Monday, November 26, 2007

British Columbia Book Prize

Donald Akenson's nomination for the British Columbia Book Prize makes me wonder, should we just call it now: Donald Akenson is the best historian working in Canada today.

Not just that his methods of scholarship are rigorous and sophisticated. Not just that he's extraordinarily productive. Not just that he ranges the world and the ages for his subject matter. Not just that he is constantly wise where most historians are merely informative. Not just that he writes so vividly, so urgently, with such engagement, on subjects most writers would convince us are worthy but dull.

But when you add up the whole package, it's a pretty strong case. From Islandmagee to If the Irish Ruled the World to Conor to Saint Saul, that's some historical tour -- and that's just some of his works I happen to know.

I have not read his nominated book, Some Family, which is about genealogy and the Mormons' collection of genealogical information. But I will.. And that's win or lose.

Two more thoughts on this book prize.

One, the randomness of non-fiction prize nominations. There's no gold standard, no clear criteria, nothing that build toward a critical consensus on anything. Non-fiction jurors hardly know what they are looking for, and every jury comes up with a unique list, mostly of works no one has read or read about. I know nothing of Laura Goodison's From Harvey River (McClelland and Stewart) or Jacques Poitras's Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy (Goose Lane), and I mean no disrespect to the authors when I say that if their qualities are so clear, at least some reviewers and book journalists might have noticed them. It's the same with the GGs (to be announced tomorrow) -- another pretty random assortment of largely unknown works.

Late Update: I meant that about "no disrespect" quite sincerely; this post was meant to be about the inchoate state of non-fiction, where there often seems to be no established consensus about what makes a quality book, and attention even to good books often seems a matter of luck and chance. But it's been pointed out to me that both Poitras's book and Goodison's were prominently reviewed in Canada and Poitras's earned a place on bestseller lists. In both these cases (and doubtless others), unknown to me doesn't mean unknown -- and certainly doesn't mean unworthy! (CM --January 4, 2008)

Two, the British Columbia Book Prize needs a new name and a new organization. It's a disgrace to have a politically run book prize where the premier himself hands over the cheque. Arts should be arms-length, you dummies. And since it ain't for BC books, the name is never going to work. Sorry. Nice that it offers a ton of money, though.
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