The Wales Book of the Year - now that the dust has settled should we consider how this Award is doing? Established back in the mists of time this, our premier Welsh book prize, has been presented to cultural winners for several decades now. Book Awards mark out the best the nation can produce and celebrate the chosen in as much style as possible. In a wider-Welsh world that loves TV and rarely opens literature’s covers anything that publicises and popularises can help.
The Award, made with steady even-handedness, goes annually to the best Welsh-language and the best English-language books of Wales. To enter you need to either write in the language, be born here, live here or have the country as a significant component of your writing. The prize is for the best literary title, the best writing, rather than simply the best printed book. It goes to authors and not to editors, translators, ghost writers, or compilers. This means that recipes, sports compendiums, poetry anthologies, new translations of the Mabinogion, and political commentary are pretty much excluded. It also means that picture books don’t make it. Unless they also contain writing of significant quality.
This year both the Welsh and English prizes went, somewhat controversially, to books where the author had worked with a photographer. Philip Gross did this with Simon Denison for I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press), John Davies managed the same trick with Marian Delyth for Cymru: Y 100 Lle I’w Gweld Cyn Marw (Y Lolfa). Was this unfair on the photographers, both of whom undoubtedly made a considerable contribution to the books concerned? The Award’s judges were clear. The Wales Book of the Year Award is a literary prize. It was the quality of the writing that led.
But do the prizes make any real difference to turnover? Sales of Booker Prize titles always go up when there is some sort of controversy or public falling out between judges. I’ve no proof but I’m sure the same sort of thing happens in Wales. What I have seen, though, is evidence that being on the Book of the Year long list does shift more copies.
The perennial problem, of course, is that judges have to gauge novels against books of poetry and sets of short stories against works of literary criticism. How do you do this? Official guidance says that you must but is pretty silent on just how. It’s been suggested that the way forward is to return to the days of category prizes - best novel, best book of poetry, best work of criticism.
But then, in difficult and recessionary times, how might this be financed? And what would happen to the impact a single big win makes? If you have a view do let me know.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #163