The M-Net Literary Awards have been indefinitely suspended; this is shocking news, even worse than the closure of the much-loved bookshop Die Boekehuis.
Started in 1991, they were the first, and remained the only, awards that gave prizes to fiction in all 11 official languages. The judging panels were convened by the inimitable and cheerful Hettie Scholtz – one of the doyennes of publishing (Quellerie) and editor of note (to Marlene van Niekerk); she read all the English and Afrikaans novels submitted, and worked with the judges of those languages she herself could not read.
This was an act of faith in the future of our diverse literature in South Africa as we moved out of the shadow of apartheid. It was also a remarkable achievement of sponsorship on the part of M-Net as the authors of the winning novels won R50 000.
In recent years a debut prize could also be awarded in each language, worth R25 000. This represents a considerable outlay on the part of M-Net and perhaps in this economic climate it has just become too costly.
Let us assume this could be a reason for their withdrawal, and not that the South African book industry is in trouble. The health of publishing and bookselling cannot be addressed in this short article, but suffice to say, the world of books and reading is changing. But not ending!
As one of the judges for the M-Net English Fiction award in 2013, I can attest that the shortlist was very strong, which seemed to indicate a thriving writing culture in South Africa. It is true that the numbers are small (print runs, sales, even reviews), but the vigour and diversity of South African letters have ensured that it has always punched above its weight.
Now up for consideration for the 2014 book prizes is another batch of remarkable contenders : Claire Robertson (The Spiral House), Kgebetli Moele (Untitled), Niq Mhlongo (Way Back Home), Dominique Botha (False River), James Whyle (Walk), to mention a handful. These will be considered for both the Sunday Times Award and the UJ Creative Writing Award, as well as the new (pan-African) Etisalat Award.
Not only will the M-Net prize money be missed (really helpful to authors), but the diversity in judging too, as different panels rarely select the same book as the winner! And these prizes are only for books written in English.
There have been many articles in recent years on the fate of booksellers, the role of Amazon/Kindle, and so on, but none of this signals the death of literary enterprise. Writers and readers, press on. My advice is to buy paper books as often as you can afford, and to use an e-reader where you have to.
Ever since I read the postapocalyptic section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban (in which the internet is a dim religious memory), I have a tendency to feel that the wonders of digital technology may not always be there for us. Fragile as they are, books may survive better.
According to Antjie Krog, "We tell stories not to die of life." As before, so still.