Earlier this summer, I had the chance to do some writing at the Banff Centre. It was a wonderful experience. I wrote, I slept, I went for long walks through the mountains. I ate too many pieces of cake at both lunch and dinner. I did all of the writing I needed to do and then some, coming out of the retreat with a hefty chunk of work done on a next novel draft.
One day I decided to climb Tunnel Mountain, which rises up behind the Banff Centre. Also known as Sleeping Buffalo, it offers a relatively easy, 4 kilometre round-trip trail hike up to the top of the mountain, with panoramic views over the town of Banff. I’d been spending a lot of time in my head and decided I needed some exercise, so one morning after wrestling with my manuscript I put my hiking shoes on and went outside. I climbed to the northern part of the Banff Centre campus and located Tunnel Mountain Drive, then spotted the entrance to the trail and started climbing. It was relatively quiet at the entrance, which should have surprised me but did not. I started climbing, thankful that the slope was soft and easy. After about ten minutes I reached a garden shed. Spotting the path as it wound around the structure, I went for it and continued on, vaguely wondering why I didn’t remember the garden shed from my first hike up Tunnel Mountain three years before, when I’d come to Banff for the first time.
No matter, I thought. I’d been hiking with a friend three years ago and this time I was going alone—I probably just hadn’t noticed the shed the first time around.
It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized I was wrong.
It is October now as I write this, and we here in literary Canada are thick in the excited throes of Prize Season. The Giller, Writers’ Trust, and GG shortlists have all been announced. In a few short weeks the first of these book prizes will be handed out, capping another fall literary season with bits of bookish triumph.
I love prize season. I also hate it. I love how everything becomes so very bookish—I love the book talk, the speculation, the way that the shortlisted authors are paraded around from city to city. I love the glamour of it—the Giller red carpet! The WT gala! So much money going to deserving authors of great books! And I love, most importantly, the way that this brief period of time unites booklovers and publishers and writers alike, as we all celebrate the richness of story together.
But I hate the way that prize season sucks up all the oxygen in the room. I hate the way that authors whose books come out in the fall and do not land on lists inevitably get overlooked; I hate the way that the varied richness of the stories that we publish in this country gets whittled down to a list of ten or fifteen books. I hate the way that we fawn over prizes as though they mean something, objectively, about the quality of a work, when we all know that good books are subjective, and mean many different things to so many different people.
Mostly, I hate the way that prize culture continues to benefit white writer Canada. And I hate the way that, even so, I continue to hope to one day find myself on a list like this most of all.
Here is what winning a literary prize cannot do for me: it cannot help one of my dearest friends, who is fighting metastatic breast cancer. Winning a literary prize will not make any difference in the lives of family members who are also sick, who are struggling with their own issues, who may or may not even read the books that I put out into the world. Winning a literary prize will not matter to some of my friends who could care less about a golden sticker on a book. (Surprisingly, I have a lot of friends who do not care about books. If I wrote a book that became a Netflix show, maybe that would be different, but that’s not the world we currently find ourselves in, is it.)
Winning a literary prize might garner me some cash, but in all likelihood it will not garner me the kind of money that changes a life; a hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, sure, but space that out over two years and it’s basically a regular salary. When you add that to the debt that I incurred in going to university and am still slogging to repay, it’s enough to put me just a little in the black.
More importantly, however—as a writer who is white, winning a literary prize will arguably do nothing other than boost my name for a while, and make the opportunities that are already mostly mine that much easier to acquire and exploit. I’m not a household name in CanLit but I’ve published enough (I might be a name recognized in literary circles, but let’s not kid ourselves about how far and wide those circles go); I get grants, I get invited to things, I get to speak about my writing in places near and far. I have never had an article killed by a magazine because said magazine has already filled their white writer quota. I am never considered a token voice; I don’t get asked to speak about what it means to be a diverse writer in the world. I only get asked about writing. I get asked about craft. I get asked about what it means to create a “universal” story because I am white, and historically the white experience has been a stand-in for the universal.
In other words, I already have the life that winning a prize might get me.
Back in Banff, I stumbled across the mountain for a while, increasingly convinced that the path I’d been following was no path at all. Later I would find this to be true. I had not started out at the official path up Tunnel Mountain. I had, in fact, started out on a path that led up another facet of the mountainside—a switchbacking trail that led to a garden shed and little else. But I thought that it continued and so I kept going past the shed, convinced that at some point it would widen. I was wrong. The path was grueling and slippery, marked with fallen branches and loose pebbles that wobbled under my feet. As the mountain got steeper going down became dangerous, and so I continued doggedly along, sometimes crouching over the ground on hands and feet, inching my way along the side of the mountain until I finally reconnected with the official tourist path. Once there, I found myself surprised by how flat and clear the actual path was, and kicked myself for thinking that the scrabbled line I’d been following was actually the way to go.
