Enemy or promise?

nce, they were considered the “enemies of promise”. Today, they are an innate element of the book world. Prizes, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s weeds, “shoot long and lovely and lush” in the literary garden.

It was Cyril Connolly (1903 to 1974) who coined an eloquently negative view of literary success in Enemies of Promise (1938). Connolly was obsessed with the perils of premature regard and what he saw as the chimera of literary immortality. He explored those in many of his critiques, reviews and essays, in a career that included a memorable stint as literary editor of The Observer.

Robert McCrum now sits in that hot seat at The Observer and recently he was moved to consider whether it is good or bad to have such a plethora of prizes festooning the English books industry. In the end, McCrum conceded, the publishing industry cannot escape the global zeitgeist for prize giving. More important, literary prizes are an open process, subject to scrutiny. Most important, the winners’ books “possibly for the first time, will attract new readers”.

A sales bounce is sometimes reflected in South Africa on the announcement of shortlists for prizes. There is also a corresponding rise in discussion of the merits of the books concerned.

Mid-June marks the prize-hunting season here. Within the 48 hours of June 16 and 17, the winners of three sets of major literary awards will be made known. The Sunday Times and Alan Paton awards go out on June 16, followed by the M-Net Literary Awards (shortlists announced this week, and listed here) and the Via Afrika Literary Awards.

Of course, these awards have been around for a while, or have been resuscitated, as in the case of the M-Net prize for English novels, on the back of the steepling rise in titles published nationally. This evidence of literary creativity reaching publication rather than mouldering away in the bottom drawers of desks is heartening, though it does raise some awkward questions.

Readers are one thing, buyers another, and it is greater numbers of the latter that the publishing industry (and writers) most wish to attract. But, given the considerable increase in local titles, how is buying to be encouraged?

While shortlisting might help, awards certainly do. Lionel Shriver took home the Orange Prize’s £30 000 for We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the real effect for her and her publishers was in the juggernaut of sales: 600 000 copies in the United Kingdom alone.

What is critical to the awards (and sales) world in Britain is the very high degree of differentiation in prizes. They range, for example, from the Costa (formerly Whitbread) for first novels to a gong for the Romantic Novelist of the Year.

While carving out a niche is essential, it also carries the latent danger of a reduction to the absurd. I think of the consequences of the Encore Award in the UK, set up to reward “the best second-time novelist of the year”. That’s fine and well, perhaps; but what happens when, seeking to seize the opening created by the Encore, an award for “the best third-time novelist of the year” is established?

Nonetheless, in vying for attention and niches, prizes considerably help authors, directly and indirectly. Increasingly, at the top end of the prize-giving firmament — the Man Booker, the Man Booker International and the Impac Dublin Literary Award — they also contest entry requirements and the very composition of the canon itself.

The Man Booker International, one of the judges for the next version of which is Nadine Gordimer, audaciously embraces world literature, with its criteria of literature in English or “generally available in translation”. Thanks to the inaugural award in 2005, English-language readers have become acquainted with Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare and his satire of authoritarianism, The Concert.

An analogous widening of the Sunday Times Literary Award criteria in South Africa has seen Michiel Heyns’s translation of Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat on this year’s shortlist. So is South African English literature enhanced, thanks to author and translator — and publishers in pursuit of new readers and a far larger market.

Ultimately, awards are peripheral to the vocation of reading. The truest test is when the reader (whether she or he has bought, borrowed or stolen the book) sits down to turn to the first page. That might not be the public process of the awards jamboree but it is practising the ancient covenant between author and reader, where commercial imperatives are meaningless and the quintessential culture and aesthetic of reading and writing hold sway.

M-Net Literary Awards shortlist


• Green-eyed Thieves, Imraan Coovadia (Umuzi)

• How We Buried Puso, Morabo Morojele (Jacana)

• My Mother’s Lovers, Christopher Hope (Atlantic Books)

• The Native Commissioner, Shaun Johnson (Penguin)

• The Shadow Follows, David Medalie (Pan Macmillan)


• Die Boek van Toeval en Toeverlaat, Ingrid Winterbach (Human & Rousseau)

• Equatoria, Tom Dreyer (Tafelberg)

• Horrelpoot, Eben Venter (Tafelberg)

• Memorandum, Marlene van Niekerk and Adriaan van Zyl (Human & Rousseau)

• Stiltetyd, Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg)


• Swi tlula magandzelo, TH Khosa (Lingua Franca)

• Xidawudawu xa wansati, Isaac Sak Shabangu (Lingua Franca)


• Ntshware ka letsogo, Duncan Kabelo Kgatea (Tafelberg: Sepedi)

• A mo tshepa? Tauatsoala Machuene (Lingua Franca: Sepedi)

• Re lebe kae? KJ Sekele (Shuter & Shooter: Sepedi)


• Elowo Nalawo, Kula Siphatheleni (Ilitha Publishers: isiXhosa)

• Ngidedele Ngife, EMD Sibiya (Tafelberg: isiZulu)

• Owu! Hayi Ukuzenza, JJF Sankqela (Juta Gariep: isiXhosa)

What the critics say

• “Prizes and their attendant hullabaloo satisfy contemporary narcissism and global consumerism in any number of ways. I would argue that they also play an indispensable role in identifying new writing of consequence.” — Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer, May 6 2007

• “Writing is fundamentally dull, and there are no secrets to it: You sit down, you type something out, most of the time, if you have any self-respect, you throw it away.” — Lionel Shriver, author of the 2005 Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, interviewed in The Observer, April 22 2007

• “They [prizes] are just a promotional tool. Who is to say [from a shortlist] that one book is better than the rest?” — Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good Will Come, and winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature, interviewed in the Mail & Guardian, April 26 2007

• “Far from simply replicating one another and thus approaching a condition of infinite redundancy, literary prizes in Britain as elsewhere insist on their differences and thereby engage in a ceaseless struggle to determine the very contours of the literary world.” — James English, academic and author of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, writing in The Guardian, April 21 2007

• “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous … every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile … I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.” — American novelist and social critic Sinclair Lewis, declining the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith (1925). Curiously, he wrote to his publisher soon after: “Any thoughts on pulling wires for the Nobel prize?” Lewis was awarded, and accepted, the Nobel in 1930, becoming the first American author to win the coveted award.

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