Farewell to CNA award

The CNA Literary Award is no more. SHAUN DE WAAL looks back at its successes and failures, and asks some questions about a future prize

AFTER 35 years, the CNA Literary Award has come to an end. Some might accuse this paper of having helped to kill it – after all, Sarah Ruden, who won in the English category last year for her volume of poems, Other Places, reacted strongly to our flippant comment about the award “haemorrhaging glamour”.

It is this paper’s fault, she wrote, that the award lacks that elusive quality (she fingered no other publication). It is the Mail & Guardian which should have provided the CNA award with glamour by paying it more attention than we did in what turned out to be its final year.

Perhaps we could have done more. Perhaps it was only the newspapers that were left without any sense of excitement as the prize plodded on, moving year by year from a ballroom in Sandton to the foyer of the Market Theatre, from the Grahamstown festival to the Linder Auditorium.

But then again the CNA Literary Award – as its name indicates – was a marketing tool of a particular company, and it was as a marketing tool that it failed. (The company will focus instead on basic literacy education.) By the late Eighties, the public had ceased to associate the CNA chain of stationers and booksellers with the kind of books that win prizes like the one that bore its name. It was impossible to find the winning books, let alone those merely shortlisted, in most of the chain’s stores. What had the CNA, taking itself ever downmarket, to gain from awarding such a prize?

The fact that journalists began to lose interest in the CNA award – thus, as Ruden claims, robbing it of some of its prestige by ignoring it – is perhaps in part due to the fact that the M-Net Book Prize was louder, brasher and more aggressively promoted. It was competition the CNA award apparently could not handle.

Which is not to say that the award does not have a distinguished history, as Brian Green shows in “This Beacon in Our Murky Lives” (the quote is from 1966 winner Thelma Gutsche), a study of the award’s first 20 years, published in the latest English Academy Review. It was a marketing tool that aided literature; as much as it promoted the name of a shop, the award drew attention to work its judges considered exceptional and thereby helped keep alive the ideals of excellent writing.

As Green points out, the prize also served a political purpose:”During this era of increasingly stringent state control, the opportunity the CNA accorded the prize- winning author to make a first-hand statement on the conditions of literary production in contemporary South Africa was one of the greatest achievements in the history of this literary award.” Andr Brink and others certainly made good use of their time at the podium.

The CNA Literary Award itself, too, especially in the person of Layton Slater, chairman from 1978, “took up the cause against censorship, vigorously and implacably”.

To read the list of those who have won the CNA Literary Award over the last 35 years is to track the development of an indigenous literary pantheon. Those with the most laurels are Brink, JM Coetzee, and Nadine Gordimer. Receiving the prize in 1990 for My Son’s Story, Gordimer said she would not enter the award in future as she felt it should go to emerging writers.

The prize would answer that need a year later by creating a category for debut work, a fine way to promote new writers. It also, belatedly, reorganised categories that had tended, in any one year, to pit, say, a guide to yachting against a complex psychological novel. Sensibly, non-fiction and “creative” work (fiction and poetry) were split into separate areas.

Hearteningly, a new prize will take the place of the CNA Literary Award. It will be associated with CNA-Gallo subsidiary Exclusive Books rather than CNA itself, which does make more marketing sense. Exclusive Books managing director Fred Withers says the company is taking a cautious approach, consulting widely with publishers and writers.

It must be hoped that between them they will come up with a new prize worthy of the respect commanded by the CNA award at its height. There are, at any rate, some pointers for debate.

The Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non- fiction was once paired with the CNA prize. Now it exists proudly in its own right, and might offer a model of how to proceed. It is neatly focused in its requirements and it has the benefit of in-house publicity through the newspaper. It might be argued that the new award should define itself in contra-distinction to the Paton, and go to fiction.

That, though, would put it in competition again with M-Net’s well-funded prize – though that has attempted to position itself as more “popular” and slightly less literary. Such a distinction may be more or less meaningful in any given year.

Britain’s Whitbread Prize is given in various categories (biography, first novel, travel …) and then an overall winner is chosen from those. It has the advantage of continuing through the year, with the result that the prize has a high profile. Then again, in a literary culture as restricted as ours, that might lead all the more speedily to ennui.

How about an award for poetry? That literary form, once dominant, is today the most in need of succour. Would there be a sufficient number of publications to sustain such a prize?

Who gets to be a judge? The character of an award can be determined by its judges, or whoever chairs the panel. Traditionally, the judges of the CNA award have come from universities, the press and from the ranks of fellow writers (often previous winners). Perhaps more members of the last group should be drawn in. Do writers make good judges of each others’ work? What would the impact of an Academy-style peer system be?

And how to solve the question of language? South Africa may be committed to 11 official languages, but – as we are discovering – this system can be paralysingly cumbersome. To its credit, the M-Net Book Prize has spread its net wide, but still, of necessity, emphasises English and Afrikaans. (And there are already a few prestigious Afrikaans awards.)

Literary prizes are good to have, especially when books and reading need all the glamour they can get. But prizes need to be marketed as much as a bookshop chain or any other retailer. Without a smidgeon of glitz, the award will not catch the public’s imagination.

A little controversy always helps. As Britain’s Booker Prize demonstrates, a good barney between judges, journalists and public over who should get it helps sell books -books which, in the meantime, have been prominently placed in shops. Bookies even set the odds on who’s most likely to win.

The sputtering battle over last year’s CNA award – one reader of this paper found it unbelievable that Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying didn’t win – is a positive sign. When ordinary readers start taking sides, one can presume that literature in this country still has an audience which cares.

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