Word for Word: Book prizes can be a fishy business

How should novelists approach award ceremonies? Perhaps by gathering together everyone who has ever done them a favour – and by keeping a tight grip on the food

When I learned I'd been shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award for my debut novel, Malarky, and would be travelling to Toronto for the award event, I immediately invited everyone in Toronto who had ever done me a favour.

As I don’t know many people in Toronto, this included a woman working in the Bloor Street Mac makeup shop I’d met once. Sadly, she did not reply.

Happily, I gathered a further four women to join me. My entire focus for that event was on the snacks we would be served on the night. I would anticipate them, study them and live tweet them.

I'm a vocal critic of book-
prize culture. In Canada, being shortlisted for a prize has become almost the only way of finding any volume of readers (beyond, say, blood relatives and God's great 83 people who buy literary fiction), and I'm fearful of the truncating effect this has on our reading. Thus I was surprised to find my book nominated for two of them.


As Malarky is an episodic, form-challenging novel that explores grief and sexuality, I was convinced it hadn't a flat hope on a hill of winning. So I happily set aside my philosophical opposition and let my speculative taste buds take over.

I sent several dispatches to my publisher and the event co-ordinator, asking about the food and whether – please, please – they could have some without flour. They replied that, yes, they could oblige this gluten-allergic shorty, but were more concerned about travel arrangements and making sure the writers would all be available for a television slot at 7am the next day, because whoever won the prize would be interviewed.

The food did not disappoint. A man who is now etched in my mind as divine came with a whole plate only for me. It had all kinds of bits on it: posh fish, and exotic canapes I could not identify. At this stage, though thrilled by the feast, I was uncomfortable: I felt like a pony at the horse market who was about to find out no one was going to buy her. Then divine man returned to tell me he had a main course for me too.

Everyone else was still eating canapes and yam fries when my salmon dinner arrived. Where’d you get it, people were asking. I sat down and admired it for a bit too long and was just tucking in when there was a bit of a fluster and I was told to move to the front row. The event was starting.

Terrified my plate would be whipped away, I took it with me and tried to stash it under my front-row seat. Hobbled by the outrageous shoes I was wearing to distract from my Penneys cardigan and $10 skirt, I had to get down on my hands and knees as if I was praying.

Under the chair, I tried to determine whose feet might damage my fish. When I popped my head back up, a suited man was requesting I hand it to him. No, I said, it’s staying down there. No, he said, the chef will keep it warm.

When they announced my name as the winner, I got up and, having first asked whether it was a clerical error, proceeded to invoke the names of several Vancouver women writers (mostly out of print) and to acknowledge the importance of the continuum of literature over the immediacy of book prizes.

When I sat down, the divine fella returned with my dinner. I shared it with another nominee, and we gossiped and munched asparagus triumphantly.

The thing that surprised me the most was the outpouring of goodwill from readers and other writers on social media after I won. Caught up in my distrust of prize culture, I’d forgotten how incredibly kind people can be.