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What is there to prize?

By September 18, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu  –  Tabish Khair

As the same erudite ghosts glide out, a look at whether anything is really alternative about the Alternative Nobel literature award

The Alternative Nobel, which is supposed to balance the ‘ideal’ literature awarded by the Nobel Prize with ‘human’ elements, has come out with its shortlist: Haruki Murakami (Japan), Kim Thúy (Canada), Maryse Condé (France/Guadeloupe), and Neil Gaiman (U.K.). Interesting, no doubt, but is it surprising? Each one of the four is an established, much prized, globally marketed author, with big publishing houses and big literary agencies behind them.

The only partial ‘change’ is the inclusion of genre-writing — Neil Gaiman — in the shortlist. But even this is not unexpected. For the past few years, genre-writing has been the place where much of the really interesting stuff – narrative, political and stylistic — has happened. Lately, this vibrancy of ‘genre’ has been accorded mainstream recognition while also being baptised ‘speculative fiction,’ as, among others, the excellent and much prized Mohsin Hamid can attest.

Where are they?

The fecundity of genre (or speculative) fiction is fully reflected by the Hugo Awards — those ‘genre’ awards have started going to novels and novellas by comparatively smaller houses. But ‘literary’ prizes are way behind, and the Alternative Nobel has failed to shake that applecart this time.

Neither does the occasional leftist gesture by, say, the Booker International make a real difference in this regard. Much as it pains me to gladden the hearts of dyed-in-the-wool rightists, the fact remains that the Anglophone literary world has always had a nice leftist niche. But this is just as much a question of wearing the right kind of bow tie — or its leftist equivalent — and speaking with the approved accent (ideological, if not social), as niches of cultural privilege in any other direction. Every few years, I take out or gift to my wife a subscription of that grand old journal, which does contain excellent excursions into politics and history: the London-based New Left Review. Every time, I let my subscription lapse after 12 months — as the same erudite ghosts and very familiar prophecies pass by my eyes once again!

When the Alternative Nobel longlist came out, Alison Flood wrote in TheGuardian: “How many lineups — for anything, let alone a literature prize — feature Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo alongside each other? As well as Patti Smith, rather more celebrated for her music than her books.” Surely, you need to be fairly well-integrated into the global cultural scene to rhapsodise about such a list! Where were the small publishers, the unknown names, the authors without major agents?

No, they were not there, and they are unlikely to be there, because, given the cuts in public funding and the nature of literary publicity, very few librarians order anything that is not in some ways mainstream. Hence, even a longlist selected by librarians — as the Alternative Nobel’s longlist was, before the shortlist was chosen by readers — would already be slanted towards the cultural status quo.

Easy to find, easy to digest

As for readers having the final say, oh well, oh well: it is a bit like selecting the best burger when your entire horizon is congested with MacDonald’s and Burger King billboards! What chance do you have, unless you are very diligent and brave, of spotting that excellent burger nook down some dark invisible alley?

Actually, unlike burgers, with books, this does not necessarily mean bad writers. People tend to select their books with greater care than they select their burgers, though in both cases they do go for stuff that is easy to find and digest. But, as I said, this does not mean that bad writers are given prizes. It usually means good writers, but good writers with the right kind of cultural and market exposure.

It means established writers backed by big imprints and bigger agents — with, occasionally, an outsider making it. Even in such cases though, either the outsider is being pushed by a major agent or imprint, or s/he is part of a literary in-crowd by birth, marriage, location and/or education.

Genre-writing has partly escaped the compulsions of the ‘literary’ scene, because it has been considered less ‘prestigious’ — though, with its increasing popularity, this might change too, and in a decade the relatively small houses and magazines that have sustained the genre or speculative boom might all be wrapping up. Or, as is the case with literary publishing, some will keep publishing – without being reviewed in prestigious publications, marketed by mainstream bookstores, entered or seriously read for major prizes, and placed on the racks of most libraries.

Pity the small publisher

The literary world is like the finance world today: it is far more closed than it was over most of the 20th century. The reasons are similar: the concentration of money and power into fewer hands. Digitalisation does not really make a difference, for the same reason that too much information is not enough. Within the ‘freedom’ of digitalisation, a particular information (or book) still has to be made visible out of that great unholy mess. And this requires, again, power, money, support, backing, etc. The small publisher and the off-beat writer still get, excuse my Latin, royally screwed. Perhaps even more so.

While the rise of the oligarchy is visible in the finance world, it seems less visible in the literary world. There are two reasons for this, apart from the fact that no one really keeps a record of which author, which agent, which judge and which editor went to the same top 10 universities. Except, of course, those who have been to these universities.

The first reason is the fact that there are some ‘native’ areas of literature and its prizing: some acclaim goes to a select few — often, but (hurrah!) not always, from one of those top universities or some cosmopolitan literary clan — in ‘human’ terms. Postcolonial, Chinese, African, Woman, Queer, Leftist, etc. Occasionally, a true outsider comes up from this jungle. He is the descendant of the old native guide: he guides cosmopolitan readers through uncharted territories.

You see, the native guide never really dies. He guides Magellan round all those capes of no hope, but Magellan is credited with the discovery. He guides the white explorer into Africa or the New World, but the discoverer is the whiteexplorer. Literature is a realm no different from the world in this regard.

White ship

These are neoliberal, not colonial, times, when sometimes the colour of your money obscures the colour of your skin. But let us not get confused. You can write your heart out about your town or sexuality or womanhood in Nolandistan. You can do it with style and talent. You can do it with great perseverance, despite the odds. But, finally, you have to guide the ship of a white (or white-washed) publishing corporation around the capes of good hope.

It is this white (or white-washed) discoverer – agent, publisher, editor etc. from some nicely metropolitan part of the world — who chooses the ship to be sailed, the cape to be rounded, the tacking to be raised, the land to be discovered — and, actually, even the native guide who will do this particular kind of job.

The second reason is that we writers like to think of ourselves as espousing all the good causes. We are radicals. We take up cudgels on behalf of the marginal, down-trodden and oppressed all over the world — and the most prized among us get to write highly prized Op Eds in such prize publications as TheNew York Times and the London Review of Books! You know, the kind of publication that every self-respecting literary judge or librarian or academic reads. Also, the kind likely to be read by the most self-respecting of readers.

There is nothing wrong with that — though it might make some writers more invisible than they need to be when literary panels meet to adjudicate. But still there is nothing wrong with that. The greater problem is that we never fight similar battles in our own literary realms.

Example? To save space, I will give you just one. Poor Bernie Sanders is crying himself hoarse trying to get to provide better salaries and working conditions for its workers, many of whom package our books. We all know it. But name me one best-selling or highly prized author who has called for the withdrawal of their books from Amazon. can totally ignore writers like me, whose books seldom reach mainstream bookshops and libraries, and whose cult of committed readers depend perforce on online platforms like Amazon. But can it ignore a group of Nobel and Booker winners who have the prestige and viability to launch an effective boycott?

Until something like this happens, do not get your hopes up for ‘literary’ prizes. After all, we, writers, are part of this world and the prizing of literature is even more so, much more so, part of this world. No worse, true, but also certainly no better.

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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