Tuesday 29 September 2009

European Literary Prize: Everyone's a winner, so does anyone actually win?

The first ever EU literary prize was awarded yesterday, and everyone won. Well, 12 people from 12 participating countries won, and, over the next 2 years, all the other participating countries will each have their winner too. As the EUobserver comments, it's a bit:

"...like an elementary school sports day where every child wins a medal..."

There are apparently hopes that the award will become one of the most talked about literary awards, like "the Booker Prize, the Prix Goncourt or America's National Book Award", but there's not much to mark it out as special or "European". The procedure for picking winners reads like an attempt to give each individual country's publishing industry a bit of a boost by claiming that a local book won a European prize.

"The Prize consists of an award to a talent from each of the participating countries in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. The 12 countries selected for the 2009 Awards were: Austria, Croatia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Sweden. In 2010 Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia and Spain will participate, followed by Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Serbia, The Netherlands, Turkey and United Kingdom in 2011.

The European Union Prize for Literature is co-financed by the Culture Programme and by the selected consortium composed of the European Booksellers Federation (EBF), the European Writers' Council (EWC) and the Federation of European Publishers (FEP).

The consortium asked national bodies to establish a jury for the selection of this prize within their country.

The jury in each country followed a model that adapted to the national context." [Link, including the winners list]

...So national juries judging national books based on national contexts/traditions... Where exactly is the added "European" value? There is something to be said for trying to give a boost to national publishing industries, but it's unlikely that this will have much impact: after all, the more winners there are, the less exclusive and prestigious the prize becomes. A small number of prizes (or even just one prize) to the best books from across a continent could be a much sought-after award, if the literary standards were exacting. Henning Mankell, who presided over the award this year argued strongly for a more exclusive prize:

""Handing out a dozen or 34 prizes over three years is acceptable only for the first years. It makes no sense; it lessens its value," he told EUobserver.

"You cannot continue to have 12 prizes every year. Instead there should be just one or two prizes," he continued. "I don't honestly know how impressive it is. I think it is that Europe has a responsibility to do this sort of thing. This is the minimum of what has to be done. It's a small step.""

The promotion of "diversity" seems too often to focus on state sensitivities instead of real cultural diversity and ends up devaluing the celebration of whatever cultural form is taking its turn at being officially "celebrated" - after all when nationality takes such a central role, it distracts from what merits the winners might have. A good use of categories and a long and short list could draw attention to the range of good literate that is (hopefully) being produced across Europe while preserving the value of the prize itself.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, you hit the nail on the head. National prizes are given a European aura with no real value added for readers or Europe.