The Governor General’s Literary Awards

by John H. Meier, Jr. Independent Scholar
Photograph of store window display of Governor General's awards winners from 1936 to 1946, Sarnia, Ont.

The Governor General’s Literary Awards (GGs) have evolved over the years to become Canada’s premier book awards. This case study explores the history of the awards, their importance to publishers, how winners’ books are marketed, and the effect of the awards on book sales.

The Governor General’s Literary Awards originated with the Canadian Authors Association (CAA). During the 1934 to 1935 period, Albert H. Robson, CAA Toronto branch president at the time, queried William Arthur Deacon, literary critic and editor, for ideas on how to help Canadian authors. Deacon suggested a CP00377.jpgliterary award to impress upon the public the high quality of books produced in Canada. By early 1937, final discussions took place between Dr. Pelham Edgar, CAA national president, and the Governor General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan, himself an author). Tweedsmuir gave permission to use the name of the Governor General’s office for the awards in perpetuity. Edgar also claimed that Tweedsmuir had agreed to endow the awards to cover costs, although the Governor General would later deny this and refuse to contribute financially. Ultimately, the CAA agreed to be responsible for the funding, judging, and administration of the prizes. On 24 November 1937, the first awards CP00920.jpgwere presented for two titles published in 1936: Bertram Brooker’s Think of the Earth, in the fiction category; and T.B.R. Robertson’s T.B.R., Newspaper Pieces, for non-fiction. In the first year the award was referred to as the Tweedsmuir award by the media. As the awards evolved, prizes were given for the best works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry or drama published by a Canadian author. Initially only English-language works or books translated from French were eligible.

In 1959 the Canada Council for the Arts, founded in 1957, took over the administration, promotion, and financial obligations of the awards. The Council committed to provide at least six prizes of $1,000 each for both French and English works for poetry or drama, fiction, and non-fiction. Today awards are given for the best English-language and French-language publications in each CP00837.jpgof seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature (text and illustration), and translation.

Originally, winners received medals only. In 1951 an additional monetary prize of $250 was introduced. The monetary value of prizes increased over the years to keep up with economic expectations and to reflect the prestige of the awards. The prize grew to $15,000 by the year 2000, and in 2007 rose to $25,000 in honour of the Canada Council’s fiftieth anniversary. Non-winning nominees receive $1,000. Additionally, the publisher of each winning book is given $3,000 to support promotion.

Over the years, presentation and scheduling of the awards have changed. CP00479.jpgWhen the CAA administered the GGs, medals were usually presented at the finale of their annual convention, which was held during the spring in cities across the country. In 1980 the Canada Council started publishing the names of finalists in all categories in the weeks preceding the awards presentation. In 1992 the Council began presenting the awards in November of each year to coincide with the major book-buying season.
Since the inception of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, being nominated is seen as a significant achievement by both Canadian authors and their publishers. Winning the award has almost always resulted in increased sales. Today it is very common for publishers to order an additional print run of a book within hours of the announcement of its success, and it is not unusual for a title to be reprinted multiple times during the subsequent three to six month period.

There have been many notable winning titles in the fiction category, some with CP00917.jpgsubstantial sales in domestic trade editions. Examples are: Franklin McDowell’s The Champlain Road (1939), 5,392 copies sold; Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (1945), 47,000 copies sold; David Walker’s Digby (1952), 28,000 copies sold in the UK and Canada; Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God (1966), 9,740 copies sold; Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), 13,000 copies sold; and Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness (2004), 88,000 copies sold, 55,000 copies of which were printed after the book won the award.

Winning has not necessarily resulted in increased sales. Some titles, because of CP00528.jpgtheir notoriety, experimental nature, or bad timing in the marketplace, were not reprinted beyond their initial run, since sales were not large enough to warrant an additional printing. Examples include Douglas LePan’s The Deserter (1964), 1,370 copies; and Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man (1969), 1,000 copies. Years after their publication, however, both titles have been re-issued and have come to be regarded as important classics.

