Do we need a “Chinooker”? (About literary prizes…)

I haven’t yet read the recently announced Booker prize-winning WHITE TIGER, by debut novelist Aravind Adiga. (Have you?)

But I have appreciated other recent Booker winners and nominees, which I probably wouldn’t have read except for the publicity and international distribution made possible by the 40-year-old award. I enjoyed Anne Enright’s 2007 winner, THE GATHERING (stunningly written, if depressing) and last year’s runner-up MR. PIP by Lloyd Jones (funny as well as sad; I read it on a plane and kept sniffling into my sleeve), among many, many others. Sorry, but I’d never even heard of Enright or Jones until their names were announced in connection with the Booker. Often, I find I like the shortlist nominees better than the winner — but who cares? It’s all about introducing readers (like me) to new authors and titles. The old longlists help me with my ongoing remedial education, which is a subject in itself.

I love the fact that Brits actually place bets on who will win. Fewer people seem to pay attention to the National Book Awards. I don’t even recognize the winners most of the time, nor do I notice any build-up to the selection itself, which seems like a lost opportunity for booksellers. The Booker milks the whole process to great effect, from longlist to shortlist, with lots of great debates and squabbles along the way, which only benefits writers garnering all the attention.

But here’s my point, and my followup question. Never mind the nationals. Why don’t we have a kick-ass regional literature award that actually gets some public attention?

Here’s my idea: THE CHINOOKER. (Rhymes with Booker.) Alaska may not be big enough to support such an award, but why not have a Pacific Northwest award with the prize announced in Anchorage, Portland and Seattle (in annual rotation). If that still isn’t a large enough region to provide enough excellent books for consideration, the prize could rotate so that it goes to fiction one year, nonfiction the next, and poetry the third.

The trophy itself could be one of those wonderful artistic salmon creations that Anchorage Wild Salmon on Parade does so well. (See “Canned Salmon” by Chris Arend, above.) Picture each year’s salmon trophy shellacked with the pages from the actual winning book, with the huge fiberglass salmon traveling between states for a year, appearing in displays in independent bookstores like Title Wave, Powell’s, and others. At each store, the salmon would catch people’s attention, and guide them toward tables where the winner and shortlist nominees would be displayed. The quirky award would attract newspaper attention, reviewers, bloggers, etc. It would focus readers and bookbuyers on titles that might be otherwise missed. It would give bookclubs an annual list of regional books, beyond the bestseller and Oprah lists. It would be silly, inspiring, fun, and probably contentious as well.

What would this cost? Who would do the judging? Who should spearhead it? What are the pros and cons? Do awards create too much hype and fuel the wrong kind of competition, or do they effectively promote good writing and help booksellers engage their customers ? I’m curious what you think…

3 thoughts on “Do we need a “Chinooker”? (About literary prizes…)”

  1. Love the concept of the Chinooker! What if it were strictly Alaskan, and qualifying books were either written by Alaskan authors or set in Alaska (for even part of the book) or both? If there were a rotation of genres on a two or three-year cycle, there would be a good set of viable nominees. An existing independent non-profit, like the Alaska Center for the Book, would be the best bet to pull it off.

  2. I like your idea. FYI, there is a Pacific Northwest award for Science Fiction, The Endeavour Award ( named for one of Captain James Cook’s ships and including authors from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, The Yukon, and Alaska. It’s a rare SF award in that it offers an actual cash prize ($1000) and next year it will be ten years old. As far as I know, I was the first and only finalist from AK a couple of years ago.

    I think to make an Alaskan or regional award useful, you would have to find a way of making it newsworthy. As you say, Americans don’t seem to care about book awards one way or another. Just look at the Quills, in which major booksellers, Publisher’s Weekly, and NBC tried to imitate the hype of the Oscars. That award never raised a blip in the American consciousness and was scrapped after only two years.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for weighing in, Deb and David. I’ll add my further comments in a new post.

    And a belated congratulations to you, David, on the Endeavour Award. I’d be curious to know whether it yielded any benefits (beyond the cash prize).

    I also visited your blog (Counting Heads) and was happy to see some recent updates there. I’m looking forward to lots more news coming from you in the weeks leading up to the January release of your new sci-fi novel.

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