Thursday, 2 October 2014

What writers need most beyond literary prizes, by writers

By Anote Ajeluorou

Two major prizes have been awarded in Nigeria this year. The last one The Nigerian Prize for Literature and sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas company (NLNG) is billed for next week, October 9. Three writers are in the race for the biggest literary prize on the continent although limited to Nigerians writers home and abroad only. This reward system natural generates a buzz among the literati and the populace alike.
  Sam Ukala, John Abba and Jude Idada are the last men standing. One of them will smile home with USD$100,000 come Thursday next week in the winner takes all contest.
  But beyond prizes, how can the three literary prizes in Nigeria - The Nigeria Prize for Literature (LNG-sponsored); Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (Globacom-sponsored) and Etisalat Prize for Literature (etisalat-sponsored) - be made to serve writers and the readers better? How can writers be better motivated to write good stories? Are prizes the only means of measuring writers? What should define a writerly community and how can this translate into the larger populace for writers’ works to be appreciated and have real value that heals society?
  Former medical doctor, writers’ head, politician, Wale Okediran notes, “My take on literary prizes is that writers should concentrate on writing rather than fighting for Prizes this is because I believe that the process of adjudicating literary prizes is very subjective.
In other to divert the attention of writers from 'writing for prizes' to 'writing good books' more literary workshops, seminars and retreats should be organised by Local Government Areas, writers associations in order to improve the skill of our writers, especially the up and coming ones.
  “In addition, more publishing outlets should be created to encourage writers with good manuscripts to get published.
Having said this, I will therefore advise that more prizes be inaugurated to stem the current dearth of prizes. In this regards, LGAs, States and Corporate organizations should be encouraged to establish more prizes. 
Prizes could be improved by creating prizes for specific age ranges, Literary genres and sometimes, geographical zones. This way, all cadres of writers will be accommodated. In addition, the prize emoluments, should be spread round the writers instead of one 'winner takes all' prizes.
  “These prizes should also not be in cash alone. Some prizes could be in form of travel grants, books, residency scholarships and books among others”.
  For Unoma Azuah, who teaches literature in the U.S., “Literature prizes can benefit the larger population if the organizers and sponsors of these prizes can include other projects like creating writing residencies, reading tours, poet-in-resident programmes, establishing traditional publishing houses or even collaborate with literary bodies like the Association of Nigerian Authors to give a firmer and wider reaching activities, especially because of such sponsors financial muscle.
  “In this way, budding writers as young as high school students can be in direct contact with writers and such writers can give back by either teaching their craft or speaking to themes that affect our daily lives and how poetry can make such issues come alive. This possibility has a way of bringing topics to life, especially for lay persons and for curious, aspiring writers.
  “It is very easy to get a N1 million prize money and use it for personal projects. However, both the money and the writer can disappear into oblivion and it ends there. It's best to have a more lasting impact if sponsors spread their mission to include more communal projects”.
  Also poet, former literature teacher in the U.S., and political aspirant, Ogaga Ifowodo, opines, “About prizes, here’s what I think about the specific question: The ideal situation, what we should all want, is to have literary prizes as just one aspect of the cultural enterprise, if I may use the word. Literary prizes can then only have their broadest, maximum impact, when every cog in the culture wheel moves with the rest. But a prize, essentially, has a two-fold goal: recognize and reward excellence according to its set criteria, thereby focusing attention on the writer as well as on the winning work, or body of work.
  “Usually, it’s the publisher of a winning book that takes advantage of a prestigious prize to organize special reading tours for their authors. Reading authors are a very important means of selling books. Prize-giving establishments may go out of their way to organize reading tours for their award-winners, or for their shortlisted writers, as The Caine Prize does, but that makes sense given that The Caine Prize is aimed at unpublished writers whose work is largely unavailable in the normal to readers.
  “I think the real problem is that the entire culture and knowledge ‘industry’ is in a shambles in Nigeria, as just about everything else. So publishers are, for the most part, glorified printers! They, thus, have no thought of investing in marketing the books they print. But it isn’t only publishers to blame; bookshops or booksellers take part of the blame. But ultimately, I think that prizes, once their parametres are unimpeachable, ought to stand on their own as legitimate means of rewarding excellence, focusing attention on the author who labours in solitude and is invisible to reader, and even puts some always needed money in his or her pocket!
  “And, frankly, I wouldn’t say that prizes become irrelevant, or unjustified, if the cultural sector as a whole fails to live to its full responsibilities”.

NOVELIST Odili Ujubuonu is emphatic that The Nigeria Prize for Literature is a jewel among prizes, noting, “It is unarguably, Africa's flagship prize in terms of quality of contest, sustenance and prize money. It has travelled the circle of criticisms, accusations and sometimes rejections, and back to the point of real acceptance by Nigerian readers and writers. I personally think the company's fortitude in sustaining the Prize is peerless.
  “Nevertheless, one must commend the entrance of Globacom and Etisalat in the promotion of literature and writing and for bringing some brilliant new ideas that would get better with consistency and time.
  “Redressed for a better prize system? There is no perfect prize in the world. Whatever the lapses of these prizes are, I believe, would be corrected as they advance through the years. My suggestion is consistency, fairness and promotion of winners after announcements.
  “Are the prizes enough? The prizes are not enough. We need to encourage more people to write and we hope in future to see prizes that are focused
on special areas of writing and literature”.
  For longlisted Iquo Eke, “Literature prize should serve to better the condition of not just one winning entry, but the entire reading audience. What good is literature if the reader is not aware of it, especially in a place like Nigeria where the industry is not very robust - from the publishing to distribution and marketing? Current prize systems should signify more than a mechanism to reward singular excellence in craft. They should become the avenue for showcasing and celebrating such excellence to the whole world. Imagine the possibility of having reading tours for the shortlisted authors across all regions. These would be the celebrated books for the number of months that the book tour would last.
  “This would encourage dialogue around these books; bring the books closer to the reading public and greatly promote the sale of these texts. What is a writer if his/her books are not read? Part of this effort could include the provision of universities and polytechnics with copies of the texts for the year to keep the conversations fresh and relevant. Even if the prize money for the winner would be reduced by half, the overall Impact of this change would be greatly felt”.
  Sola Balogun teaches Media, Theatre History and Basic Communication at the Department of Theatre and Media Arts, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State. He says, “Literature prizes are meant primarily at encouraging writers to continue writing and to sustain creativity and productivity in literary arts practice. The real and committed writers do not anticipate prizes or awards for the works, but they accept the prizes as rewards for their labour of love.
It is rather disgusting that most writers nowadays write with certain prizes or awards in mind. This kind of expectation tends to mortgage intellectual power aside diminishing the value of creative writing almost to the level of ‘cash and carry’ syndrome.
  “My submission is that literature prizes should henceforth be well organised and awarded by a combination of competent and tested literary scholars, icons and writers who have over time earned credibility for associating with, and contributing immensely to the growth and development of literary arts.
  “Besides, every literature prize-winner should, as a mark of responsibility, plough back the values of such prizes into activities which can boost or lead to further promotion or production of more creative/literary works for people’s consumption. In fact, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) should be actively involved in the process of selecting and awarding candidates with any literature prize in the country”.

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