The awards have not been free of controversy. One of the earliest disputes involved Igor Gouzenko’s novel The Fall of a Titan (1954). Gouzenko was a Russian cipher clerk who defected while in Canada after the Second World CP00736.jpgWar. When the award was announced one of the jurors quit over the decision to give it to Gouzenko. The juror was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying: “The Fall of a Titan was, admittedly, a potent potpourri of journalism and politics with some skilful literary echoes. It was not, by any standards, a good novel, and I am convinced that future historians will look upon it as a literary curiosity.” In 1969 poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen declined the award for his winning collection, Selected Poems 1956-1968 (1968). According to the Globe and Mail (28 May 1969, p. 6), Cohen would not accept the honour because “the world is a callous place and he would take no gift from it.” On the night of the award ceremony, he partied at Jack McClelland’s hotel CP00530.jpgroom with fellow authors and declared: “I would like to be Governor-General” (Globe and Mail, 17 May 1969, Entertainment and Travel section, p. 25). Another more recent controversy, over a perceived conflict of interest, was the decision to give the poetry prize to Jacob Scheier for More to Keep Us Warm (2007). It was later disclosed that one of the three jurors had co-translated a poem in the collection, while a second juror was thanked in the acknowledgments and had provided a blurb for the book.

In celebrating a book’s nomination with newspaper and periodical advertisements, publishers use the Governor General’s Literary Awards as a powerful marketing tool. Once a book is awarded the prize, additional CP00738.jpgmarketing techniques are used. In the past it was customary for publishers to print a wrap-around, paper band to highlight a book’s designation as a GG winner; the band was then folded onto the book over the dust jacket. Beginning in the 1960s, the Canada Council supplied publishers and booksellers with gold seal stickers to affix to the book’s front. Recently, to further promote the awards and to increase sales, short-listed titles also receive a gold seal sticker to denote their nomination. Once a book wins the award, additional printings usually have the gold seal printed directly onto the dust jacket or front cover. The cachet of an award carries through to an author’s subsequent books, the covers of which commonly include a prominent notice of the GG win. This not CP01069.jpgonly encourages sales of the new book but also generates revenue for the publisher’s backlist.

The significance of the Governor General’s Literary Awards has grown substantially over the years. Along with the Giller Prize, the awards are now considered to be the most prestigious literary prizes in the country, and the term “GGs” has become part of the lexicon of Canada. Although some of the early titles seem dated in style or subject matter, the winning list overall represents some of the best Canadian writing in the twentieth century.

Media Gallery

Letter from William Deacon to Ellen Elliott, 8 May 1940, page 1
Letter from William Deacon to Ellen Elliott, 8 May 1940, page 2
Letter from William Deacon to Ellen Elliott, 8 May 1940, page 3
Letter from William Deacon to Ellen Elliott, 8 May 1940, page 4
Window display of Governor General's award winners from 1936 to 1946
Front cover of "The studhorse man" by Robert Kroetsch
Title page of "The studhorse man" by Robert Kroetsch
Front cover of "A jest of God" by Margaret Laurence
Title page of "A jest of God" by Margaret Laurence
Front cover of "Selected poems, 1956-1968" by Leonard Cohen


Further Resources

Harrington, Lyn. Syllables of Recorded Time: The Story of the Canadian Authors Association 1921-1981.26 Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1981, 260-74.

Luneau, Marie-Pier and Ruth Panofsky. “Celebrating Authorship: Prizes and Distinctions,” in History of the Book in Canada, ed. Carole Gerson and Jacques Michon, 3: 116-22. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Thomas, Clara and John Lennox. William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1982, 189-209.

Archival Resources

William Arthur Deacon collection, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

The Edith and Lorne Pierce Collection of Canadiana, W.D. Jordan Library, Special Collections, Queen's University

McClelland & Stewart Ltd. fonds, McMaster University

Macmillan Company of Canada fonds, McMaster University

Canadian Authors Association, Toronto Branch, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto