Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Award Angst

Did you erupt with cheers, champagne and confetti over Tan Twan Eng's Man Asia win? He is the first Malaysian to win the most prestigious literary award after the Booker which he was also shortlisted for.

But it seems not everybody's happy.

Weeks ago, I heard rumours that an author, upon hearing the news about Tan's win, felt a bit boh song about it and wondered why his books weren't considered.

I was hoping it was a rumour. What kind of prize duffer would be presumptuous and thick-skinned enough to feel that way?

Tan Twan Eng and 'The Garden of Evening Mists'
How is it possible for anyone to not like him or his books?

First: Tan Twan Eng does not "always win". Believe it or not, there are prizes he's not eligible for. The Costa Book Awards, for instance, are given to books by authors based in Great Britain and Ireland (Tan's based in South Africa).

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is for writers who write about South Asian themes (which Tan doesn't do, yet), and the biennial Bollingen Prize for Poetry recognises an American poet's best book of new verse within the last two years, or for lifetime achievement (Tan's no poet, though some have described his prose as "lyrical").

And not everybody likes The Garden of Evening Mists. Apart from the reviewer in the Guardian, at least two local book critics didn't think it was all that. These days, commercial success doesn't necessarily mean quality - hello, Twilight! Not to disparage Evening Mists, which I heard is a better book.

Also, the winning book was published in 2012, an important criterion. Did The Snubbed One write anything during that year, and did his publisher submitted it for the running? And was he or his publisher aware of the Award's terms and conditions?

And have a gander at the Booker's terms of entry, which include:

2. Conditions of award

Any eligible book which is entered for the prize will only qualify for the award if its publisher agrees:

a) to contribute £5,000 (about RM24,580) towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist

b) to contribute a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize

c) to comply with Rule 4g

Which is: "Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. The publisher, publicist and agent of the longlisted author are strongly advised to attend a briefing meeting shortly after the longlist is announced."

There you go. And publishers have a few more hoops to jump before and after the submitted books make it to the Booker longlist. Which probably explains why we tend to see certain books and certain publishers making longlists of certain awards each year.

Second: The Man Asia longlist of 15 authors was "drawn from 108 published works from nine Asian countries submitted to a panel of judges led by literary critic and journalist Maya Jaggi, also included three debut novelists and a Nobel laureate," says a Bernama report.

Look at the names of the authors, some of whom are already established writers with at least one accolade. Look at the names of the judges, some of whom are strong authors and literary critics.

What are the chances that The Snubbed One could sneak into that glitzy line-up? How many authors could slug it out in a literary deathmatch against Orhan Pamuk?

And 2011 was a year with an even more formidable line-up that includes Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam, Anuradha Roy, and the eventual winner Shin Kyung-sook, whose novel Please Look After Mom has sold over two million copies and has been adapted for the stage.

In a radio interview podcast, writer Michael Cunningham, who was a jury member for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and winner of said Prize for his novel The Hours, said something about how difficult it is to write a really good novel, and thinks people who think they can dash one off just like that shows "disrespect" for the craft.

However, many writers have made do without ever being in a prestigious lit-prize's longlist. EL James, unfortunately, comes to mind, as do several others who have followed in her footsteps.

Not that I think that would help make things better for The Snubbed One, if he's really out there.

Whatever can be said about Tan or his books, he's the literary equivalent of Nicol David right now. Recently, his Evening Mists pipped Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies for the Walter Scott Prize, which was recently opened to authors from the Commonwealth.

Nobody should begrudge him the accolades he's received, especially Malaysians. And he's one of the few who have made it internationally, alongside names such as Tash Aw and Preeta Samarasan.

No winning book? Write one. Life is way too short for munching on sour grapes or chopping down poppies.


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