As It Happens·Q&A

Canadian book makes shortlist for Diagram Prize for oddest title of the year

The Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title judges a book solely by its cover — or at least its title. Organizer Tim Tivnan says the contents of the book have no bearing on who brings home the award, which has been running since 1978.

Gregory Forth's A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path competes with 5 other contenders

Tom Tivnan is features editor at The Bookseller, the U.K. trade publication that runs the Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. (Mark Guest)

The Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year is, according to Tom Tivnan, "the purest literary prize going."

"We don't care about what's in the books. We just go for the title," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The prize, formally known as the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, was established in 1978 "as a way to stave off boredom" at the Frankfurt Book Fair, according to The Bookseller, a U.K.-based trade publication that runs the award.

Previous winners include How to Poo on a Date: The Lovers' Guide to Toilet Etiquette and Too Naked for the Nazis.

Last year's winner, The Dirt Hole and its Variations, went to the late Charles L. Dobbins, making him the first posthumous winner of the prize.

While originally chosen by a panel of judges, in 2000 the format changed to a public, online vote.

Tivnan, The Bookseller's features editor, spoke to Off about this year's finalists, some fan favourite winners from past years, the prize's enigmatic director Horace Bent and more. Here is part of their conversation.

How does the 2020 crop of contenders for this title of titles stand up?

I think it's a classic year. We have a combination of scatological, which Diagram Prize voters really seem to like, and ... really strange and odd sort of academic titles.

And there's a Canadian finalist in this year's list, right?

There is a Canadian finalist: A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path by Gregory Forth, who I believe is a lecturer at University of Alberta, published by McGill Queen's University Press.

So you should all be very happy about that.

And what are some of the other titles on the list?

The other titles are: Introducing The Medieval Ass; Classical Antiquity and Heavy Metal Music; How To Make Love To A Despot; Lawnmowers: An Illustrated History; and finally, but not least, The Slaughter of Farmed Animals: Practical Ways to Enhance Animal Welfare.

And the obvious question to that is, isn't the practical way to enhance animal welfare by not killing them or slaughtering them? But there you go.

Some of this year's finalists for the 2020 Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, left to right: A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path by Gregory Forth; Introducing the Medieval Ass by Kathryn L Smithies; Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music by K. F. B. Fletcher and Osman Umurhan. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, University of Wales Press, Bloomsbury Academic)

Does the content of the books matter, or is it just the titles? I mean, do you, or does your team actually read the books?

No, not at all. That's why this is the purest literary prize going. We don't care about what's in the books. We just go for the title. And, in fact, I mean, most of the books that we pick are quite serious academic titles that [are] just kind of odd to us, to laymen and layperson, I should say.

For example, your Canadian entry, A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path, is a very serious look at Eastern Indonesian dialects and anthropology. By the way, "a dog pissing at the edge of the path" is an idiom in Eastern Indonesian dialect for someone who can't decide what to do. So you're running around and you can't stick to anything.

It's a tome that people in the field would, you know, have no problem with it. But it just kind of raises a chuckle to … the general public.

More of this year's finalists for the 2020 Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, left to right: How to Make Love to a Despot by Stephen D. Krasner; Lawnmowers: An Illus­trated History by Brian Radam; The Slaughter of Farmed Animals: Practical Ways to Enhance Animal Welfare by Temple Grandin and Michael Cockram. (W. W. Norton, Amberley Publishing, CABI)

There's always one similar to this one: Lawnmowers: An Illustrated History, that just reek of tedium. But it's a great title.

Yeah. Tedium is a longstanding Diagram Prize trope. For example, the 2006 winner was called The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Field Guide to Identification.

My favourite has always been Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers.

Yeah. A few years ago, because this has been going for 42 years now, we did a little anniversary roundup and people could vote for the greatest title of the last 40 years. And that was No. 1. People love Greek rural postmen, I guess. And their cancellation numbers.

When we covered your shortlist back in 2016, my co-host Chris Howden described the list as something that was divided into three groups: the complicatedly banal, the racy or off-colour and the baffling. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, absolutely. Those are kind of the three areas. And it's strange, there are [particular trends] that crop up all the time as well. There's been a trend recently for animal husbandry books, which I suppose The Slaughter of Farmed Animals, this year's shortlist-ee, kind of goes in with.

For example, there's been one winner called Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop. That's one of my favourites of all time, actually.

Again, that's a sort of serious book about trying to make sure that your chicken coop doesn't have fairies or any kind of evil spirits interfering with it.

This prize is supposedly organized by a fellow named Horace Bent. Can you tell us anything about him?

Well, Horace has been with the magazine since 1858. He's been writing columns since 1858. So he's very old. So he doesn't get out much.

And he might resemble me at the moment. Hint, hint, hint. But there's been several people who have been "Horace" over the years, too.

I suspected as much. I knew we'd never actually met Horace Bent on this show. So I was starting to suspect that there were many Horace Bents that were in wings, in the background of this.... Now, just to go back to this year's crop and who might be the winner, how will it be chosen?

It's chosen by a public vote. You can go on our website, thebookseller.com, and you can just log on and vote for your favourite.

I was looking just before I came on, at the exit polls, as it were. And I should say that the Canadian entry is surging ahead at the moment. So you guys should be proud of yourselves. But it's followed closely behind by Introducing The Medieval Ass and Classical Antiquity and Heavy Metal Music.

All right. Well, maybe having you on this show ... will push more people to vote for our Canadian finalist.

Yes. And unlike the American elections, we're not going to suppress any voters.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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