Meg Wolitzer

Good show!

#book prizes

The latest broadcast of "Writers and Company," the long-running CBC radio show about writers and books, featured a discussion about book prizes. Irish Kevin Barry, British Justin Cartwright, American Meg Wolitzer and Canadian Charlotte Gray talked about their experiences as winners and as jury members and it was all pretty fascinating. The founding host of Writers and Co, the brilliant Eleanor Wachtel, has to have interviewed every prominent and not so prominent writer in the world and knows the right questions to ask.

Part of the conversation concerned the value of prizes to a young writer's career. Coincidentally, earlier that day I had walked on the beach with a friend who recently published her first novel, Lucky, itself the winner of a provincial prize. Now that the launch is over, the book available in bookstores and on line, she feels the only way it will garner attention is if it makes it onto the short list for another prize.

On Writers and Company,  the panelists agreed was that the "prize" mentality makes it harder for a writer to make a career. If a work is worthy of publication, a publisher will take a chance on it, but if it is not noticed by any prize juries and doesn't gain enough attention otherwise, therefore does not sell big, the new writer gets, perhaps, a second chance, and that's it. Eleanor remarked that prizes have taken the place of a strong reviewing community, at least in Canada, something Canadian writers, including me, lament.

My first book, Suburbs of the Arctic Circle, was selected for a small, national award, and the second, Shinny's Girls and Other Stories,  received the greatest promotional efforts from my publisher, therefore, attracted most attention. To me those books were just the beginning of what I planned to be, what has been and continues to be, a long and rich writing life, with each book a new challenge, an opportunity to develop. Yet, perhaps because my work has never made a big commercial splash or been nominated for one of the really big prizes, it has been hard to gain the critical attention that might draw more readers to my work. That later books are more thematically ambitious and better written is something only random faithful readers, many of them library patrons, may ever notice. Thank you to them.

As Kevin Barry said, however, the only way a writer can really fail is to stop writing, and lifers such as myself never consider such a thing.  

Writers and Company offered an immediate prize to those who had not yet heard it, and those who had but never find it old, a selection from the recording of William Faulkner delivering his Nobel acceptance speech:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."