The BS Column: In search of an Asian prize

(Published in the Business Standard, July 27, 2009)

The literary world attracts its share of harmless lunatics, and for some years, my mailbox was enlivened by the presence of a gentleman I will call Mr S K Parthasarathi. He had never been published, but had a burning desire to be recognised as an author.

For three consecutive years, he sent out exuberant emails announcing: “The S K Parthasarathi Award for Stellar and Superior Writing, judged by eminent Man of Letters Mr S K Parthasarathi, has been won by the finest Author, Mr S K Parthasarathi.” When he stopped sending the mails, it left a void in my life that nothing, not the Crossword, the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize nor the Man Asian Booker could fill.

The SK Parthasarathi Award had this to its credit: it kept all parties happy, from the author to the judge to the prize administrator. The other three evolving literary prizes on the list face considerably greater challenges.

The Vodafone Crossword award has grown over the last eleven years, evolving as a multitude of issues from the nationality of the authors to the visibility of the prize has emerged. This year, the fiction award was split between debut author Neel Mukherjee (Past Continuous) and Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies), in a decision that kicked off a post-ceremony debate. Is it fair to judge a new writer against someone who has been writing for years? The Booker judges sometimes deal with this by producing controversial shortlists, ignoring the heavyweights in order to encourage less well-known writers.

A two-winner result is a cop-out. The more “senior” author can feel slighted, the debutante can be unfairly judged, and the remainder of the shortlist can feel doubly dismissed. You could create more categories, but that can make an award a hydra-headed monster—too bewildering for the average reader to follow. Personally, I subscribe to the School of Hard Knocks theory—as a first-time author, your books are going to be judged by readers anyway against the greats. There are times when a debut author’s creativity and freshness will carry the day, and times when years of learning the craft will make a greater impact.

The Man Asian Booker has seen a sharp learning curve since its inception in 2007. The judges’ panel in the first year was drawn out of convenience chiefly from the Hong Kong literary world, since the prize was set up there; this year, the panel has a much wider sweep, with Gish Jen, Pankaj Mishra and Colm Toibin at the helm.

It remains the only major prize to encourage unpublished writers, and to accept manuscripts that have not been written in English. This puts more pressure on the prize administrators, in terms of the volume and range of manuscripts they have to evaluate, and the longlist often shows a huge variation in quality. The prize is still in its third year, and has time to evolve; if it becomes a useful scouting ground for publishers and literary agents, the Man Asian will have done a great deal to erase the invisibility of Asian authors. With a stronger focus on literary quality, this could grow into a substantial prize.

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize was instituted in 2008 in memory of the young and talented writer/editor who died in 2007. Its guidelines offer one way of looking at the tricky issue of how to handle an Asian prize. It’s open to all writers from the subcontinent, which takes care of the phantom author syndrome—the nagging sense you get when reading an awards shortlist that someone is missing, only to realise that the author you’re missing is Pakistani or Bangladeshi, not Indian.

By limiting books to the subcontinent, it manages to duck the other thorny issue—how do you define an Asian writer? (Do you include Iran, does an author from coastal China really have anything in common with an author from Nepal, that sort of thing.) The Shakti Bhatt prize is open to all genres. The categories are clearly literary rather than general: poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction (travel writing, autobiography, biography and narrative journalism) and drama.

The stipulation that all books must have been published in India gives entries a local focus. And in a more charming caveat emptor, the guidelines state: “Books that have been published elsewhere and have already won prizes are eligible, though less likely to win.” The breadth of genres might become a tricky area for the prize—it’s hard to judge the merits of poetry versus travel writing, for instance—but the 2008 shortlist was definitely one of the most interesting, from the reader’s point of view.

I don’t know whether any of these three prizes will become the pre-eminent “Asian” prize, but I do hope Shou Xing, god of longevity, will smile on them. As a collective of prizes, they’re likely to sharpen and redefine our view of Asian writing.

N.B. There is also the Golden Quill award, promoted by Indiaplaza, but it hasn’t yet defined its criteria. At present, pulp and literary fiction are grouped together, which gives the Quill a very wide but puzzling selection of books. Take a look at this year’s longlist.





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