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Posts Tagged ‘Neustadt Prize’

I always anticipate literary award season with a mixture of hope and dread. Each year, I hope to be surprised by what makes it to the short lists, but each year I am almost always disappointed. Canadian literature awards especially, like the Giller Prize (this year’s short list: http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2014-shortlist/) and the Governor General Awards (this year’s short list: http://www.cbc.ca/books/2014/10/governor-generals-literary-awards-2014-the-finalists.html), tend to stick to the “safe” titles: literary and “serious” and appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. Rarely do the titles on literary award short lists strike me as challenging either literary conventions or challenging commonly held beliefs/perspectives. My usual response is a disappointed sigh, as the short lists seem to be more of the same old, same old. I don’t intend this as a disparagement of those who are lucky enough to make these short lists, as their talent is not what I am questioning. I am sure I would enjoy many of the books on these lists. I just tend to be less interested in reading them because they seem to fit conventional narrative patterns or subjects and I like to stretch my boundaries as a reader. I would like literary awards to take some risks in introducing readers to books beyond the conventional and familiar, in order that readers may expand their comfort zones. So, in response to this apathy I feel, I have decided to make a long list of books that I found interesting in terms of form or challenging in terms of subject matter, books that I feel made me a better reader. These books aren’t perfect. They have flaws, but their authors were brave enough to try something different (new or less familiar) in terms of form or genre and to look at subjects deemed uncomfortable or unworthy by others. Some have been recognized by larger prizes, but even in those cases, I feel they didn’t get the consideration they deserved by the reading public. Each book on this list gave me a thrill as I figured out what they were trying to do, and each one was emotionally affecting in its own way. Here is the inaugural long list for the Hamilton Award for Interesting Literature (HAIL – as in, all hail to me, queen of cool book recommendations):

The City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli

Observatory Mansions – Edward Carey

The Boys in the Trees – Mary Swan

So Many Ways to Begin – Jon McGregor

Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

The Logogryph – Thomas Wharton 

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Manual of Detection – Jedediah Berry

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride (I’m still reading this one)

I am not able to offer a spectacular monetary prize in the tradition of those prizes I discuss here (I am a poor adjunct, after all), but I would like to offer my sincere appreciation to these authors for shaking up expectations and creating marvelous fictional worlds for readers to inhabit. I hope you will consider giving these writers your attention.

I must say that the Booker Prize short list (http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/man-booker-prize-fiction-2014-shortlist-revealed) did come as something of a surprise to me this year, as it seems fresher and more interesting than many of their lists in the recent past. I often find at least one title of interest, but this year I am interested in reading most of the titles here. However, in the world of literary awards, I find that the most reliably interesting long and short lists are for the Dublin IMPAC Award (last year’s nominees http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/ won by Juan Gabriel Vasquez) and the Neustadt Prize (last year’s nominees http://neustadtprize.org/the-23rd-biennial-neustadt-international-prize-for-literature-nominees-announced/#.VDwOmfldVaQ won by Mia Couto). I want unfamiliar literary prize nominees, new writers whose bodies of work I can begin to explore. I want prize lists to challenge my comfort zone.

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When the inaugural Man Booker International Prize was awarded in 2005 to Ismail Kadare (an Albanian author previously unknown to me who now ranks among my favourite writers — especially his novel, The Palace of Dreams), I was overjoyed. Too long had I found the Man Booker Prize sort of dull and full of the same old, same old literary fiction, (often high quality, but rarely surprising). Here, however, was a prize that was “international” in scope and welcomed literature in translation. Just think of the new authors and untapped regional writing that global audiences would be introduced to! The prize is only awarded every two years, so the wait for the next prize was a tortuous one. When it was finally awarded to Chinua Achebe in 2007, I was a little disappointed — not because I think Achebe doesn’t deserve an award for his body of work, but rather because he has received so many accolades and is already part of the World Literature canon. I’ve read Achebe, and I like Achebe, and I think more people should read him. I was just hoping that some lesser known international writer would receive the prize so I could have a new list of titles to work my way through, as I did with Kadare’s works. Instead, I could just nod my head and agree that Achebe’s work is important.

The disappointment I felt at Achebe’s win was insignificant in comparison to the utter despair that has accompanied each subsequent Man Booker International Prize announcement: Alice Munro in 2009, Philip Roth in 2011, and Lydia Davis in 2013. Again, I’m sure each of these writers is deserving of a prize for their body of work, but it is beginning to feel as though the MBI is the consolation prize for deserving authors who’ve been overlooked for the Booker because of the limitations of that prize (awarded only for novels by citizens of the UK, Commonwealth, and Rep. of Ireland – and so we have two short story writers and two Americans who would not qualify for the Booker winning the last three MBIs).

The Man Booker International Prize has betrayed readers all around the globe. Does it not seem strange that an “international” prize has been awarded four out of five times to a writer writing in English? Three times to North Americans? And only once to a writer that wasn’t already a household name in literary circles? Are there so few living authors whose work is available in translation that are worthy of an award for their body of work? They should just call it the Booker Minor Prize and jettison the facade of “internationalism”, because they are doing a great injustice to literatures in languages other than English by failing to acknowledge their contributions to the literary landscape of the world.

The Nobel Prize for Literature usually provides some succour for those of us who crave literature with an international flavour, but the award of the prize to Alice Munro in 2013, while well-deserved, robbed me of that pleasure. (I’m Canadian. I’m already familiar with Alice Munro. Sigh.) And so, I must seek out the smaller prizes for their winners and short lists to sate my appetite for world literature. The Neustadt Prize was awarded in 2013 to Mia Couto, a Mozambican author who writes in Portuguese, and although he is a writer I was already happily familiar with (his novels Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo on my list of favourites already), I was at least able to seek out his newest offering, The Tuner of Silences. But where is the recognition for the bodies of work produced by authors such as Park Wan-Suh (Korean), or Cesar Aira (Argentinian), Alessandro Baricco (Italian), Cees Nooteboom (Dutch), and countless others whose works have been widely available in English translation?

In 2005, I had hoped that the Man Booker International Prize was on track to correct this oversight, but alas, I must finally admit that I have been betrayed. The news that next year’s announcement will take place in Cape Town, South Africa does not give me much hope that things will change any time soon. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer getting the prize (since I now have to take Doris Lessing out of the running, as she has so recently passed on) — again, deserving of a prize for their bodies of work, but again, writers whose works are written in English and are familiar ground in literary circles. My greatest hope is that the 2015 Man Booker International Prize will return to its 2005 form and declare a winner that I’ve never heard of before. But what are the odds?

Update (March 2015): Happily, it appears that the judges read my blog and took my advice to heart (because I am certain they take obscure Canadian bloggers very seriously). Read all about it here: How the Man Booker International Prize Redeemed Itself

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