Saturday, 25 September 2010

Book prizes? Still how it all should be?

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

1 comment:

Sheenagh Pugh said...

When I judged the thing, I found this measuring genres against each other very difficult, rather like the judge at an agricultural show deciding whther Best Beast in Show is a cow, a horse or a sheep. I can see though that having one winner is better for publicity - though let's face it, making a hash of the ceremony is clearly better still.

I'm also not happy about the Welshness criteria. I don't think just living or being born in Wales should always be enough. It's hard to set boundaries but this year, for example, Philip Gross's book had a Welsh publisher. Niall Griffiths lives outside Wales but often sets books there and is clearly influenced by his heritage. But Sarah Waters, though born in Wales, has no real connection with it, doesn't live there or publish with a Welsh house; no reason she should have to, but no reason either that she should be eligible for that prize. I wasn't too happy either about the novel on the shortlist this year; true the author has come to live in Newport, but the book was set in the USA, published in England and had no earthly connection with Wales. I'm not averse to the prize going to an English-published book by an author who has lived all his/her life in Wales (Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas really should have made that shortlist) or has been committed to the place for some time, like Matthew Francis. But newbies or exiles should, IMO, be ineligible unless the book is published by a Welsh house or has a clear connection with Wales,. Which it won't unless they are really committed, because publishing outside London makes you less money and books set in Wales are still less fashionable.