One of the issues that came out of the conversation, yesterday, at the Q&A part of the Press Conference to announce the winner of the Nigeria (LNG) Prize for Literature is whether the judges on the award panel are too old to understand contemporary literature. It was an indirect hit in form of a question from one of the journalists in the room about the currency of the judges’ knowledge about current trends. But the chair of the advisory council, Professor Ayọ̀ Bánjọ, picked up the snark and addressed it fully, defending his team’s savvy and curiosity: “Because we’re old doesn’t mean that we don’t know what is going on. We try to keep up.” Or something to that effect.
But he also went on to suggest that the public make their work easier (if not also superfluous) by generating sufficient debate around each year’s long-listed (and shortlisted) works in order to enrich the canon with smart takes, appraisal, and criticism of each of the work during and after the process of the Prize announcement. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, If you don’t engage the work and create an industry of conversations around them and around the trade, we as judges, may be denied an opportunity to be familiar what is new, and we’d be forced instead to judge the works we are given by the standards with which we are familiar, which may not always be modern. It was both a humble cry for help and a smart take on the state of literary criticism in the country.
Perhaps aware of a criticism of the Prize as being rich in money but not in the elevation of the craft, Professor Bánjọ was throwing the challenge back to the community to not leave the important work of the whole process – criticism, which enhances the value of the work and engages the audience on a second level – to the judges alone. Notable was the fact that no one was rewarded this year with the prize for Literary Criticism which had always been a part of the annual award.
He has a point. Many writers who have won the Nigerian Prize – as also pointed out by another questioner – have gone into oblivion with no follow-up work, as if the cash payout of the award had delivered a knockout punch to their creative ability or drive. Certainly, the point can be made that if the work of past winners of such a prestigious prize do not gain more critical interest after such an honour, or increase in sales at the bookstores, or even show up in more quantity on book stands as a result of the award boost, the Prize would have failed in a major way. And what creates this kind of interest is not just the distribution of the books at the award ceremony as the NLNG already does, or a donation of copies to public libraries which is also a good thing, but a critical engagement by other writers and critics of each work as soon as the long list is made, and before/after the award winner is announced.
This is where the indictment of the community is deserved.
The Caine Prize is a much smaller prize in terms of cash reward, but has been deemed way more prestigious across the continent for its sustenance of critical conversation on African literary production though it only rewards writers working in the short story form. There is a couple of reasons for that. The prize has an active online engagement strategy that covers the continent, involves the writing community, and stays connected to the source of important conversations regarding the writers it shortlists. It also has an annual retreat/writer’s workshop in which writers are made to produce works that are then published as an annual anthology. It does this on a budget most likely smaller than that of a prize that awards $100k to an individual every year.
But perhaps more importantly, for the Caine Prize, is that writers and critics also pay attention to each shortlisted story, which are usually carefully reviewed online before the prize announcement. Notable among these annual exercises is the Caine Prize Blogathon founded by Aaron Bady through which interested critics take on each or all of the shortlisted stories each year, and review them individually and as against the criteria of the prize. I have been a part of this exercise since 2013 and enjoyed the process, which brings me much closer to the works than I would ordinarily have. We’d never know how much this annual exercise affects the decision of the judges, but responses to past editions of the Blogathon shows that the large literary community across the continent does pay attention to what is being said and how. It enriches the profession, helps the writers, benefits the readers interested in critical engagement, and makes the prize better.
We need the same for the Nigerian Prize for Literature. All shortlisted books should be made available for free – if possible – to interested reviewers for critical engagement on online and print platforms. Maybe it will make the prize better. But certainly, it will enrich the community of Nigerian readers, and writers.