Annually the ritual of awarding top literary prizes like Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer come and go briskly; changing the fortunes of some writers, adding more value to some literary agents, and more sales for some publishers.
The hysteria begins with speculations on nominations. The longlists put some writers on the spotlight. Then attention shifts to writers who made it to the shortlist. When the winner is announced he or she becomes a celebrity of the moment. Interviews, reviews and above all more sales of his or her works dominate the literary scene, for maybe a week. In the court of literary prizes panel of judge’s verdicts come with finality. There will follow congratulatory messages to the winning writer from politicians or governments expressing ‘delight’ at the ‘well deserved honour.’ Where is the reader? The reader gets only pressure and doubts. Pressure to buy and read this ‘award-winning writer’ and discover those talents for which the author won a coveted prize. Doubts come in when the reader realised the author who won a prize was not even on the list of his favourite authors. Critics often either jump on the ‘praising the winner’ bandwagon or criticise and end up once again dismissed as a ‘bitter’ person who knows all it takes to do it, but can’t do it.
All the times, there have been voices blaming literary prizes for trivializing creativity. Some argue that prizes have nothing to do with objective assessment of talents of writers. Why would the judgement of few individuals be reliable in assessing the quality of a work of art? Some were critical of literary prizes because they can become an obstacle to honest commitment to art. Younger generation of African writers were severally accused of indulging in ‘poverty porn’ to confirm stereotypes; to move readers in the western world often to tears with short stories or novels about tribal wars, religious violence, famine, witchcraft, dying of hunger or staggering sizes of families. It is possible that some write with winning prizes in mind, chasing the fame that comes with a cheque.
It is not always that winning a prize reflects precisely that the writer has made a unique impact. It is not always that the best writers win prizes. Leo Tolstoy was snubbed by inaugural Nobel prize for Literature in 1901 despite his enduring legacy of ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina.’ Virginia Wolf, a great mirror of modernism was not awarded the Nobel prize. George Orwell was not a Noble Laureate. But who among all Nobel Laureates has enduring impact as much as he has? Chinua Achebe was not a Nobel Laureate but the world recognizes his captivating story telling. Joseph Conrad was not a Nobel laureate. But he was an influence on Nobel Laureates like Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, V.S Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner. Irony?
Those who assumed that award winning writers are all great missed the points of creativity. To a large extent, no one is sure how much of other non-creative considerations weigh in the judgement of literary prize judges. But it also right to say, some writers deserved awards conferred on them. This is true in the case of the poet William Butler Yeats, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison, V.S Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee and others. With or without the regalia of Nobel prize these writers are worth the loudest ovation for prose and verses that redefined our humanity, with a distinct voice.
The suggestion that prizes can ruin a writer’s art has been with us for so long. To avoid paying the price of prize some writers reject outright all honours, on principles. Jean-Paul Satre who died in 1980 is considered one of the leading philosophers of 20th century. Beyond his pioneering works on existentialism and phenomenology, he also doubles as writer of novels and plays with huge influence on literature. Satre rejected Nobel prize for Literature awarded in 1964. On 22 October 1964 Satre issued a statement explaining his reasons for rejecting the Nobel prize. Apart from pointing out that, in principle, he always rejected official honours, Satre was philosophical by saying; “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.” Here, beyond going philosophical, Satre was also prophetic.
Some buy works of writers because they have won a prize. They base their judgement not on quality of imagination and uniqueness of the writer’s voice. Some can be so naïve to the extent that they hardly venture to discover writers through their own critical reading. They look out for that dubious side in a bookstore that displays what is usually called ‘Chart 1-10’ to decide which book they should read. Or in literary pages of newspapers, they look out for that section called ‘Critics’ Choice.’ There is nothing critical about riding on the back of someone’s judgement.
What really makes a writer great and worthy of a prize? The answer solely comes from those who institute prizes. They have things they are looking for – and they have expectations. They always award prizes to writers who, in any way, meet their prescriptions. This makes prizes subjective and not entirely a reliable means of determining the quality of a writer. This year many were expecting Ngugi wa Thiong’o to be announced winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. They were disappointed. Their disappointment is also disappointing because Ngugi does not need the praise of the Swedish Academy to confirm his literary achievements, particularly championing and telling African stories in African languages. Just imagine how vivid ‘Things Fall Apart’ would have been if it was written in Igbo? It is the language that exactly conveys all the imagery and symbolism in every word of the story.
Those who institute literary prizes always have good intentions. They cannot be blamed for the commercialization of creativity. They should not be blamed for dragging literature to the glittering stage of beauty pageant.
Mr Sanusi is Abuja-based writer