Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Charles Taylor Prize

History and historians are well represented on the shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Historical biographies by John English, Daniel Poliquin, and Kenneth Whyte are listed along with Ian Brown's memoir The Boy in the Moon. Nice to see a list of just four -- a blow against shortlist inflation.

The jury is Andrew Cohen, Sheila Fischmann and last year's winner Tim Cook. Long ago I observed that the Taylor seemed to weight its juries with fiction writers and give most of the prizes to book by novelists and books that looked like fiction. Well, the prize outgrew that stage years ago -- enough that some nonfiction writers now complain that history and "information books" now dominate the list each year, to the detriment of more "literary" forms of nonfiction. The nature of the genre is contested, let us say (as is its spelling: non-fiction or nonfiction?). But this seems to me a strong jury; I'll wait on their verdict February 8.

Just to confirm that prizes matter, I've been reading Brian Brett's wise and gracefully written memoir Trauma Farm since it won the Writers' Trust nonfiction prize in November. And also Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the historical novel that won last fall's Booker Prize -- a huge book with such narrative drive that everyone seems to devour it in a few days, me included.

Update, January 7: An example of the criticism I alluded to above, from writer and blogger Susan Olding. And here's a proposal that what book juries need is ... more profs. (Both links from David Leach at the Creative Nonfiction Writers Collective.)

Update, Jan 11. I think I missed the other big non-fiction prize shortlist. The British Columbia National Prize for Canadian Non-Fiction will be announced this Friday, January 15. Two of the four (again with the four) nominees are also on the Taylor list, two others were on the G-G list, and at least one was on the Writers' Trust shortlist, so there's some convergence among 2009/10 juries.

I bear a small reservation about the BC prize because it is presented each year by the premier, and I'm not keen on that kind of politicization of book prizes. Public support for the arts, yes, but arm's length, B.C., take it seriously.

Update, January 19: And congratulations to Ian Brown, winner for The Boy in the Moon.
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