Can the two new literary prizes give wind to publishing in India?
Two big literary prizes have been announced in India this year. But can they change the landscape of publishing in the country?
Mumbai: The announcement of two new literary prizes this year, one for fiction and the other non-fiction, could give wind to English-language publishing in India.
The first one, instituted by the multinational JCB Group, awards ₹25 lakh to a work of fiction by an Indian writer, in English or in translation. The second, by the New India Foundation (NIF), pledges ₹15 lakh for the best non-fiction book on modern India. No other literary award in India carries as much in prize money.
The Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation (NIF) Book Prize, named after the freedom fighter who died in 1988, will be unveiled at the Bengaluru Literature Festival in October. The NIF jury has shortlisted six books from a longlist of 50.
Open to authors of any nationality working on post-Independence India, the shortlist comprises: Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra, Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla, Republic of Rhetoric by Abhinav Chandrachud, The Broken Ladder by Anirudh Krishna, When Crime Pays by Milan Vaishnav, and Social Justice Through Inclusion by Francesca R. Jensenius.
“With memoir, oral history, political theory and public policy all represented on it, the shortlist reflects the Foundation’s ecumenical charter of recognising high-quality non-fiction regardless of genre and ideology,” Ramachandra Guha, chairman of the jury, said. Earlier this year, the JCB Group announced its own prize for original fiction writers who are Indian nationals. Offering ₹25 lakh to the winner, ₹1 lakh to each of the shortlisted writers and ₹5 lakh to a translator, should a work in translation win it, it is arguably India’s richest prize.
Previously the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, given by the DSC Group, was noted for its prize money of $50,000, which was slashed by half in 2017. The Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, though a prestigious prize for debut writers, offers a modest sum of ₹2 lakh.
“The impact of any prize has very much to do with its design, the way it ends up provoking bookshops, publishers and the media to promote the winner,” said Rana Dasgupta, director of the JCB prize.
“We want the five writers shortlisted for JCB to become well-known public names.” The JCB prize longlist will be declared on 5 September, and the shortlist in October.
Unlike the NIF jury, the JCB prize will change its selection committee annually and will be audited to ensure fair evaluation.
Can these prizes change the landscape of literary publishing in India, where readers are increasingly gravitating toward mass-market books?
“Both serious literary fiction and non-fiction need championing to reach a wider market. Otherwise these get read and talked about in an echo chamber,” said V.K. Karthika, publisher, Westland. “Big prizes can amplify these genres and nudge many more readers to books they would otherwise not have picked up.”
“Literary prizes increase awareness for the nominated books among readers and also often result in increased visibility in bookstores,” said Udayan Mitra, publisher, literary, HarperCollins India. “So they do work towards enhanced sales, even if not directly.”
Importantly for a nation with diverse languages, translations may also get a push, thanks to the rules of the JCB prize, which mandate that two out of four entries by any publishing house should be translated works.
Dasgupta said 22% of the submissions this year are translations and the number is expected to rise to 50-60% in the coming years. “Already we know publishers are focusing on more translations to fulfil their quota for next year.” Such shifts would also “create conversations around regional writing and enrich the current cultural milieu,” added Shanbag, author of the Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar, which has received global acclaim in English translation.
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