With many literary awards in the offing, a reality check on how much purpose they serve

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New Delhi | Updated: October 21, 2018 3:10 AM

With several new literary prizes being announced in India this year, the time has never been so bright for a writer. Or is it so? A look into what these prizes have on offer and what it means for the publishing world...

author, literatureThe winner, to be announced this Wednesday, will carry home a prize money of Rs 25 lakh—an additional Rs 5 lakh will go to the translator in case a work of translation happens to win.

Author Rana Dasgupta has never been so busy. But it’s not writing or research that’s keeping him occupied these days. What’s kept him on his toes for the past four months is giving interviews, coordinating photo shoots, working on promotion details, finalising marketing strategies and running social media campaigns. Dasgupta is the literary director of the JCB Prize for Literature, the newest literary prize for Indian writers, which has unfolded with great promise—the prize promises to be India’s answer to the Man Booker Prize. “Not immediately, though. But we aim to reach there in the next 15 years or so,” says Dasgupta.

In the first week of October, JCB Prize came out with its five shortlisted books—Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived, Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone, Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (translated by Shahnaz Habib), Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi (translated by N Kalyan Raman) and Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing. “We are recommending these five books from a list of 60 read by us. These are the five books that will stand out in time and you would like to read them again after many years,” says novelist Vivek Shanbhag, one of the jury members for the 2018 JCB Prize.

The winner, to be announced this Wednesday, will carry home a prize money of Rs 25 lakh—an additional Rs 5 lakh will go to the translator in case a work of translation happens to win. “It’s a wonderful validation for our editorial team, which works so hard and brilliantly to produce these books. It’s wonderful for authors to be recognised. Each longlist and shortlist feels especially exciting,” says Chiki Sarkar, founder and publisher, Juggernaut Books, which has two titles (Half the Night is Gone and Jasmine Days) in the JCB shortlist.

Billed as the country’s richest literary prize, JCB—the multinational behind it—is looking to create a space for Indian writing with an award that is as prestigious as its American or English counterparts in the eyes of the public. After all, the Man Booker Prize—which announced its 2018 winner (northern Irish author Anna Burns for Milkman) on Tuesday—is an award that’s keenly awaited not just by literary enthusiasts, but common folk as well. It’s this kind of appeal that the Man Booker Prize’s counterparts in the subcontinent are aiming to achieve in the coming years. “It’s time to move beyond being a mere spectator to the Booker Prize. We want to alter the publishing scenario in India and create more space for literary fiction and translations,” Dasgupta adds.
Season of awards

It’s an exciting time for the Indian publishing industry, which, as per trade reports, is pegged at `20,000 crore and is growing at 30% year-on-year. There are new publishers on the horizon, more books are getting translated from Indian languages into English, new writers are finding a voice and more literary festivals are being organised than ever before. Add these new awards, which promise to provide Indian writing more prominent shelf space in the global market, and the scenario looks quite bright.

Writer Anuradha Roy, who won the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for her book Sleeping on Jupiter, considers awards to be “a kind of validation” of a writer’s work. “Among the judges for the DSC Prize were academics from Bangladesh, Britain and Sri Lanka, as well as a well-known US bookseller. It made me feel as if my book had crossed cultural and national boundaries and had made sense to well-informed, intelligent readers from completely different backgrounds,” she says. Roy, who was also on the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist, has made it to the shortlist of almost all literary awards this year with her latest, All the Lives We Never Lived. “Most writers are plagued by self-doubt and I am no exception. So literary awards are very reassuring,” she adds.

In April, The New India Foundation, a Bengaluru-based trust, announced the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation (NIF) Book Prize for non-fiction. The annual prize, named after the social reformer and freedom fighter, carries a cash prize of Rs 15 lakh to be awarded to a non-fiction book about any aspect of India since independence. “Awards are always welcome, as they restart conversations about books and are great for authors,” says Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India. The winning title to be announced at the Bangalore Literature Festival from October 27-28 will be picked by a jury comprising Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, historian Ramachandra Guha, Teamlease Services chairman and co-founder Manish Sabharwal, and historian and senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research Srinath Raghavan.

