The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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