Date:01/06/2003 URL:

Credibility of awards

AN award for a literary work is an incentive and a recognition of outstanding merit. Besides the prize per se, the author receives substantial benefits by sales of the book. In international prizes like the Nobel, Booker, Prix Goncourt, National Book Award, the book runs into several editions and millions of copies are sold, and the royalties are high. Though the number of copies printed in India is limited, when awarded, the author stands a chance to be translated into other languages, and to higher royalties. Awards certainly boost up the spirits of the any author, as all literary works are written to be read, analysed and critically acclaimed by readers.

But almost always, awards result in controversies and verbal duels. They also rake up issues like plagiarism as is currently happening in the prestigious Man Booker award; Yann Martel, Canadian author of this year's Booker Prize for his Life Of Pi is being accused of plagiarism from one of Brazil's most respected author, Moacyr Scliar's novel Max and the Cats. Nobel prizes in literature have had their share of controversies and almost always they are accused of being awarded on political considerations. The prizes were often criticised for "omission and bad choices". Alfred Nobel's will (1895) provided a prize for a person in the literary field, who had produced "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" and all prize winners should have bestowed the "greatest benefit on mankind". The Nobel Committee has now modified the eligibility criteria, that, "serious literature that is worthy of a prize furthers knowledge of man and his condition and endeavours to enrich and improve his life". The Committee that selects the prizes is a working unit of 3-5, chosen within the Swedish Academy, (with a rare additional member from outside). They trim down the long list of 200 names to about 15, which are presented to the academy in April. Towards the end of May this "half long list" is further condensed to a "shortlist" of five names. The Academy goes through the works of the short-listed writers and in the middle of September discussions start, to end in a decision a month later. The process of judgement is "primarily a literary matter", but it does not prevent "subsidiary evaluation" and that could be political consideration. Hence, there would be an element of subjectivity even in the world's best literary prize. It is also worthwhile to see how many times the prize went out of Europe and America.

The next best prize, in terms of prestige and value is the Man Booker prize, given from 1968 to "any full length novel, written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or The Republic of Ireland". The book should be a "unified and substantial work". The prize is administered by Book trust and steered by an advisory Committee, representing all sides of the book world along with representatives of Man Group and Booker. The list carries 11 names and the judging panel changes every year. The panel includes a literary critic, an academic, a literary editor, a novelist and a major figure. The judges will be responsible for compiling a long list, followed by a shortlist of six outstanding books submitted for the prize.

The Trust boasts about its judging process and that, "there has never been even a whisper of bribery, corruption or influence, as with other internationally known prizes". The latest controversy of plagiarism is yet to be explained.

The international literature awards calendar lists more than 70 major literary awards for all genres of literary writing including fiction, science fiction, poetry, mystery, crime, children's literature, e-books, romance, fantasy, gay and lesbian writing. There are awards for published and established writers and also for budding and unpublished writers and prize monies are from US $1000 to 10,000. Rules and eligibility criteria are also published. Though some are transparent and objective, others still have a high element of subjective judgement.

In India the most prestigious awards are the Jnanpeeth, Kalidas Puraskar and the Sahitya Akademi awards, both at the central and the regional levels. The Jnanpeeth awards are for the best creative writing in any Indian language with a prize money of Rs. 2.50 lakhs. Sahitya Akademi awards are annually awarded for the most outstanding book by an Indian author first published during the five years prior to the award. There is a year-long process of scrutiny, discussion and selection and the award is to promote and recognise excellence in Indian writing and meant to expand the definition of Indian literature by acknowledging new trends and movements. Initially a "ground list" of eligible books is prepared by one or two experts appointed by the President of the Akademi from a panel. This is sent to the language advisory board panel members, who make selections from the ground list and on their own. This list is sent to 10 referees who will recommend two books each. They will be considered by a three-member jury who, either by consensus or by majority, recommend a book for the award. The recommendations of the jury shall be placed before the Executive Board for approval and announcement of the award. Obviously, the President can exercise latitude and take liberties in the appointment and selection. The regional languages Akademies also follow a more or less similar system. The central award is for an amount of Rs. 25,000 and the regional award for Rs. 10,000 each in the categories of fiction, poetry, essay, short story and drama, generally for the books published in the last three years.

Malayalam literature, which brings out an average 2000 books annually, has the distinction of awarding the largest number of literary awards, thanks to the proliferation of media, both print and electronic. Not a day passes without an award being announced and a few major newspapers have decided that if the prize money is less than Rs.10, 000 and if it is not annual, the story need not be carried. The major awards are the Ezhuthachan award (Rs. 1,00,000; since 1993) for a life-time contribution to literature and it is given away by the Kerala Government. The awardee, of the stature of a Guru, is selected by a committee appointed by the Government (department of Culture). The last award was given to Smt. Kamala Das Surayya with criticism about the selection going the rounds. The other prestigious awards are Vallathol Prize (Rs. 1,33,000), followed by Muttathu Varky award (Rs.33, 333), and  Vayalar Award. These are administered by trusts and recently the Mathrubhoomi newspaper has also entered the fray. The Vayaylar Award has suffered a setback with this year's recipient Dr. Ayyappa Panicker refusing to accept it and there being no provision for a second choice as there is no shortlist. There has also been an instance of the Sahitya Akademi cancelling its own award in 1993 and a former President Prof. Sukumar Azhicode returning all his awards in protest and later coming to a conciliation. The recent developments in Malayalam awards have espoused the cause of really reconsidering the procedure in the selection of literary awards. Should they be confidential and secretive or be in the public domain?


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