Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shadow juries

Share |

We are now entering the heart of literary award season — the League of Canadian Poets just announced the winners of its set of awards, the Griffin Poetry Prize will be awarded this week and the Trilliums next week — which means we’re also entering the season of complaining about literary awards.

The general arc of complaints tend to go something like this: “That person shouldn’t have won because his/her book is [adjective]. This book should have won instead because it’s much more [different adjective].”

These reactions aren’t surprising, and we cannot reasonably expect a three-person jury’s choice to line up with our own aesthetic most (or even some) of the time.

Fortunately, the Westminster system offers an alternative to idle grumping: shadow juries. Much like how in the parliamentary tradition opposition parties form shadow cabinets to keep the government in check, literary shadow juries — like the Shadow Giller — can keep book awards honest by pointing out when they slip up and identifying books that should have (or could have) made the cut.

The concept of shadow juries for book awards is quite pliable. A jury can mimic the entire book jury process by making the admirable attempt to read and judge every single title eligible for the award. It can read the books on a prize's shortlist or longlist and come to its own assessment of their value. It can, essentially, take whatever role the jury members would like it to take.

It is important to note that shadow juries do not need to be as rigorous as the Shadow Giller or actual literary juries in order to be effective. In fact, it may be preferable that they’re not, because it means that anyone — this means you — can take part in one.

And even informal shadow juries — say, one that simply lists books it believes are on par with those on a particular shortlist — provide an alternative for readers who, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable or unwilling to write full reviews but nonetheless want to participate in the literary conversation. It also allows us to broaden the conversation from the silly question of “Which book is best?!” to “Which books are truly worth reading and considering?”

And given the somewhat bedridden state of reviewing culture in Canada, participating in a shadow jury is a way of giving excellent but neglected titles some much-needed attention. It’s also much better than reply to prize announcements with a shrug.

Update: Carmino Starnino has pointed out to me that Alex Good ran a shadow jury from 2004-2010 (which you can find here, about halfway down the page). Good's Runaway Jury series certainly sets a decent standard for poetry prize shadow juries and reaffirms my belief that these things are a worthwhile exercise. It also beats alternative ways of evaluating art.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Andrew Faulkner

Andrew Faulkner co-curates The Emergency Response Unit, a chapbook press. His first book, Need Machine, was published by Coach House Books in April 2013. He lives in Toronto.

Go to Andrew Faulkner’s Author Page