The Literary Award That Goes Boom

October 10, 2012

A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will...

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the annual explosion of money and seemingly inevitable controversy, the Nobel Prizes.

Once we get through the awards for things that hardly anyone knows anything about but are incredibly important, like Science and Medicine, we can get to the juicy ones that everyone knows everything about, but are vastly less important, like Peace (occasionally known as the Black Humour Prize) and the one that’s dearest to my heart, and my business, Literature.

Which means, of course, that the usual suspects (the American media are insistent in pushing one of their own, especially after they were described as “insular” by a Nobel judge a few years ago) are hauled out as due, and/or unfairly overlooked, and the committee is accused of politicization, or worse, group lunacy (we won’t go there), and there is a brief flurry of interest (or panic because the books aren’t available) in the writer so honoured.

From time to time the decision is met with bafflement, and from time to time with outright derision, but any news is good news down here on the front lines. Well, almost.

The prize has become a bit of a hit and miss proposition down here at the bookstore level, which is unfortunate.

Mario Vargas Llosa (pictured above, delivering his 2010 Nobel lecture) was an easy choice to justify, but despite his former popularity his post-Nobel sales were disappointing. Harold Pinter’s surprise selection in 2005 did not send punters racing for the drama section. It seems to me that the prize used to carry much more weight than it does currently.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t right now starting to get exercised at the prospect of a windfall of enthusiasm for this year’s winner.

Somehow or other, a writer who, in my humble opinion truly deserves the prize never seems to even garner a mention. This writer is the author of twenty-one works of fiction, nine books of non-fiction, thirteen poetry books and six children’s books. And this author cannot be accused of incessant insignificance. She has won the Giller Prize and the Booker Prize, and has twice won the Governor General’s Award. Nothing fluffy there! Nor can there be any quibble regarding the intellectual or the moral power of her work; this woman is a serious force on the page.

What other writer can boast of such a diverse body of work, or such breadth of accomplishment?

Furthermore, what writer takes so seriously her role as a public intellectual? Who defends more rigorously the need to nurture culture at every level of society? Who dares to consistently confront governments bent on reducing funding for the arts, is so ardent a conservationist or such a champion of writers and writing?

The body of work alone attests to the suitability of this author, but her tireless advocacy of the arts should surely tip the balance in her favour.

Lesser writers have won this prize.

It isn’t that Canada is lacking suitable candidates, (Anne Carson and Alice Munro come to mind) but Margaret Atwood, surely this is your time.

A tireless promoter of books and authors, Ben McNally has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than thirty years. His Bay Street bookstore will celebrate its fifth anniversary this fall.