Producing prize winners

Literary prizes combine economic and cultural capital, English professor says

Author Johanna Skibsrud was Tuesday night’s surprise Giller winner.
Author Johanna Skibsrud was Tuesday night’s surprise Giller winner.

Tuesday night, in front of a crowd of industry peers, underdog Johanna Skibsrud took home Canada’s most coveted literary award: The Scotiabank Giller Prize.

With a top prize of $50,000 and $5,000 awarded to each of the runners-up, it’s easy to see why the Giller is so desirable to Canadian authors.

Skibsrud’s victory for her novel The Sentimentalists is being touting by some as the most shocking win in the history of the Giller.

The Sentimentalists is published by Gaspereau Press, a small press out of Nova Scotia that prints their books using old-fashioned presses. Gaspereau can only publish 1,000 copies of Skibsrud’s novel each week, and most bookstores have already run out; last year’s winner, Linden MacIntyre, sold 75,000 copies of his novel The Bishop’s Man after taking home the prize.

English professor Chris Bongie had predicted that Annabel author Kathleen Winter, not Skibsrud, would win the prize.

Chris Bongie, also the undergraduate chair in English, teaches a course about literary prize culture, with a special focus on the Giller.

He said literary prizes combine economic and cultural gain, which can be hard for those who consider writing purely an art form to accept.

“One of the most interesting things about literary prizes is that they are a place where two forms of capital—cultural capital and economic capital—come together, in a kind of way that often makes us uncomfortable, because we tend to think that literature and art have a value that’s completely detached from the realm of the economic,” he said. “But what literary prizes remind us of is that all works of culture—literature, art—are in one way or another entangled in the economic field.”

Bongie said writers who win or are nominated for prizes like the Giller gain cultural capital, which heightens their status in society.

“The most obvious thing really is that [winning a prize] gives the writer is greater recognition and this greater recognition is inseparable from ... what we call cultural capital,” he said. “In other words, they gain recognition and they gain access to the market.”

Gaspereau co-owners Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves have thus far refused the offers of larger publishing houses to print Skibsrud’s novel at a faster pace. Dunfield told the National Post his company refuses to sacrifice its artistic integrity for sales.

Bongie said literature is often talked about in an idealistic manner, especially in the English department, where books are usually discussed in relation to their artistic value rather than their economic capital.

“We often tend to avoid the material dimension of literature, the economic dimension of literature,” he said. “We tend to talk about the value of a work of literature in idealistic terms without sort of thinking of the way the ideal cultural value is entangled in and possibly generated by economic forces.”

“In a ... conventional English class, you wouldn’t necessarily draw attention to the fact that [a work] has won a prize,” Bongie added. “It wouldn’t be ... essential to any understanding of what’s going on.”

Queen’s has hosted previous Giller winners for the past three years, with 2009 winner MacIntyre stopping by last year, and 2008 winner Joseph Boyden and 2007 winner Elizabeth Hay visiting in the years prior.

Others in the literary field have a lot more invested in the materials dimensions of literature, Bongie said. Publishers love literary prizes because the attention helps generate income to recoup the printing costs and generate profit, he added. The money isn’t all the publishers are concerned about, though.

“If [a publisher has] a prizewinner on their roster of authors, that also gives them ... a certain amount of cultural prestige,” Bongie said, adding that the decision about who is awarded the honour of a literary prize usually comes down to a few judges.

This year’s jury is comprised of writer, broadcaster and journalist Michael Enright, professor and writer Claire Messud and UK author Ali Smith.

“The judging committee is just the tip of the iceberg,” Bongie said, “It’s important to remember that we always talk about the judges and committee but there’s a whole lot of other people involved in the process, along with the prize administrators, you know, the people who are in charge of the Giller, who select the selectors.”

Bongie said many literary prizes are full of controversy.

“In terms of the Booker Prize, which is one of the prizes that sociologists of literature have worked on, they often sort of look at that particular prize critically as a way for the British publishing centre to re-territorialize works of post-colonial literature because the Booker Prize has often been given to writers who are part of what’s called the British Commonwealth—writers from Africa, the Caribbean, India. Salman Rushdie for instance,” he said. “You know, [they’ve] written about the problems involved with this prize that is given out in London, the formal Imperial centre, and often given out to people from the formerly colonized world.”

The Giller has received its fair share of criticism throughout the years as well. People often disapprove of the fact that the majority of winners come from Ontario, especially the Toronto area. In contrast, only one of this year’s nominees is a Toronto resident, with the rest hailing from Winnipeg, Montreal and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Bongie said in The Economy of Prestige, a book about prize culture and required reading for his course, author James English discusses the concept of prizes as producers of cultural value.

“[He says] the minute a work of literature wins a prize, value has been produced,” Bongie said. “We’re saying that this text is somehow valuable because it has won a prize. But that’s not just what prizes do, that’s in a sense what all of culture does. This is English’s argument.”

Bongie said cultural value is always being produced. Even choosing which works to put on a syllabus is an example of producing value, he added. “We say that this novel has literary value, this other novel lacks literary value. On what basis do we make those kinds of distinctions? The whole realm of culture is built upon the making of these distinctions between works that are beautiful and works that don’t succeed and are not works of art. Works of literature that are important and works of literature that are unimportant,” he said. “Who makes these decisions? Who gives value to one text and does not give value to another text?

“The production of cultural value is a social process. The production of beauty is a social process.”

Awarded Authors

Skibsrud’s win on Nov. 9 puts her in the company of the Giller’s 17 previous winners.

2009 - The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
2008 - Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden
2007 - Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
2006 - Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
2005 - The Time in Between by David Bergen
2004 - Runaway by Alice Munro
2003 - The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji
2002 - The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
2001 - Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright
2000 - Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
2000 - Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
1999 - A Good House by Bonnie Burnard
1998 - The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
1997 - Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
1996 - Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
1995 - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
1994 - The Book of Secrets by M.G. Vassanji

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