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The Impact of International Literary Awards [ADIBF 2010]

Over the next day and a half, while everyone watching basketball I’m going to repost a number of the things that I wrote for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The ADIBF is the premiere professional fair for the Arab world, thanks in part to an arrangement with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Everyone involved with the ADIBF is amazing, and the events, opportunities, meetings, etc., are all really interesting. And being able to see Abu Dhabi and Dubai is fascinating in and of itself.

In advance of tonight’s Sheikh Zayed Book Awards ceremony (which will undoubtedly be quite elegant), there was a special panel discussion on the impact of literary awards on the Arab cultural movement featuring representatives from the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Sultan Bin Owais Award, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Conventional wisdom is that book prizes—and the requisite long and shortlists—are extremely helpful in bringing attention (and readers) to noteworthy books. As Body Tonkin pointed out, this is especially true in the case of the IPPF, which honors literature published in English translation. There’s a dearth of international literature making its way into English, and the vast majority of these books are ignored (or at least under-reported on) by the mainstream media. In some cases, the IPPF longlist is the first time these titles are brought to the attention of general readers.

For people like Boyd (and myself, and Azar Nafisi) who believe that “literature is a way to project and communicate stories of richness and humanity that the news media are never going to tell us,” getting more international fiction into the hands of readers is de facto a Very Good Thing. It’s through novels that we can start to respect and understand another culture. Or, in the words of Ezra Pound, “literature is news that stays news.”

Boyd did raise some concerns about the trappings of prizes, concerns that were echoed in some of the other panelist’s statements. One of the main goals of a prize such as the IFFP is to celebrate the diversity and plurality of what’s being produced. That an award like this can show us the range of voices out there, the variety of experiences. Unfortunately, by the very nature of a prize, of naming a single book or author as the “best,” one can actually reduce a region to a single author or two. It happens all the time that a single writer comes to represent a culture and is “the” person to read from that particular part of the world. In the States, Roberto Bolano fills that role in regards to Latin America, Jose Saramago does for Portugal, and Naguib Mahfouz does for the Arabic world. So there is a danger in awarding prizes—the danger of promoting just a small number of books that have “broken through” in some way. Or, as another panelist alluded to, the idea that prizes frequently honor the already-popular, the already-established, instead of using the power of the prize to confer respect onto an up-and-coming author.

One of the other dangers worth mentioning is the connection between literary prizes and governmental organizations. Regardless of panel independence, if a prize doesn’t stand on its own as its own institution, there will always be a cloud of suspicion that certain books were honored for political, instead of cultural reasons.

But on the whole, the culture of prize giving is an incredibly positive one. Coming from a part of the world where people barely read, much less read books from other parts of the world, anything anyone can do to help get a fantastic piece of literature into the hands of more readers is incredibly important. And hopefully over the next few years, even more prizes will come into existence—both in the Arab World and in the West—to celebrate the diversity of creative voices working in the world today.

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