Literary prizes are worth more than their monetary value

‘It is universally acknowledged’ that good creative writers do not write for prizes. They are driven by far nobler ideals; their muses come in many different forms and they are sometimes conscious of an important role in society.

That opening phrase is borrowed from Jane Austen who, when she used it in the opening statement of the novel Pride and Prejudice, did not mean it seriously, but used it with irony in mind. As she so cleverly dramatises in the plot, it is not a universal truth that every single gentleman in possession of a large fortune must be in search of a wife. On the contrary, she satirises those members of the society such as Mrs Bennett, who hold it as a universal truth and goes further to seriously demonstrate the damage such old wives tales can cause.

al creightonIt is true that when most writers set about producing work they don’t even think of prizes and winning awards did not enter their thoughts as a reason for writing. Prizes come as incidental, as extra benefits, as things they may pick up along the way without a break in their stride. Yet they do accept awards when offered, have their books put up to compete for them and often go after them with considerable zeal. It is equally true that many don’t mind winning a prize or two, and many really want to. What may be safely and seriously “universally acknowledged” without irony is that writers find deep satisfaction in winning prizes for the sense of fulfillment, the acknowledgement, the fact that a great honour has been bestowed upon them; that their work has achieved recognition and that there is more purpose in a work that is accorded that kind of appreciation. It is an achievement that their work has been accorded this high approval by their peers. And those feelings are common among those who do not write for prizes.

Prizes are not offered because the awarding institutions believe that prizes are the reasons writers write. But prizes do have their own purposes and functions, some of which have been mentioned above. They do serve as reward for good work; they do provide the recognition, the exposure and the honour that can encourage excellence, despite the fact that most writers would aim at such excellence even if prizes did not exist.

It is interesting to note that the award of prizes for the best writers has been a practice ever since the very dawn of western writing. The ancient Greeks developed the crowning of winners with laurel wreaths, a tradition that has survived in various forms for more than two centuries. At the zenith of the Greek civilization around the fifth and fourth centuries BC, there was a firm link between the award of prizes and the serious function of writing in the society. In the cultural capital of Athens there were the Festivals of Dionysus important for expressions of devotion to the god, but also for the celebration of drama. There were awards for plays competed for by all the leading playwrights with the best being given prizes by the state. The playwrights produced work every year competing for these, while the state considered the drama as a very important means of educating the population about their religion. This was a primary purpose of the tragedies and the dramatists were paid by public funds.

Statue of Dionysus, Centrale Montemartini Museum, Rome (Internet photo)
Statue of Dionysus, Centrale Montemartini Museum, Rome (Internet photo)

One of the ways in which this Greek tradition has been perpetuated in modern society is the appointment of a Poet Laureate in several countries. Both the title and the concept are so derived because the word “Laureate” recalls the crown of laurel as a symbol of attainment and the honour which it carries. Further, the appointee is expected to use poetry in the service of the state and people. Similarly, the winners of the Nobel Prize are called Nobel Laureates, and the term is even used in the Caribbean – the Anthony Sabga Awards of Excellence sponsored by the Trinidadian company ANSA McAL. The winners of these are called “Laureates.”

Competitions are very important today and there are several of them in literature, on stage and in the cinema industry. Nowhere is the rivalry fiercer than in the Man Booker Prize in the UK, now open to American writers as well. It is among the most prestigious and the competitiveness there suggests that writers do seek after prizes. The triumph at victory is matched only by the disappointment and sometimes the bitterness at losing. The equivalent for prestige in America is the Pulitzer Prize, won by many of the most celebrated American authors. While it does not match the Man Booker with a reputation for horrendous stories, it has had a few of its own, such as in 1963 when the advisory board – University of Columbia Board of Trustees – withheld the prize from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? after the judges had selected it because of disapproval of its “use of profanity and sexual themes.” As in the case of the Man Booker, though, the competitiveness is driven more by the publishers than the writers.

The Caribbean region has very long been served by the Cuban award – the Casa de las Americas Prize. The foremost award directly available to Anglophone West Indian writers was the Commonwealth Writers Prize which offered two opportunities: the Best Book or the Best First Book in the Canada and Caribbean Region, whose winners will then go on to compete with Africa, Europe, the Pacific and the Far East for the overall prizes. However, that award has now been discontinued; replaced by a much smaller and more restricted short story competition for new writers. Something would have been needed to fill the gap left by that very significant change.

Two new Caribbean competitions came on board in 2010. The OCM Bocas Prize based in Trinidad and Tobago offers one prize to the best book out of all the entries in Fiction, Poetry and Non-fiction.

The other, first announced in November 2010, is the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award. It was first proposed during the celebrations of the Guyana Prize 20th Anniversary. This is now the only prize in the Anglophone Caribbean that gives separate awards to the best books in Fiction, Poetry and Drama.

It is further unique in its offer of a prize in drama, a category avoided by other prizes because of the specific demands that it makes. Plays place more emphasis on performance on stage than on publication in book form, which makes it more difficult to reach plays and have them entered. For poetry and fiction it is enough to alert the publishers, but drama requires more work in the field to reach playwrights and the theatre communities in all parts of the Caribbean. Drama also makes more demands in the judging because it is a much more specialised category than poetry or fiction, requiring as it does, some knowledge of the form. Additionally, there is a school of thought that the only true way to judge a play is by seeing it in performance, not by reading the script. The Guyana Prize, however, has ample experience in handling drama and the Caribbean Prize will now need to activate its regional network to reach the cross-territorial theatre communities.

The Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award is open to writers who are citizens of Caribbean nations, including Guyana. Except for drama in which playwrights can enter typed scripts, it is for published books to be entered by the publishers. Writers or publishers may enter full-length plays, novels, collections of short stories, collections of poems or one long poem. Only one entry per author is allowed in each category, but an author may have work entered in any number of categories. Four copies of each entry must be submitted along with one page stating the brief bio data, contact details and a photograph of the writer, to the Guyana Prize Management Committee at the University of Guyana. Any work entered in the Guyana Prize (which is exclusively for Guyanese) is also eligible for entry in the Caribbean Award, but unpublished manuscripts are not allowed in Fiction and Poetry.

The first winners of the Caribbean Prize were Mark McWatt of Guyana for Poetry with The Journey to Le Repentir, and Myriam Chancy of Haiti for Fiction with The Loneliness of Angels. It is worth noting that McWatt also won the Guyana Prize in the same year, 2010, for the same book.

The Caribbean Prize Jury 2010 commented on one remarkable feature in the Fiction category – that all six shortlisted novels were written by women. That was a reflection of the contemporary developments in West Indian literature which included the explosion of work by women writers that had been blossoming since the 1970s. The Caribbean Prize, then, may offer a very good review of the state of the region’s literature, signalling the latest trends that are emerging as well as the equally prominent upsurge of new writers with wide ranging interests and styles.

Myriam Chancy’s winning novel also focused on Haiti and its historical and political connections and issues including contact with America and Europe. These were deeply relevant in a Caribbean context partly because of Haiti’s recent inclusion in the Caricom block, as well as the fact that Haiti had also been prominent in the news for other reasons, so this prize was timely to bring the Republic of Haiti in the spotlight through literature.

Literary prizes, then, remain extremely valuable much above their monetary value, and are not simply a matter of rewarding a writer. The Caribbean Prize 2014 then, is very important for reasons well beyond crowning a writer with a wreath of laurel leaves.


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