Friday, August 30, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 6) - Lackluster Literary Awards

‘I can write better than anyone who can write faster and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.’ – A. J. Leibling (1904 – 1963)

On Friday November 23, 2007, an article entitled ‘Literary awards crying for fireworks’
appeared in the Business Daily newspaper. The article decried the sorry state of Kenyan book awards. Basically, all we have are the bi-annual Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature. The Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature is administered by the Kenya Publishers Association and is handed out in a low-key ceremony, denying the winners any substantial exposure. Between 1975 and 1992, the award went under due to lack of funds.

A good literary award should earn the winner some measure of publicity and a jump in sales (which varies depending on the profile of the award). The publisher or agent should be able to leverage on the award to increase the book’s success. The international Booker Prize is a good example of a high-profile literary award. Even a novel that is merely nominated might brag on the cover: ‘Booker shortlisted’. More common is the line: ‘Winner of the (year) Booker Prize’.

Among the authors who have benefited from a Booker win are Ian McEwan and India’s Arudhati Roy (The God of Small Things), both of whom were largely unknown until they bagged the Booker. An architect by training, Arudhati Roy shot to worldwide fame when her first book, The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. It took her five years to write the book. She has previously worked as a script-writer (she is married to a filmmaker) and aerobics instructor.She has written a second book entitled The Cost of Living.

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize for his novel, Amsterdam which revolves around an editor who is sacked after publishing a politician’s steamy pictures. Another of his books, The Comfort of Strangers, was Booker shortlisted in 1981 but lost to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Incidentally, Rushdie has won the Booker Prize twice (1981 and 1995). In 1992, Ian McEwan was again shortlisted for his book Black Dogs but lost to joint winners Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. (The English Patient went on to become a multi-Academy-Award-winning film.)

The only other person to win the Booker twice was South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee (The Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting For the Barbarians, Disgrace, The Master of Petersburg). He initially won for The Life and Times of Michael K. and then, in 1999, he repeated the feat with Disgrace (the award came along with a £21,000 cash prize. Disgrace revolves around a fifty-two year old Cape Town professor who seeks refuge at his daughter’s farm after an impulsive affair with a student. Last time I heard, Disgrace was being turned into a movie starring John Malkovich (Con Air, Being John Malkovich)