the other of the events that occur during the weekend of the Taylor Prize, someone who knew Charles Taylor personally will pass on a personal recollection about him, about his modesty and unpretentiousness, or about his commitment to his craft.
These are the qualities that exemplify Noreen Taylor and the entire team she has assembled, and these are the qualities that make this prize very special. As a tribute to her late husband, Ms Taylor could not have created a more fitting memorial.