Governor General's Literary Awards | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Governor General's Literary Awards

The Governor General’s Literary Awards are the pre-eminent literary prize offered for single works in Canada. They serve to reward Canadian writers and to publicize Canadian literature through the announcement of short-listed nominees and the awards ceremony each year. As of 2017, there were 14 categories, seven each in English and French, with a cash prize of $25,000 each. The publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to promote it, and authors that are shortlisted as finalists receive $1,000.
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).
Wiebe, Rudy
Rudy Wiebe won the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1994 (photo by Jorge Frascara).

Background and History

Governor General's Literary Awards were first presented in 1937 by the Canadian Authors' Association (CAA). The CAA organized the adjudications until 1944, when an independent Awards Board was established. In 1959, the Canada Council undertook the administration of the awards and provided eight prizes of $1,000 each for work in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama in both English and French (previous awards had been for works in English only). Also that year, the category of juvenile literature, which had been established in 1946 but was not awarded until 1949, was dropped.

Changes in Prizes and Categories

The cash award was raised to $2,500 in 1965, to $5,000 in 1975, to $10,000 in 1988 and to $15,000 in 2000. In 2007, as part of the celebration of the Canada Council's 50th anniversary, the prize money was increased to $25,000.

In 1971, the Canada Council began appointing two nine-member juries — one Anglophone and one francophone, each of which was overseen by a non-voting chair —­ drawn from experienced writers, academics and literary critics. New categories have also been added over the years, specifically separate categories for children's literature – text, children's literature – illustration, and translation, all of which were introduced in 1988.

Until 1991, the prizes were presented the year after the award year (e.g., awards for books published in 1960 were presented in 1961). Beginning in 1991, ceremonies were held in the award year itself.

Controversies and Criticisms

Like any prize, the Governor General's Awards have proven to be controversial from time to time. Contemporary judgements do not always stand the test of time, and there is a general complaint that writers have not always won for their best work. The awards have also been criticized for specific omissions (e.g., the failure of Northrop Frye's The Great Code to win an award in 1983). Some winners have also refused to accept the award for political reasons. 

Selection of past winners: Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

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