Genre rotation and literary prizes

I started this article by doing something I should do more often: Googling its title. As an aside, it truly is a good idea to run a search engine using as keywords the title of your poetry collection, novel, or non-fiction tome. It can save you some embarrassment. Anyway, I ran this search and found that only Nigerian literary prizes do an annual rotation of the genre of literature under consideration for their prizes. The Nigeria Prize for Literature started this, and then it was picked up by the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature when it revised and expanded its award a few years ago. But what does it mean exactly and what have been the effects of having one of the world’s richest literary prizes run an annual rotation of genres under consideration?

The Nigeria Prize for Literature is endowed and administered by the Nigeria LNG Limited. It is a grand gesture and has steadily increased its annual award, which is now one hundred thousand US dollars. The Prize rotates the genres under consideration each year between prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s fiction. It initially insisted that only books published by Nigerians who lived in Nigeria could be considered, and there was some confusion about how to prove this, and whether only books published in Nigeria could be considered. This was coupled with the perception that if a book had won another literary prize, that book would not be considered. These seemingly odd rules led to accusations that the Prize was being ‘ghettoized.’

Things would come to a head with the 2009 award, which nobody won. It was worse than you think: Eleven short-listed authors were named. Oddly none of them received invitations for the award ceremony. At that event, which I understand some of the short-listed authors were able to sneak into, with big men everywhere sipping champagne and laughing that peculiar laugh of Nigerian big men, the gong rang, and, after the customary drumroll, the Prize was awarded to no one.

But something good came out of the debacle. The Prize revised its rules. And none too soon. And not enough, in my opinion. The Prize opened up the diaspora for consideration for competition. All the person had to show as proof was Nigerian ID (I hope they consider the Nigerian passport of at least one parent as sufficient to prove Nigerianness. This is not the time to push people away; we must claim ownership of everyone with Nigerian blood who does us proud.)

The Prize also began to make the identities of its judges public. This is good. It will lead to ever more strident calls for a diverse panel, for judges who read more and more of contemporary literature, and will balance out the stultifying timidity of using only judges from academia.

But still there needs to be more. In my description of the 2009 debacle, I fear I may have misrepresented what upset me and many others. It was not that no one won. It was that the very idea of restricting the prize to only books published here, meant that it restricted the rich depths that could be plumbed for Nigerian writing. There were many suggestions on how to make the prize better at the time. Some suggested a kind of affirmative action by the Prize to boost local publishing, and I agreed with them, so long as it was affirmative, not restrictive to others.

But the Prize needs to do more. For one, they need to institute the “call in” rule, wherein the judges are allowed one call-in each, even after the call-for-entries has expired. A call-in occurs in a situation where the chair of judges can reach out to an author to submit their work for the Prize. It considers (and seeks to take advantage of) the judges’ reading habits. So for example, an author has maybe not heard of the Prize, or was unaware that the deadline was up, or for any reasons other than political or purposeful abstention, did not submit for the Prize, the Chair of the Judges Panel can have the administrators reach out to said author or their publishers to, please, submit for the Prize. It enriches the Prize to have very good books competing for it, and who better than people already deemed good enough to act as judges, to suggest books they think warrant consideration! This is what the US analogue of the Nigeria Prize for Literature (the National Book Awards) does.

Another thing that the US National Book Awards does is that it is truly plural. They are an awards ceremony, presenting several prizes to several genres each year. None of this genre rotation complication. Everyone knows what genre rotation has done to Nigerian Literature. With the carrot of $100,000 dangling in front of them, authors rush to press weeks to the deadline for submission, to publish books in the genres under consideration. And we have great books published a few years before the Prize, who though in contention, have had their publication cycle pass by. Understand this, dear reader: a book published the day after the deadline for submission passes will next be considered for the Prize in four years’ time. The book suffers, the reader suffers.

The National Book Awards presents prizes to four book genres: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Children’s Literature, and Poetry. The National Book Awards gives prizes of $10,000 to each genre winner, and I believe there is a small consolation for the shortlisted authors ($1,000) invited for the event. This segues nicely into my pet peeve: Drama should not be given a “book” prize.

Open up the competition for drama. What do the words “published book” mean in the drama genre? I do not ask this question lightly. What do the words “published book” mean in drama? Is drama not performance art? Should it not be performed to be alive, to be, in essence, published. Then if popular enough, do the dramas that we love not get published so that others may read, perform and in turn get others to love them? So how does one interpret the submission guideline that drama be published before being submitted? Let the Nigeria Prize for Literature call for drama entries, “published” or otherwise. Let them pick the best, commission a series of performances with stage directors’ and actors’ salaries, and other costs handled by the NLNG, culminating in a command performance near the time of awarding the Prize, with all the gate takings going to the winning playwright. I can think of no better reward for drama than having it performed. And earning money from these performances.



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