To Do: Make List

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By Becky Toyne

Our northern hemisphere souls have a Pavlovian response to the impending autumn. That back-to-school mood kicks in whatever your age, as does a longing for some new fall clothes. As we turn to the racks at H&M/Holt Renfrew (delete according to budget) to spruce up our wardrobes, a number of judges are preparing to issue our reading lists for the new term. Comprising fewer words than a single page of the formidable September issues of the fashion mags, these lists will nevertheless become to our nightstands and commutes to work what Vogue is to our wardrobes. That’s because fall is literary awards season, and those lists will be pointing us to the hottest reads on the rack.

Although significant literary prizes are scattered throughout the year, the clustering of Canada’s “Big Three” fiction awards in November — plus that other prestigious, open-to-Canadians race, the Booker, announcing in October — means that fall can truly be said to be the season of the fiction prize. Think what you will about the deservingness of those either named to or omitted from the lists (that’s not the subject of this column, though it has been of some other quite incendiary ones of late), the impending buzz is about to augment the fortunes of a number of Canadian authors, and land them in backpacks and Birkins throughout the land.

I have always felt that a book makes a good accessory. No, no, not this kind of accessory, that’s just silly. My choice of what to read is as much a window on my personality as whether I choose to wear stilettos or Dr. Martens. Who among you hasn’t checked out your date’s bookshelves to see if you like his or her “style”? And that skinny young guy wearing an earnest expression and a preppy scarf? The dog-eared Chekhov peeking out of his pocket isn’t doing so by accident. It’s part of the conversation you’ll have with him — part of his look. The book you’re seen reading says a lot about you, and in awards season a few new titles get added to that gotta-have-it list.

Word of mouth is a vital tool in the promotion of literary talent. That’s why independent booksellers who know their stuff are worth their weight in advance reading copies. For the books thusly anointed, literary awards can be word of mouth turbo charged. Irrespective of the publisher’s budget to market their contender, up cranks the publicity machine as the media and blogosphere throb with debate and conjecture; out roll the office sweepstakes as casual readers become experts and bet on their favourites FTW. The column inches commanded and the tabletop positions jostled for will launch up to 15 works of fiction on to book club itineraries and Christmas wish lists when the three shortlists are made public. Of course, for the authors in play there’s a bonus payday and new accolade to add to their bio up for grabs too.

Responding to the announcement of the Man Booker longlist at the end of July, Patrick Neate and Robert McCrum wrote in the UK Observer of the prize’s role, not just as a “litmus test” of the current standard of Commonwealth writing and culture, but as a popular label of endorsement that would lead the “common reader” to pick up, try, and talk about something new. We look to awards for a judgment of literary merit, but we look to them to point out trends and shape our reading habits too. In January 2007, a Canadian novel called The Book of Negroes was published to a kind but modest reception. After a boost from a Writers’ Trust win and a Giller longlisting, it picked up some speed. Then suddenly, if your book club wasn’t reading it, yours must have been the only one. The book found its way on to something in the region of half a million bookshelves and counting. Juror-boosted word of mouth at work.

Already we know the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (Go Room !) By the end of this month we will know the shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (Sept. 29). The Scotiabank Giller Prize (Oct. 5) and Governor General’s Literary Award (mid-Oct) won’t be far behind, and for a few glorious weeks, everyone will be a winner. Between now and then I’ll be doing my homework, working my way through some of the likely candidates and preparing my hand-selling chitchat for the bookstore floor. Whether they gel with your own personal reading style or not, some fashionable items are soon to be named and I for one am looking forward to adding them to my collection.


Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist based in Toronto. Since embarking on a career in publishing in 2002, she has worked as an editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada; as a bookseller, event planner and publicist for Toronto’s Type Books; and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors and Authors at Harbourfront Centre. She is a member of the communications committee for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and tweets about life in book land as @MsRebeccs.