Friday 14 November 2008

Awards process is ‘imperfect’’ and ‘imprecise’ say GG jurists

It’s a few days after a letter of protest from Chester Brown and Seth landed in the email boxes of the Canada Council for the Arts. Unfortunately since then, they haven’t had much of substance to say about the Skim debacle.

The last I heard (via Quill and Quire’s blog) the Canada Council’s Melanie Rutledge—head of Writing and Publishing—had rejected the idea of adding Jillian Tamaki’s name to Skim’s nomination, saying: “The horse has kind of left the barn, unfortunately, and we’re not really in a position to simply stop and re-do things.”

I’m not quite sure what she’s talking about, since no “re-do” is required: just a simple matter of bending the rules a little to add Jillian’s name on the citation alongside her cousin’s, Mariko. Rutledge’s reaction seems kind of pat and toothless, and smacks of the kind of bureaucracy that we have come to expect from faceless government departments not the august, artist-friendly Canada Council. (Their motto being "Supporting Canadian Creativity.")

Her reaction is doubly puzzling when you consider the thoughts of the jury members, who seem to agree that the GG process is flawed and in need of an overhaul.

Kevin Major and Teresa Toten, two-thirds of the jury for Children’s Literature – Text (the category Skim is nominated under), seem to agree that the situation Jillian finds herself in is a symptom of the fact that the GG’s long-standing categories are outdated. Toten, a Toronto-based author, told me this morning that she thinks the process is “imperfect and imprecise” and that the events of this past week have been “a learning opportunity, for me and the Council.”

Admittedly not well-acquainted with comics and graphic novels before she was asked to be a GG judge earlier this year, she stressed that she thought Skim was “a stunning piece of work” and expressed regret that one of it’s creators was feeling snubbed by their decision.

“I get it now,” she added. “I don’t think I got it before, but I get it now.”

As Toten (and others) have pointed out, the GGs operate under a set of categories that seem to have been created without the medium of comics in mind. Skim, thanks to its young-adult orientation, was submitted for consideration in two categories: “Children’s Literature – text” (Mariko Tamaki) and “Children’s Literature – illustration” (Jillian Tamaki).

I’m sure if they had a flux capacitor and a DeLorean handy, the staff in charge of applying for awards at Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press (the book’s publishers) would fly back in time in an instant and undo what I see as the initial, grave miscalculation. By submitting to these outdated categories, they kind of guaranteed that either Mariko or Jillian would be snubbed. Maybe they thought a comic didn’t have a chance anyway, and decided to hedge their bets by pretending that Skim was an illustrated kid’s book?

Anyways, I also talked with Major via email in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Also an author, he was very forthcoming about what he thought was wrong. When asked where he thought the fault lied, he said:

"The book was submitted within the present classification system and guidelines, which the publisher was well aware of. We were asked to consider the word text only, and could really do no more than that in submitting our shortlist. I would say there has been an awareness among juries (past and present) that it is an imperfect system, for picture books as well as graphic novels, since in both cases the two elements (words and images) work in unison. However, that debate has been on-going for years (at least back to the 1970s), long before graphic novels were in the mix. As have other debates about the system, of judging YA [young adult] fiction in the same category as books for 5-year-olds, as an example."

And, a little later on:

“In the case of SKIM, the artwork of many of them conveys parts of the story that the words alone do not. In my opinion the drawings in the best picture books, as those in graphic novels, do not simply illustrate text, but are equal in their contribution to the telling of the story…SKIM is indeed a wonderful book, with two contributors of equal merit.”

While both jury members sympathize with Jillian’s predicament—and acknowledge the arguments made in the open letter—they stopped short of saying her name short be added to the nomination. Considering how much they liked Skim, and the crucial role that Jillian’s art plays in it, not formally acknowledging—even at this late point in the process—seems like losing on a technicality.

Major did however close out his email with this small light of hope:

“No doubt this matter will be raised at the next GG awards meeting of the Council. Maybe it is time to rethink the classification system. If the protest is loud and long against what is in place now, then the Council would have no choice but to rethink it.”

So, speak up comics fans! Blog your heart out or contact the Canada Council now! Vote early, vote often!


Anonymous said...

"Pat and toothless"? This kind of personal attack on the most forward-looking, writer and publisher-friendly director that this section of the Canada Council has had in recent years is very distressing.

The nomination can't be changed, not without cancelling or postponing the award for the year and taking every book submitted back to the jury for reconsideration. The reason for this is right there in your post, and implicit in Seth and Chester Brown's open letter -- the words/images debate goes beyond comic and graphic novels. A jury that has been asked to look only at words will try to do that (even though it's obviously impossible for them to do so in isolation). Making such a change to the nomination could be seen as trivializing the textual contribution of every other illustrator that had a book submitted to the award.

By saying this I don't mean to detract from Jillian Tamaki's obvious achievement, or the motivation behind the open letter. The children's GG categories were never appropriate, and neither graphic novels nor YA fiction are well-served by being put into boxes created for picture-books. But you don't fix the system by trivializing the changes required or attacking the people who can make them. Instead, make the case for the way the genre should be judged. Recruit the help of those children's and trade publishers who release graphic novels but don't necessarily have the understanding that those who have devoted their lives to the genre do. With any luck you'll see change. Not this year, but maybe next.

Brad Mackay said...

First off, my comment was not aimed at Melanie herself but the Council as an organization. (Even then, I don't mean to discount the indisputable good work the Council has done to support comics and cartoonists through grants etc.) I assumed she was speaking on behalf of the Council rather than expressing her personal belief. So, no harm intended.

Everything else you say is sober and well-reasoned. Yet I don't understand why you think recognizing Jillian Tamaki would trivialize other Canadian illustrators. The point Seth and Chester (and indeed many others) is trying to make, is that Jillian is a cartoonist and her role in Skim is much different than just making some pictures to accompany spare text.

Indeed, recognizing Jillian in the nomination would be a way of telling her and her colleagues that the Council understands her historically maligned and much-misunderstood medium.

Also, if you (and the jury members) agree that the GG categories have been flawed for some time now, why should Jillian or any other cartoonist suffer the consequences?