14 May 2006

Awards for the poor life

Perhaps fittingly for someone who trades in suffering, a writer’s lot has never been a happy one. Baudelaire’s life was an essay in privations, Joyce lived as a beggar, and Dostoevsky died a pauper. Unless we have confused him with a period painting by a German artist, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in bed thrusting his arm through the hole he had cut in the bedsheet. Of course, then as now there were some early-days Dan Browns and Rowlings who lived well on favours, subscriptions and sales but they were a precious few.

Even in today’s laissez-faire age, it’s hard to countenance an industry that complains about hard times while it skims off 95% of the revenues from a writer’s intellectual labour. A writer often lives on sufferance, on meagre livings that can be gleaned from hackwork, a teaching post or two, by another career or on scraps of publicity. There are some consolations, namely literary awards. One surefire way for a newish writer to gain recognition is by serving on an awards jury.

Although James F. English in his book on the economy of prestige mentions that there are 26,000 arts and science contests with over a hundred prizes worth over $100,000, most literary prizes usually do not pay a lot. Exceptions are, of course, the Nobel and the Poetry Foundation with a chest of $100 million from Eli Lilly and some other well-heeled endowments. On the other hand, France’s Prix Goncourt, for instance, pays the winner the generous sum of $10 but guarantees that with the exposure the author can count on sizeable royalties.

Philip Larkin said that a poet could amass "medals and prizes and honorary this-and-thats . . . but if you turned round and said, Right, if I'm so good, give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator — well, reason would remount its throne pretty quickly.” A writer is expected to be above this kind of venality. To ask for more is to be like Oliver but not to is hard to resist when we look at the millions doled out to sportsmen — we use the male form deliberately — and other “cultural geniuses” (a form of hyperbole that Ulrich in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities found distasteful even in the 1930s).

Some argue that contests are the best ways for peers to recognize the intrinsic merit of works; others complain that “readers” often screen out pieces that are not written by “professional” writers. Awards are said to be value-free but as, English points out, Toni Morrison’s supporters claimed that they rarely recognize writers other than their own. There have been scandals of writing teachers favouring their students and in one case a judge choosing her spouse. There are “blind” contests too. Whether these are truths or sour grapes, the richest irony may be that English’s book which is so critical of the prize mill has itself earned a prize.

There are dissenters. Amitav Ghosh spurned the Commonwealth Prize for political reasons and Zadie Smith crossed swords with the Orange Prize organizers. Recently, Angolan writer Luandino Vieira, known for his critiques of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, refused the €100 000 Camoes Prize for "intimate, personal reasons." African recipients of the Camoes Prize have included Mozambique's Jose Craveirinha (1991) and Angola's Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana dos Santos, penname Pepetela (1997) and will be added to our reading list along with Vieira.

For writers who despair of winning recognition or a living, think of this example. Laxman Rao, 51, a poor man, has written 18 novels in Hindi — nary an award among them — while supporting his family by running a tea stall in Delhi.

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