“This is much easier!” I thought. “No wonder people do it this way. Next time I try to climb this mountain I’ll be sure to mark the signs.”
And then I kept going. I wanted to reach the top; I wanted the photo that would prove I had been there. This path was filled with people who were summiting together. People who were laughing. Lovebirds holding hands. People who did not look as tired or overworked as I felt; people for whom climbing a mountain was just another way to spend the day. Maybe they climbed the mountain every morning. I stuffed my shame at stumbling up a different path deep down inside my gut and tried to pretend like I belonged there. Like I wasn’t sweaty and disheveled, like I hadn’t just fought with the trees and scrub and the bones of the earth itself just to find myself in the same vicinity as these hikers in their Lululemon pants, breezing up this widened path with their heartbeats at a steady hundred beats per minute.
I put my head down, and kept climbing.
Wherever I go, whatever I participate in, whiteness is the unspoken word that opens doors. I am also disabled and queer, but my whiteness underpins both of these things. It is the light that shines the room, it is the bulldozed path that leads up to the summit. It couches everything I might say: if I am angry or upset, I am “passionate”; if I break down in tears because I’ve been challenged, I am “wronged”. If I speak up I’m never “bossy” so much as I am “fighting to be heard”, even though every day friends of mine also fight to be heard in this country and get called those very things. Women of colour are bossy, they are shrill, they are relentless. Writers of colour are angry. They do not follow the rules of polite discourse. Their fiction is angry, their nonfiction is a rant, and their stories are all so specificthat not many people could really be expected to identify with what they might say and isn’t that really the fault of the writer more than it is the publisher who might put their story out into the world? Shouldn’t that writer be grateful for the opportunity to publish in the first place? The path to publishing is long and hard! It is a mountain path that twists and turns and never ends!
I mean, yes, some of us have harder paths than others, but isn’t the point in fact that we’re allclimbing? That we allstruggle?
It isn’t my fault (the white writer says) that some writers had to climb up the back of the mountain! I deserve this prize as much as anyone else! How is the fate of the writer who had it that much harder my responsibility?
The elephant in the room is white, but when it comes to CanLit, we just pretend it’s invisible.
Let’s pretend that for a certain span of time—five years, say—the only books in Canada eligible for submission to literary prizes would be books written by people of colour. What do you suppose might happen then? I guarantee you that publishers would acquire more books by writers of colour. If they published more books by writers of colour, then they would have more books to submit to the prizes that have this stipulation. And if they have more books to submit, then they have higher chances of winning. If prizes are what drive the machine, and you put particular restrictions on eligibility for those prizes, publishers big and small alike will contort themselves into whatever shapes are required in order to remain eligible. If they need to find writers of colour to win a prize, they will find them. The promise of money makes everything easy.
If we had a five-year stretch of time in literary Canada where every prize list in the country was composed of writers of colour, the depth of insight and empathy in this country would explode—not just on the part of the readers who shape their reading by prize shortlists, but also on the part of the white writers who would, for a time, be forced to take the long way up the mountain. It would illuminate for them, a little, how much harder it is for writers of colour to succeed; it would show them exactly how heartbreaking it can be to reach a path that others are on and see how much easier they’ve had it. What’s that? The white experience is no longer “universal”? Stories about white women and men who struggle with winter solitude are too specific to be understood by every reader? What on earth is one to do?
It would, perhaps, re-orient their gaze so that they understood that their own work in climbing up the previous path, while undoubtedly hard in some ways, was also made easier by so many subtle things—by being given opportunities simply through virtue of being white; by not having their work turned away because it was too “niche” or too “specific” or “too topical and not universal enough”; by starting out on a mountain path whose incline was approachable simply because the system that built it made it easier for some people see.
We are all going up the mountain, yes, but only a fool would assume that the mountain is the same for everyone who climbs it.
But then that’s not fair, someone might say. Someone white. How are we supposed to celebrate all literature if we specifically exclude certain types of work from these celebrations?
Well, but that’s the point, isn’t it. Historically, we have been excluding certain types of literature from our award lists. Historically, we have not feted the work of writers of colour the same way that we do writers who are white. In the twenty-six years of its existence, the Giller Prize has been awarded to exactly ten writers of colour. In the twenty-six years of the prize, there have been twenty-eight writers of colour who have either been shortlisted or who have won the Giller, and one hundred and seven white writers who have done the same. Many of these white writers are repeats on the list. (There are some writers of colour who re-appear on the shortlists as well, but not nearly as many.) White writers are shortlisted for and win the Giller over two hundred percent more than writers of colour.
In the twenty-six years of the prize, six years have featured all-white shortlists. I have never heard a white writer point this out and say this is unfair, even though it is. And those writers of colour who do agitate for change—who point out again and again that even the recent advancements in diversifying prize lists in this country inevitably revert back to championing the status quo—are more often than not ignored or pushed aside.
CanLit is gonna CanLit, friends. White writers gonna whrite.