As for the shortlisted books, while on one hand, there is Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, which focuses on caste oppression in modern India, on the other there is partition literature in the form of Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation. The other books on the list include Abhinav Chandrachud’s The Republic of Rhetoric, which is about free speech and the Constitution, and bureaucrat Anirudh Krishna’s The Broken Ladder, which explores the potential of people in India’s villages. Milan Vaishnav’s When Crime Pays (which looks at how criminals exploit the existing conditions to entrench themselves in politics) and Francesca R Jensenius’ Social Justice Through Inclusion (on how electoral representation for Dalits through reservation has played out since 1952) are also in the fray.

It’s an interesting shortlist, considering that the prize focuses on the history of modern India. Guha, while announcing the shortlist, had commented that the titles “reflect the Foundation’s ecumenical charter of recognising high-quality non-fiction regardless of genre and ideology.”

Interestingly, all the new awards announced this year cater to different segments and have completely stayed out of each other’s territories. While JCB Prize is about fiction and translations by Indian writers, New India Foundation focuses on non-fiction around modern India.

Another prize announced this year in January is the ‘Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award’—by the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF)—for emerging women writers in India. Carrying a cash prize of `1 lakh, the award will recognise women writers in all Indian languages—this year’s winner will be announced at the next AKLF in 2019.

“Isn’t it such a wonderful time to be publishing in India?” asks author and translator Arshia Sattar, who is one of the jury members of the JCB Prize and co-curator of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018, which was set up in 2008 to honour a debut writer from south Asia. The winner of the Shakti Bhatt Prize, which is accompanied by a prize money of `2 lakh, was awarded this year to Sujatha Gidla for Ants Among Elephants.

Two more awards debuted quietly this year: the CK Prahalad Best Business Book Award and Neev Children’s Literature Awards. Founded in the memory of management guru, author and entrepreneur CK Prahalad, the CK Prahalad Best Business Book Award recognises the best business book of the year. Announced at the Bangalore Business Litfest in September, the award, which carries a cash prize of `1 lakh, went to Mindtree founder Subroto Bagchi for his book Sell: The Art, the Science, the Witchcraft.

And with Neev Children’s Literature Awards, the children’s category has finally its own award too. An initiative of the Neev Literature Festival, the inaugural prizes were awarded in September in three categories. The best picture book award went to I Will Save My Land, written by Rinchin with illustrations by Sagar Kolwankar, the Young Readers Award went to Mitali Perkins for Tiger Boy and the best Young Adult Book Award was won by Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari. The award and prize money of `1 lakh each was an attempt to recognise and promote ‘high-quality’ writing in children’s literature from across India.

According to Surina Narula, founder of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, awards promote good writing. “The publishing industry is facing huge dilemmas because of the digital world taking over. So anything that promotes writing and literature in the published form is always going to be welcomed by publishers,” Narula says.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, into its eighth year now, comes with a cash component of $25,000 (it was $50,000 until 2016). The award announced its longlist earlier this month, which was brought out by an eclectic jury comprising Rudrangshu Mukherjee, jury chair and chancellor of Ashoka University; Nandana Sen, writer, actor and author; Claire Armitstead, associate editor-culture, The Guardian; Tissa Jayatilaka, executive director of United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission; and Firdous Azim from BRAC University, Bangladesh.

Jury on call

With so many awards, it’s naturally a busy time for jury members. Reading each submission, discussions over Skype calls or messenger chats, arguments over what makes it to the final list, etc, keep them fully occupied. Coming from diverse fields and residing in different geographical locations, jury members have to ensure that they are on the same page when the final list comes out. “It seems like I was doing nothing else but reading for the past four months. We have had long discussions for many days. Coming up with a shortlist is relatively easy, as by then, you know what is on most jury members’ minds,” says author and translator Sattar. Besides her and novelist Shanbhag, the jury for the JCB award for 2018 comprises a diverse list of personalities, including filmmaker Deepa Mehta, entrepreneur and founder of Murty Classical Library Rohan Murty, and Yale University astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan. The JCB prize will change its selection committee annually and will be audited to ensure fair evaluation.

