Literary Awards: Worth the Hype?

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

Just as it was the case with the most recent Nobel prize for literature that went off (in my opinion deservedly) to Bob Dylan, or the Booker prize that was granted to Paul Beatty and his novel The Sellout, so the biggest literary prize in Serbia, the NIN award for the best novel, went to Arzamas by Ivana Dimić. It sparked very heated discussions, not only because it was unexpected, but also because it was just one among four other equally insignificant and below average shortlisted novels. One may say that the year 2016 was simply very poor, when it comes to the novel, but still, the five-member jury received no more than 170 bound texts which at least nominally belong to the genre. But, it could also be said that if Arzamas is the best novel published in the Serbian language in 2016 then we, the Serbian readership, are in big trouble, because something is very wrong.

But I am not going to dwell on the pros and cons of this or another novel, rather I would try to make some general remarks about the system of awarding. But at the beginning, one needs to set things straight, because every important award, in almost every field of art or science, is followed by some sort of scandal and/or controversy. That is one of the reasons why they are big, isn’t it? We cannot help but buoy or boo candidates, and the noise is the thing the award itself lives off. It feeds and grows with and from the scandals it makes. Try just to think of all the writers that did not received the Nobel prize, or the Man Booker, or NIN. The novels in the so-called “off-NIN” list are as important for Serbian literature, as are those which got the money, and after that simply ran off into oblivion. Try to ask a person who you consider informed who Sully Prudhomme was, and I am sure that most of them will look at you with awe. The guy was the first Nobel Prize for literature laureate in 1901, and let’s not forget that Leo Tolstoy was nowhere near it, and he died in 1910.

We all know that it is not possible to correct past mistakes, but maybe the future ones can be avoided. I will try not to be overambitious, so I will focus on the NIN award. It is conceived as a critics’ prize, the editorial board of NIN magazine names the jury. And this is where the trouble begins, since literary criticism has radically changed in last ten years, but no one seems to have noticed that. In most of the mainstream media, there is no literary criticism at all, or it has changed to propaganda. It has migrated to the internet. And there is a new generation of young and angry literary critics who are educated, eloquent and brave enough to tell the truth about literature. But they are not invited nor welcomed to this very conservative jury. It is really worrying that no member of the NIN jury is less than forty years old. I really don’t have any ageist agenda, and I am not inclined to judge people according to their age, but there should be at least one younger person in that jury. Younger means less conservative, means more responsible, means hungrier, and more ambitious, in other words it guarantees fiercest argumentation. It at least opens the possibility of some kind of revolution. On the other hand, at least they have followed the gender rule, and finally there are two female members of the jury.

The quantity of novels that are in race every year gets more frightening. This year it was 170, last year it was a bit more, the year before that again around that figure. These numbers speak for themselves, but it is obvious that all the novels could not be read by every member of the jury. It would mean that they read a novel every two and a half days, from January the 1st to December the 31st. Even if they are willing to do so, the majority of novels appear in autumn, because of the book fair which is at the end of October. In practice, that means that every member of the jury should read at least a hundred books in two months. It is physically impossible. I made this whole account just to show that NIN award is not objective, as long as the number of novels is that big. There are at least two ways of solving this problem: The first one should be formal. Every novel should fulfill a certain number of formal criteria (editing, proof reading, design and several publishing criteria, and so on). The other is moving the annunciation of the awarded novel from January to April or May. It would simply give more time to jury to read through all the novels that they have received till the end of the year. They probably would not be able to read more than fifty or sixty, but still, with the formal criteria, there won’t be as many as in the last few years.

I am not one of those who are crying their throats out and demanding justice. There is no such thing. One can always find ways to be angry, and it is always easier. I can be constructive and offer a thought or two on the process, or I can be negative and ask to end all the processes, to finish the bloody thing off. But let’s not forget that, in the whole NIN award business, which starts at the end of the year and lasts till mid-January, the public at least speaks about literature, the books are back in the focus. Even if it is only for a period shorter than a month, it is still a gain, something to start building upon. If we take into consideration the media attention on literature during the rest of the year, then we must be satisfied with the hype, whether we are loving or hating the awarded novel.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.