Did you hear last week that the Man Group is, after the current award, withdrawing its support for the Man Asian Literary Prize I heard it via a tweet from a member of our prize team for the 2011 prize. This, in the same year that the Queensland premier cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. What is happening? Is there something in the international waters? Has climate change somehow blown the winds in the wrong direction?
And yet, fortunately, other awards keep appearing. Late last week I reported on the shortlist for a new award here, the Most Underrated Book Award (or MUBA). In the same week the people behind the new Stella Prize finally called for nominations for the inaugural award. Winners will be announced in April next year. This award, appropriately named for Miles Franklin – her full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin – is “for the best work of literature [fiction and non-fiction] published in 2012 by an Australian woman”. Fiction and non-fiction! This will be interesting.
All this ground-shifiting raises the question, yet again, regarding whether new (in fact any) prizes are warranted, particularly prizes targeted to special groups. Author Chris Flynn, writing on the Meanjin Blog regarding the Stella Prize, said, in support of a prize for women writers:
At this point in the process the argument over whether or not a dedicated prize for women is needed is moot. We can, after all, have as many prizes as we like in literature and even if the Barbara Jefferis Award already exists, so what? Men are eligible for that anyway, as the $35K goes to ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society.’ Frank Moorhouse was shortlisted this year, and Anna Funder won. If I came into some moolah and announced I was starting up The Flynn Prize for, say, the best first novel of the year, would anyone seriously be shouting me down and saying it was unnecessary, that there are already plenty of prizes out there and debut novelists should just suck it up and hope for the best? Yeah, I don’t think so, somehow.
I like his point that “We can, after all, have as many prizes as we like in literature”.
This brings me back to the Man Asian Literary Prize, which started in 2007. The executive director of the prize, David Parker, thanked the Man Group for its support and argued for the value of the prize:
We look forward to the future with a new partner, confident that Asian fiction is now beginning to secure the global readership and recognition it deserves. Our most recent winner, Please Look After Mom by South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin, has recently sold its two millionth copy worldwide – an amazing achievement. One third of the shortlisted writers for this year’s Man Booker Prize are from Asia, and international publishing houses such as Pan Macmillan and Hachette have recently opened offices here in Hong Kong. Clearly, Asian literature is on the march.
I don’t know what part the Man Asian Literary Prize played in these encouraging results, but have to assume that the increased international profile it provided for Asian writers played at least some part.
Not all awards, of course, can hope to bring about such high profile change. Some certainly carry more weight (read “status”) than others, but I’d liken it to the Olympics versus national and state championships. This network of championships all play a role in the development and recognition of athletes – and so surely do the international, national, state, local and specialised awards for writers.
For writers and publishers, then, I think awards – both general and specific – have value. What about for me as a reader? I’m not a close follower of literary awards. That is, I don’t aim to read all the long- and shortlists in specific awards, or even all the winners, but I do like to keep an eye on awards and they do help inform my reading choices. I find them particularly useful as a guide in specialised areas that are out of my comfort zone – and hence my involvement in this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize. I was introduced to the literature of countries I’ve never read before. I’m hoping MUBA and Stella will do the same for the writers (and readers) they are targeting.