While each jury member at every literary award brings a different perspective onboard, almost all work on the core principles of ‘good writing’ and ‘enduring quality’ of a book. Shanbhag believes a literary prize is something akin to a book club, where a group of members read a book for a larger audience and then recommend it. “A smaller version of a lit prize can be seen in a book club,” he says.
A literary award also reflects the best in writing in that particular year. And it opens the doors for publishers to pay more attention to a genre—like translations or literary fiction. Keki Daruwala, poet, short story writer and former jury member with the DSC, believes that awards bring “optimism” into the publishing world. “Prizes are very necessary,” explains Daruwala, adding, “It is the climate of optimism, which a prize builds that matters.” Hailing the literary prizes focusing on India, Daruwala, says, “Western standards of judging Indian writing, to put it mildly, are waspish.”

Fine print

When the Booker Prize announces its shortlist, the sales of all the books jump manifold. Even the most modest seller on a Booker list benefits hugely from the Booker stamp. According to data released by trade body Neilsen Bookscan a few years back (which scanned all the Booker winners from 2001 to 2010), sales rose significantly for shortlisted titles. For instance, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which won in 2006, sold around 1,82,044 copies post its Booker win, as against 2,397 sold before the announcement.

It is well-documented that literary prizes increase the awareness for nominated books among readers, as well as the visibility of the book. “The DSC Prize helps the author in getting known in the greater world, as the writing reaches a larger global audience. Most works have been published in other countries after they have been awarded the DSC Prize,” says Narula of the DSC Prize. The organisers even conduct book tours for the author to promote his/her novel, leading to greater visibility, both in media and at bookstores.

But at a time when sale of literary fiction is overrun by mass market titles, will these prizes significantly drive sales? “Though the award gives a greater profile to both the writer and the publisher, unlike the West, we still have not seen a rise in book sales of a prize-winner,” points out Sarkar of Juggernaut Books, adding, “The Booker and, on occasion, the Pulitzer are the only prizes that have sales impact in India. So the sales for a Jhumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy (book) benefitted, but I can’t think of others.”

The reprints of a book are the biggest indicator that sales are flourishing. “I have seen various book prizes over the past two decades across both Penguin and Hachette, and it’s sad, but only three prizes (and all of them international) have ever made a real difference to sales in India—Man Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize. For all of these, we’ve had to reprint quite a bit—Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (which was on the Booker shortlist); Malala for the Nobel; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for the Pulitzer. And these are substantial reprints, ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 copies,” says Abraham of Hachette India.

JCB is, however, leaving no stone unturned to increase the sales of its shortlisted book. Book extracts have been made into audio clips by the authors and uploaded on YouTube. Authors will also visit universities and literary festivals to promote their books. Magazine photo-ops are being organised and profiles being published. “We want our writers to be known outside the literary world. The objective is to increase sales tremendously in the next three-five years,” says literary director Dasgupta.

The real challenge, though, writers maintain, is having an impact on readers. “Whether a book progresses to the shortlist or not, wins or not, a Booker nomination gives it a much wider readership; many people become aware of the book. Still, all prizes eventually fade from people’s memories and the book has to live on its own steam. How many people remember books that were on even last year’s Booker list?” asks writer Roy.

She explains further how well-publicised prizes do have a temporary impact on a writer’s earnings and career. “For a while, sales of the book increase and it has a ripple effect, making people aware of you and your other books. But plenty of books that never won a prize also have a significant and lasting impact,” she adds.

Maybe you are as good as your last award. Or as good as your last published book. The jury is out on that.

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