Literary prizes are often seen as an endorsement of a book’s value, and may be regarded as something hankered after by authors.
In a discussion at the Via Afrika forum on the first day of the Cape Town Book Fair, four authors — all of whom have works under consideration for literary awards — debated the question, “Literary prizes — praise or prattle?”
Julia Martin, author of A Millimetre of Dust, set the keynote, saying there is a part of her that likes the idea of receiving a literary prize — they are like presents given to a child for doing well. Everybody, after all, likes praise. The receipt of a prize also helps to sell books and so publishers as well as authors like them.
But another part of her questions the awarding of prizes and asks how much of it has to do with business and branding rather than creativity. The creative spirit, she says, does not concern itself with receiving prizes.
And then there are questions about whose interests are served by literary prizes, how judges are selected, and who pays for the prize money. Still, Martin concedes the possibility of winning a prize does act as an incentive, especially for new writers, but overall she does not feel prizes should be taken seriously.
Zukiswa Wanner, author of Behind Every Successful Man, favours literary awards but criticises the amounts paid to writers, which she says are a clear indication that writers are not appreciated in SA.
The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman takes a similar view to Martin, that generally writers write because they have to write, it is part of their blood, a vocation, and literary prizes are a byproduct of the creative process.
She also questions the segmentation of literary prizes — such as prizes for women’s writing — but agrees that it is not a bad thing to endorse a literary work as much as possible.
Finuala Dowling, author of Notes from a Dementia Ward, feels literary prizes involve a clash of worlds — the one materialistic, the other a world of solitude and creativity. She feels awarding prizes is like trying to put a price tag on creativity, and as literary prizes in SA involve relatively small amounts of money, this makes her even more cynical about their value.
However, she agrees that prizes can motivate new writers, and help them to become better known as prizes do boost sales.
Across the table there were concerns about prizes being, as Martin says, short-cuts to branding, and about how judges decide which work wins. There were also questions about the absence of literary awards for crime writing and light writing in SA, despite the popularity of both genres.
The size of the prizes in SA was clearly a concern, but as presenter Ben Williams, editor of Book SA, pointed out, some longstanding, prestigious literary awards such as the Olive Schreiner Award might offer only a couple of thousand of rands, depending on what the English Academy of Southern Africa can afford in a given year, while relatively new awards, such as The Sunday Times Literary Awards, offer far more.
The M-Net Literary Awards recently paid out a total of R350 000 — but, as Williams pointed out, the Impact Dublin Award pays €100 000.
In conclusion, Martin and Landsman again warned that literary prizes should not be taken too seriously, and Dowling warned against the dangers of writers and writing becoming commodified.
Wanner, however, still came out strongly in favour of prizes — but with more money.
(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)