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Strange Brew (an investigative report)
By George Murray, Editor of Bookninja.com

This space originally contained a clever work of "art" adapted from an image at Upper Canada's website - it was their banner containing links to "Arts," "Culture," etc. We had crossed out "Arts" and "Culture" and circled "Buy Stuff" in an effort to highlight the seemingly bottom-line oriented nature of this decision... Upon receiving an email from Bill Lisowsky, Marketing Manager of Sleeman's Brewery containing the a request to remove the image ("I would appreciate you removing the Upper Canada doctored photograph image on your ninja site immediately. This trademark was accessed without permission."), we removed it at the earliest possible opportunity (the evening of 01/08/03). It seems Sleeman's has given up on the award and their sense of humour both.

Strange Brew

2003 was a bad year for literary awards - several disappeared, including the Milton Acorn People's Poetry Award and the National Magazine Award for Poetry. Now the lucrative, high profile Upper Canada Writers' Craft Award for Short Fiction (one of only about three awards exclusively for short fiction in Canada) is also gone. You didn't hear about it? Don't worry - nobody did. And that’s because Upper Canada failed to inform anyone of their decision.

When publishers and writers with eligible books inquired about deadlines this year they were simply told the award was not being offered anymore. As far as Bookninja.com is able to confirm, to date no major media outlets with book or publishing pages have written stories on its passing, nor have any publishers or news outlets received press releases detailing the reasoning for cancellation or even advising them that submissions were no longer being accepted. 

It seems the Upper Canada Brewing Company just quietly cancelled the popular award and  didn't tell anyone.

Established in 2000, the award was gleefully welcomed  by both writers and publishers. Its former winners and shortlisted authors include an impressive mix of large and small press authors: Matt Cohen, Stephen Hayward, Sheila Heti, Alice Munro, Diane Schoemperlen, and Josef Skvorecky. 

Over the years, Upper Canada has heavily branded itself as the thinking Canadian's beer, and prominently features sections such as "culture," "literature," and "outdoors" on its website. 

As of January 7th, 2004, the Upper Canada Brewery website (http://www.uppercanada.com/) still prominently lists the Writers' Craft program and profiles the 2002 award winners, yet there is no mention of its cancellation.

In an effort to provide Upper Canada (a subsidiary of Sleeman's Brewery) with an opportunity to explain its decision, we tried calling several times. When we were unable to reach a representative for a voice interview, we tried inquiring by email about the basis for the decision and asked how they thought this decision would impact their branding and customer loyalty. We explained that many of Bookninja.com’s readers were angry and disappointed by the cancellation of the award and offered them a chance to respond in writing. This time, the email was returned immediately by Mr. Bill Lisowsky, the Marketing Manager of Sleeman's who said he "would be curious to know who is 'angry' about this decision. It is funny how a small initiative that we started and found very concentrated interest in when it existed can actually sound like more are upset when it is gone."

This alone shows a serious lack of understanding about the nature and importance of arts-based social marketing, but it gets worse. Mr. Lisowsky’s email continues with: 

"The decision to postpone the award was made in order to concentrate limited marketing resources on other initiatives that required attention. In an organization that has multiple brands to support, sometimes you need to reallocate from time to time to be able to make a greater impact in one thing as opposed to spreading them out too thinly and not making any singular impact.

"We were especially disappointed that The Writers' Craft Award, one that gave away $30,000 in prize money over 3 years to short story writers, had to be postponed. I still would like to regard this initiative as 'postponed' as it was important to us to help us establish a greater connection with the arts community and one that we hope can continue in the future. if [sic] there was a strong interest in the publishing community, I would love to hear back from anyone on this - perhaps there is more we can do.

"Upper Canada is a brand we will be continuing to support and will relook at a number of initiatives it is associated with to continue to build it into one of Ontario's preferred craft beer brands." 

In November 2003, novelist Jonathan Bennett launched his first collection of short stories to rave reviews (including a 2003 Top 10 ranking from January Magazine). At the launch Mr. Bennett delivered a stirring defence of the short story (available in transcript form on Bookninja.com), a lately beleaguered form under siege by the economic pressures of bottom-line oriented publishing houses. Today, publishers want to sell books by buzz rather than talent, and short stories aren't seen as glamorous or sexy for the most part. In his address, Mr. Bennett, who would have been eligible for the award this year, said: 

"The current publishing environment is hostile towards the short story. Writer after writer will tell you that publisher after publisher have taken to rejecting short story collections outright because of the form. “We just can’t sell short story collections” has become the ubiquitous line in every rejection letter. Indeed, if an author does not also have an attractive novel to sell alongside their collection of stories or, to put it another way, if an author wished to be solely a practitioner of short stories, then I should think only the smallest of presses might be interested in their career. When short stories do, on occasion, make it on to literary award shortlists, they are viewed as the surprise finalist, the curiosity, the long shot. 

This in the country of Alice Munro. Of Mavis Gallant. Of Alistair McLeod. I could go on as Canada has a rich and proud history of short story writers. But lately it seems we have lost our way. Why is this?"

Good question. Some would argue it's not just the short story that's embattled, but literary endeavours as a whole. And given the sorry state of attention for literature and publishing in this country, we at Bookninja.com are frankly surprised to see so little press coverage of such losses. 

Upper Canada has gone to great lengths to associate its brand with arts causes, yet a decision to cancel this award after only three years makes their involvement seem more like fair-weather marketing than an effort to promote Canadian arts. One must wonder whether Upper Canada is actually committed to the arts or committed solely to using the arts as part of its brand positioning. 

$30,000 over three years is a paltry sum for a national brewery such as Sleeman's. It barely registers as a blip in the annual budget, yet it generates valuable nation-wide interest in both the works being considered and the brand of beer being sold.

Three years does not a commitment make. In fact, three years smacks more of testing the water than commitment. Was there not enough immediate return on the dollar? Not enough interest? Did an Excel spreadsheet somewhere have a graph plotting the date, the dollars spent, and the sales of beer?

The comments above seem to indicate that Sleeman's and Upper Canada were unaware of the importance of the award - a reasonable mistake for an award more indebted to a marketing department than any general interest in literature. And, truth be told, the literary community often takes such things for granted until they are gone. Yet, make no mistake about it: people are angry and disappointed. Short stories, considered one of the highest and most prestigious literary art forms, get very little press as it is. The cancellation of this award is just another sign of that Big Money is afraid to commit to funding art unless an immediate pay-off is available.

We at Bookninja call on Upper Canada to reinstate the award or remove all marketing materials related to it from their website and issue a proper public announcement about the cancelled status of the award. We also call on Canada's arts media to pay more attention to disappearing opportunities such as this. 

 


Letters regarding this report:

To George/Book Ninja,

Just read the piece on the Upper Canada Award's demise. Upper Canada was bought out by Sleeman's recently.  I'm presuming the award was started in the days when U.C. was still its own brand.  Upper Canada showed strong support for the arts across the board.  Sleeman fired most/all of the folks involved in-house in promoting the arts. They  have all/most been hired by Steam Whistle Brewing. So this is also a story of corporate takeover and its implications, a fact which doesn't seem acknowledged in your press release. (Perhaps someone should approach Steam Whistle about reinstating the award.) 

Happy New Year to you guys. 

Catherine Bush, Toronto


That's one less beer to drink, the bastards!  (It's BudLight from now on!)  Good thing you're out there, G.  You're right to ask "where the hell's the rest of the media?!"

Adam Seelig, New York


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Essay Links:

Upper Canada Brewing
Taddle Creek Magazine's Effort to Save the National Magazine Award for Poetry


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