I did not, in the end, make it all the way up Tunnel Mountain. Balance and the lack thereof is one of the ways in which my disability manifests. At around the three-quarter mark my vertigo kicked in hard. My legs started shaking and it became hard to breathe; when I looked ahead, all I could see was the pebble on the ground that would make me trip and pitch off the mountainside. I turned around. I said no more. I walked back down the mountain and realized when I got the bottom that I would probably never try to summit it again. What was the point in trying to climb a mountain when the whole experience made me anxious and scared? To snap a few good photos from the top? To say, I did it!, and feel proud of accomplishing something that many others would never even get the chance to do? Why did that matter? There were plenty of ways to enjoy the scenery at Banff. I left the mountain and walked along the river and bought myself an ice cream cone when I got to town.
It was delicious. And I didn’t even have to climb a mountain to do it.
It is not a perfect metaphor. CanLit is not actually a mountain; and even if it was, there has always been more than one way to the top. The work that’s being done to diversify our literary economy and celebrate different kinds of storytelling has yielded some exciting changes in the last few years, the most exciting of which has been the realization that the world is more than prizes—that it is entirely possible for a writer in this country to build a worthwhile literary career without ever gracing a prize list. A healthy literary culture is made all the healthier when power is distributed in a horizontal way. Yes, we have the Giller, and the Writer’s Trust Awards, and the GGs and the Dayne Ogilvies and the Journey Prizes and the Bronwen Wallaces and the Emerging Writer grants, and all of the contests that pop up throughout the country. All of these things help to drive sales—to disseminate the stories of our lives into eager, waiting hands. All of this is valuable and important. I would love, one day, to find my own name on one of these shortlists. What writer wouldn’t?
But prizes cannot be the only way by which to measure a writing life—especially when those prizes, historically, have worked to entrench the same biases that prioritize a certain kind of story over others. There is value in climbing a mountain; there is also value in going into town and getting ice cream, or climbing up the mountain a different way, or going halfway up the mountain only to decide against the summit after all.
Books have two lives: one life is vertical, and rises and falls soon after publication. This is the life that’s affected by prize lists, or the big buzz before a book comes out that helps to catapult it onto bestseller lists. The other life, the horizontal life, moves much slower. This is the life that might see your book talked about in classrooms, or made into a film, or pulled out of obscurity twenty-five years into the future because of some well-placed article or curious musing on the part of an intrepid bookseller. This is the life that we all long for and no one gets to determine. Prizes might help that, but they just as easily might not. (How many Giller or WT winners can you recite, from memory, out of the prizes’ collective histories? How many GG winners do you know offhand?)
What prizes do do is help to entrench a certain way of thinking about books—what constitutes a good book, what makes one book worth more than another because it is more compelling or funnier or “better written”, whatever that means. And this certain way of thinking about books has been inextricably linked to colonial ideas of literature and writing pretty much from the moment this country began to hand out literary prizes. Are awards valuable? Absolutely. Can they contribute to the ongoing richness of Canadian literary culture? Yes. Is it not worthwhile to celebrate the hard work of our authors? Of course it is.
But prizes mean nothing if we do not also acknowledge the systems of privilege that they help to perpetuate. They mean even less if we do not question these systems, or look to find a way of changing how they operate in the literary world. Maybe this means we don’t award prizes to white writers for a certain span of time. Maybe it means that awards solely for writers of colour need to be established, in addition to the awards that already exist in this country, and any snark about unfairness stopped in its tracks by the recognition of how privileged, historically, white writers in this country have been. Maybe the solution lies in both of these ideas and more.
Given how the literary landscape of Canada has shifted over the past few years, I have faith in the possibility of continued change. But this change needs the support of those of us who have had our share of privilege. It isn’t enough to cheer when someone reaches the summit after struggling up a path that no one knew about; we need to look at the mountain, and we need to consider what it means when we measure success by getting to the top while also limiting who can get there in the first place. White writers in Canada—regardless of our own intersections, we should all be asking these questions. We can continue to celebrate what makes awards great—the excitement that they generate, the celebration of stories—and also demand that they be better. How do we celebrate stories in a way that goes beyond a prize? How do we ensure that the privileges so many of us have experienced even in small ways are re-distributed into a new, vibrant system, one that doesn’t fall back on underrepresentation of important voices again and again? How do we use our historic privilege to ensure more opportunities for others—perhaps even especially at the cost of our own?
This isn’t an impossible journey to make. Dismantling systems of privilege isn’t easy, but neither is it unbearably difficult. It is time for those of us who can to speak up, speak out, and get out of the way.
Our literary country—and even our prize season—will be all the richer for it.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Amanda Leduc is a disabled author with cerebral palsy whose stories and essays have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. Her first novel, THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN, was published in 2013 by Toronto's ECW Press, and her new novel, THE CENTAUR’S WIFE, is forthcoming with Random House Canada. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she serves as the Communications and Development Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.