Nonfiction Book Awards: Judging the Judges

Awards by their nature are controversial. Somebody wins and many others don’t win. It would be surprising if hard feelings didn’t sometimes result. But hard feelings are one thing; perceptions of unfairness are another – especially if the perceptions are justified. This year, heated discussion about the jury for the Governor General’s Award for poetry overshadowed a related but less public conversation among writers of creative nonfiction. The GG kerfuffle centred on the rules regarding conflict of interest and the complications that can arise when judges are drawn from a small community of peers. Here, the question was even more basic: Do the jurors of the major nonfiction awards in this country understand the genre well enough to assess the literary merit of the books they are assigned to read and evaluate? The problem centres not on any individual juror’s comportment, or even on the rules governing jury behaviour, but on the jurors’ fundamental competence to judge.

The Creative Nonfiction Collective discussed the issue at length at their Annual General Meeting, unanimously passing the Motion that appears below. The Motion was then presented and unanimously passed at the Writers’ Union AGM in May, and the indomitable Myrna Kostash was assigned as an Advocate to liaise with those responsible for jury selection for the major nonfiction awards in Canada, to “raise the issue of the current definition of literary nonfiction and how jury composition may reflect that definition.” Of particular relevance to this blog, it seems that jurors of some of this year’s awards were not even aware that the essay is a form of creative nonfiction. Read on for more details.


Over the 2008-09 literary prize season, the Board of the Creative Nonfiction Collective has noted several anomalies with respect to the juries which selected the prize-winning nonfiction books.
Altogether, fourteen jurors served on the juries of the Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Of these fourteen, five were staff newspaper journalists, one of whom, Chantal Hebert, problematically served on two juries; one was identified as an investigative journalist; one was the retired head of the Canada Council; leaving seven jurors whose principal writing has been within the boundaries of literary nonfiction although two were also identified as “university academics.”  That is, only half the jurors on the juries which awarded literary prizes for nonfiction were peers of the practitioners of the genre, even under the most elastic definition.
(CNFC notes that, in the past, TWUC has also expressed concerns about the preponderance of academics on nonfiction juries at the Canada Council.)
In response to a column posted by the Globe and Mail’s James Adams announcing the short-list for the Charles Taylor Prize, Richard Bachmann, owner of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario, wrote that he was “thoroughly baffled, bothered and bewildered” by the selection. Juror Jeffrey Simpson defended the list: “With literary nonfiction, what does ‘literary’ even mean? We ultimately define it as being well-written.” Adams concurred: “the term ‘literary non-fiction’ is so broad and amorphous that each year its definition appears to come down to whatever a particular jury seems to think it is.”
Yet, in 2008-09, it was precisely the make-up of the “particular” juries which has provoked lively and sometimes anxious debate about the definition of literary nonfiction that these juries seem to have achieved consensus on.  Noreen Taylor, for instance, who had established the prize in 2000 to honour the memory of her late husband, writer Charles Taylor, expressed her “surprise” to Adams that the short-list  was so “historically-based…because this is not a history prize per se” and that the “hot area” of “memoir-oriented and memoir” titles was overlooked. Adams also underlined that, of 135 books the jury considered, a very short short-list of three was announced. “Perhaps this year there was too much consensus,” he wrote. “Or at least insufficient awareness of the provisional, compromised nature of the adjudication process.” And there’s the rub.
Without wishing to denigrate individual jurors or their choices of winning books, members of the CNFC have nevertheless expressed concerns about the “tilt” of this past season’s short-lists. Note was made of the preponderance of reportage and research-based titles to the detriment of such literary genres as the personal essay, travel writing, food writing, popular biography, autobiography, memoir and the nonfiction novel. Some wondered whether the problem was that these genres were in short supply, or just not up to snuff, craft-wise?  Others observed  that books “about the dire straits of the world” got a boost as opposed to the essays and belles-lettres which the Charles  Taylor Prize, for one, includes in its criteria. And what are writers of literary nonfiction to make of a nonfiction jury which admits ignorance of what “literary” means? Without this understanding, it is felt, jurors will inevitably favour social and political
commentary over literary style and innovation.
Finally, a member summed it up: “I’m beginning to realize that the people who pick the juries often haven’t a clue about what creative nonfiction really involves.  Some don’t even realize that essays are part of the creative nonfiction genre: they say they want a really good story, or evidence of research in the archives, the more, the better. They have only the most conventional knowledge of the genre – and pick journalists, or academics, surprise. And this won’t change until the public discussion about creative nonfiction becomes so mainstream that even the jury-pickers can’t avoid that information and will incorporate it into their jury selection.”

Whereas writers of any genre have the right to be evaluated for prizes by a jury of peers, and
Whereas consternation has been expressed by literary nonfiction writers about the imbalance in past jury composition and particularly during the 2008-09 season, and
Whereas there is a perceived link between composition of a jury and that jury’s definition of literary or creative nonfiction,
Be it resolved that the CNFC ask that the Writers’ Union of Canada strike liaise with the persons responsible for jury selection in the matter of nonfiction prizes particularly at the Canada Council, the Writer’s Trust, the British Columbia Achievement Foundation and the Charles Taylor Foundation to raise the issue of the current definition of literary nonfiction and how jury composition may reflect that definition.

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