The organizers of the Victoria Book Prizes were surely bracing for an angry reaction after their judges gave the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize to convicted bank robber Stephen Reid.
Although Reid deserved his long prison sentences for crimes that endangered the lives of police officers and civilians, the judges assessed the book on its merit as a work of literature, as they should have done.
On Wednesday night, Reid was awarded the $5,000 prize for A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing From Prison, a collection of non-fiction stories about his life in prison and the Victoria bank robbery in 1999 that sent him to prison for 18 years. He is serving his sentence at William Head Institution.
Reid became a literary celebrity in the 1980s while he was in prison for crimes committed when he was a member of the Stop Watch gang of bank robbers. Released in 1987, he began moving in literary circles and seemed to be putting his life back together, but descended into drug abuse.
He was high on the day in 1999 when he and an accomplice robbed a bank on Cook Street. He shot at police officers and civilians during a high-speed chase.
Many people believe that rampage put him beyond hope of forgiveness, regardless of his writing talent.
In 2006, Victoria police Sgt. Bill Trudeau, whom Reid was convicted of trying to murder during the chase, told the Times Colonist: “I really hope people in the arts industry in this city have a long, hard look at it. It’s incredible. They don’t realize how this guy’s ruined lives. And because he writes a book it’s suddenly OK. Give me a frickin’ break.”
People are understandably disturbed by the thought of giving what appears to be a reward for criminal behaviour.
However, Reid’s book went through the full selection process, as did the other works. In such a contest, all the books have to be judged by what is between the covers.
If we challenge Reid’s entry, we have to challenge the eligibility criteria. Are we saying he is ineligible forever because of his crimes, or while he is serving his sentence or for some period after his release?
To say he could never enter the book competition is to accept censorship, to say that we will never read his work because of who he is.
Literary competitions must be a free exchange of ideas. Like libraries, they should offer something for a wide range of tastes.
Was Reid’s the best book published in the city in the past year? That’s a question readers can decide for themselves, and it’s always appropriate to challenge the judges’ assessment in any competition such as this. Ranking the relative merits of several very different works is subjective.
Perhaps the judges and those who created the short list were influenced by Reid’s life story more than by the quality of his book. Someone who appears to be struggling for redemption and seems honest about his sins can be attractive to many people.
If the judges were swayed by such considerations, they would be just as wrong as those who dismiss the work because of Reid’s criminal past. Neither factor has a place in their deliberations.
Some will say it is impossible to separate the writer from the writing, and it is dishonest to try. However, hard as it is, literary judges must strive to make that distinction. These are not awards for personal development, community service or celebrity; they are for writing that transcends the ordinary.
Reid’s crimes are contemptible and he must pay for them in prison, but censorship has no place in the Victoria Book Prizes.