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Olga Tokarczuk (Photo: Getty Images)
Olga Tokarczuk (Photo: Getty Images)

A year of literary prizes and surprises in 2019

  • On the eve of the announcement of the DSC Prize, Lounge takes a look at some global literary prizes this year
  • From the joint awarding of the Booker Prize to the Nobel Prize for Literature, literary awards were mired in unusual controversies in 2019

The richest literary prize in India—the JCB Prize for Literature, which confers 25 lakh on a writer of fiction, in English or translation—has already been announced. But there is still much to look forward to in the country’s literary prize calendar, with the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature to be declared in Nepal on 16 December, followed by the Crossword Book Award in January. This is also a good time to look back on the year gone by and take stock of some of the bizarre twists and turns prize cultures have taken, globally, of 2019.

In India, although the JCB prize is the most generous in terms of monetary value, it is the DSC prize that is more expansive in criteria. Awarded to a full-length work of fiction that addresses themes pertaining to South Asian culture, politics, history or people, it is quite unique in its ambit. It does not discriminate among writers on the basis of nationality or the language they write in. So it opens up the playing field and levels it too. In contrast, the JCB prize, open only to Indian nationals, provides a platform to the dwindling tribe of literary fiction writers in this country, but the restriction by nationality can also be a limitation in terms of quality control and the number of titles available for scrutiny.

In the eight editions of its existence, the $25,000 (around 17.95 lakh) DSC prize has been bestowed on Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and American authors, almost all of whom write in English; the exception is Jayant Kaikini, the 2018 winner, who writes in Kannada. This year, too, the shortlist looks strong, and not without surprises.

Particularly striking is the inclusion of a novel like 99 Nights In Logar, written by Jamil Jan Kochai, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in the US. Set in contemporary Afghanistan, it tells a coming-of-age story against the turmoil of a society in flux—not the most obvious setting for literary fiction emerging from the subcontinent. Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder In The Air, a tale of Naxalite violence in Bengal rendered into English by Arunava Sinha, is the only title in translation to make it to the final six this year. It was also a finalist for the JCB prize.

While the DSC prize deserves credit for expanding the definition of South Asian writing, its aim to be fair and diverse needs to be juxtaposed against the spectre of political correctness that is increasingly haunting prize committees across the world. The desire to right historical wrongs, or simply take an ethically informed stance, has led to some egregious decisions this year, as well as reactions from the literary community. These aims, in themselves, are laudable, but weighing aesthetics against activism isn’t necessarily the most useful entry into literary evaluations. Nor is it advisable to run on gut feelings, and certainly not on the basis of the arrogance that comes from being given the power to exercise a judgement that can significantly influence careers.

Bernardine Evaristo
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Bernardine Evaristo (Photo: Getty Images)

The most notorious example of misappropriation of such power this year is in the co-awarding of the Booker Prize to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. By brazenly flouting the rules of the prize, which stipulates that the jury pick only one winner, the judges unleashed a torrent of criticism. The move was deemed especially preposterous because one of the jury members defended the choice of awarding Atwood by praising her stunning body of work, in direct contravention of the rules. The Booker Prize is conferred on a writer on the basis of one book of singular merit, not on a lifetime’s achievements. While the prize committee denied any such motivation, the damage had been done, and irreversibly so.

Lucy Ellmann
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Lucy Ellmann (Photo: Getty Images)

In an incensed article recently published in The Times Literary Supplement, Sam Jordison, publisher of Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted novel Ducks, Newburyport at the Galley Beggar Press, pointed out the effrontery of the selection process this year. But even as he spoke out about the financial and logistical challenges of running a small indie press and the injustice meted out to his beloved author, Jordison expressed concern over Evaristo’s predicament too. It was “impossible not to worry that she would henceforth have to live with questions over a shared win", he wrote.

Incidentally, Ellmann’s 1,000-plus-page novel isn’t out of the shadow of controversies still, in spite of having won the Goldsmiths Prize some weeks ago. On 9 December, The Guardian reported that one of the judges for the Saltire Scottish Fiction Book of the Year resigned recently claiming that her co-judges hadn’t bothered to read the entire shortlist, especially Ellmann’s monumental novel, before voting for the winner. Lesley McDowell was particularly angry that the prize had gone to a male writer writing about a woman character, when there were three other women writers whose books are also about women, on the shortlist.

It’s hard not to see the point of McDowell’s indignation, but the circumstances also present a peculiar conundrum. While the Saltire Society has strongly contested the claim that the judges hadn’t finished reading Ellmann’s book, to what extent should gender, race, social standing and career record influence the decision to reward a writer anyway? According to McDowell’s logic, it is inherently unethical to pick a man writing a woman character for a prize where there are women doing the same, and vying for the same honour. In an ideal world, perhaps, every book submitted for a prize should simply remove the identifying markers of its author to enable the jury to arrive at as impartial a decision as possible. Otherwise, the impulse to play fair and be cognizant of the writer’s background will always become entangled with elements that seem otherwise extraneous to the pursuit of pure creativity.

The tenor of this year’s literary discourse was only further muddied by the announcement of the twin Nobel prizes for literature—Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk for 2018 and the Austrian-born Peter Handke for 2019. While Tokarczuk was celebrated for her feminist writing and leftist politics, Handke was roundly deplored for being a denier of genocide against Serbians and for delivering a eulogy at the funeral of the politician Slobodan Milošević. The Nobel committee defended its choice, urging that Handke’s writing be seen as separate from his politics, but the embers of discontent are yet to die out.

Madhuri Vijay
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Madhuri Vijay (Photo: Manvi Rao)

The trouble is, literary labour isn’t executed in a vacuum. It is nurtured by personal and social realities, market dynamics and publishing cultures—crucially, by the appetite of readers. Even with the best of intentions, prize judges (who are only too human, formed by their own tastes and subjectivities) will never be able to deliver perfectly unbiased justice. In the best-case scenario, the merit of a book can gain greater credence when it is recognized by multiple prize committees. A rare example of this phenomenon is Madhuri Vijay’s stellar debut novel, The Far Field, which won the JCB prize and the Tata Literature Live! award this year. It is also a contender for other prizes that are yet to be declared.

It is remarkable that Vijay, a Bengaluru-born writer educated in the US, won over at least two jury committees with a novel set in Bengaluru and Jammu and Kashmir, where she spent some time as an adult and whose political realities don’t directly affect her life. Going by McDowell’s argument, then, Vijay’s novel is less deserving of these honours simply because her experience is less authentic than a Kashmiri-born writer’s.

The reality of judging a prize is complicated by a multitude of conflicting factors. The impulse to do right by being aware of the conditions in which a writer or an artist produces their work often clashes with the duty to uphold aesthetic merit above all else. But these days, the solution seems to come from the contenders themselves. In August, writer Olivia Laing shared the James Tait Black prize for fiction with her fellow nominees because “competition has no place in art". More recently, the four shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious awards for the arts, requested the jury to divide the prize equally among them. If this trend continues, it will soon become unfashionable to run for competitions, or to win any.

The writer is on the jury of the Crossword Book Award 2019 for the fiction category.

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