Why is the NLNG Prize not actively involved in the promotion of literary culture in Nigeria? The only way to increase the cultural capital of the prize is through a conscious effort to draw out the blurry lines of its architecture…
By Chimezie Chika
“Opinion is the basis of all literary prizes. Writing is rewarded by systems and institutions of opinion,” wrote Innocent Chizaram Ilo in his essay, “Book and Busy: The Politics of Literary Prizes.” The fundamental truth in Ilo’s assertion is that, for all its pretensions at objectivity, the process of selection in literary prizes is subject to some level of sentimental decision-making. The question of opinion usually comes up in such cases. Members of the judging panel debate the literary merits of the books before them. One person might prefer a particular kind of writing, perhaps an unadorned style. Another may extol the merits of poetic prose. The question of who is right or wrong is traded back and forth. Whose view takes precedence here? They might ask themselves.
Jonathan Derbyshire observes that individual preferences can sometimes lead to tears when the majority on a judging panel vote for a seemingly less-than-auspicious book. Whose literary preferences, then, is the mark of literary excellence? Granted that there are universal yardsticks to determine a good novel, for instance. We expect developed characters, a good storyline and excellent use of language. But beyond these general parameters, how do judges in a room full of good books determine the best among them if not through some private conviction of their own personal response to those books. These opinions—need I say?—are formed over time through personal training and experience.
The truth must then be made plain: prizes are personal. But even with personal biases, prizes have far-reaching consequences. For many writers, winning a literary prize usually means a level of financial freedom, whether through a cash award as in the case of African literary prizes such as the AKO Caine Prize or through a prize’s architectural prestige that catapults a winning book to bestseller lists, as in the case of the French Prix Goncourt and Prix Renaudot, the Hugo and Nebula prizes for science and speculative fiction, among other prizes with little or no financial reward, in which the winning books will always be assured of becoming instant bestsellers. In most cases however, prizes endow both a huge financial reward and an assurance of bestsellers status or, at the very least, critical acclaim. The Nobel Prize, the Booker Prizes, the Costa Book Award, the Pulitzer and a slew of other American prizes, are in this league.
Closer home, in Nigeria, we have seen a number of literary prizes come and go, most notably the 9mobile Prize for Literature (formerly Etisalat Prize for Literature), which was a most excellent prize in my opinion. Its least of winners stretch from Nigeria to Dr Congo and Southern Africa, and the prize also managed to create a literary effervescence around it that involved a writing residency at the University of East Anglia in the UK, creative-writing workshops, prize-sponsored book tours to three African cities for all shortlisted authors, and other relevant activities that help to advance the literary culture of a place. In its heyday, the 9mobile Prize brought many debut authors before the peering gazes of readers; it was conspicuously not just about the financial reward. Another visible aspect of the prize’s architecture is that the organisers also purchased 1000 copies of each of the shortlisted books for distribution to schools, book clubs and libraries.
More than the Etisalat Prize or any other Nigerian prize in the last two decades, the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature has endured. Over the years, we have seen many of its winners come and go, and sometimes disappear into oblivion. The prize gives a huge reward of $100,000 dollars—at par with the International Dublin Literary Award—and remains one of the richest literary awards in the world. The Nigeria Prize for Literature is rotated annually among four genres, including prose, poetry, drama, and children’s literature. This year, the prize is for poetry.
The prize practically kicked off in 2005 (although it officially began in 2004) with the award of the poetry genre to joint-winners, Ezenwa Ohaeto and Gabriel Okara for Chants of the Minstrel and The Dreamer: His Vision, respectively. In the succeeding years, the prize has gone on to award writers such as Kaine Agary, Adeleke Adeyemi, Jude Idada, Ikeogu Oke, Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, and others. In all these prizes, there is a trail of alternating literary excellence and oblivion. As a matter of fact, some of the winners of the NLNG-prize only attain an ephemeral visibility during the bubble around prize-winning ceremony after which we hear nothing more of them.
Some time ago, I attended a meeting of the Awka-based, Eagle Nest Book Club, and during heated conversations that revolved around the value of literary prizes, the Nigeria Prize for Literature came up and many wondered why, apart from the internationally published winners among them, the winning books are not always readily available. One lady narrated how she had a hard time of it trying to get a copy of Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow. She searched frantically in several bookshops and tried to purchase online, all to no avail. It appeared, she said, as though the book was out of print. She was only finally able to secure a used copy by some streak of serendipity.
There are a few other books in the Nigeria Prize for Literature winners’ list that are not easily available in bookshops and other retail outlets, unless one perhaps contacts the authors directly. Why would you spend so much money exalting a literary work that is not readily available? No prize can be sustained through such superficiality. Can we imagine for a moment that an NLNG Prize-winning book suddenly becomes a sensation elsewhere in the world and 10,000 copies are needed in short notice; would there be any such number of copies anywhere? I doubt. But I may be stretching too far. However, the truth remains that Nigeria’s greatest literary prize has a lot of room for growth and improvement. Such improvements must be made proactively and with a view to attaining parity with other similar prizes across the world.
This is where the architecture surrounding a prize comes in, architecture being the science and art of design and structure. The first question to ask in this respect is, what makes a prize prestigious or worthwhile? Is it the amount of money attached to it, or the caliber of judges? While the former is rather debatable as far as literary prizes go, the latter is certainly part of a prize’s overall standing. A look at literary prizes such as the Booker and the Pulitzer suggests much more than just the pomp and glitter of prize-giving. There are affiliations with colleges, bookstore chains, libraries, book clubs, writers’ forums, artists’ fellowships, residencies and literary journals and newspapers.
This is the structure or architecture that enhances a literary prize. Why would a prize such as the prestigious Prix Goncourt be so coveted in the Francophone world even though the prize money is a mere symbolic 10 euros? The answer is a straightforward one: because it has a solid architecture around it! Sources state that winners of the Prix Goncourt are guaranteed sales of 400,000 copies of the winning books, at the very least. One can only imagine how this is done.
Where, then, are the collaborations with bookshops, libraries, schools, book clubs and publishers? Where are the artist residencies, fellowships, tours, literary festival spear-headed by the NLNG? Where are the collaboration with literary journals, magazines, and newspapers? Why is the NLNG Prize not actively involved in the promotion of literary culture in Nigeria? The only way to increase the cultural capital of the prize is through a conscious effort to draw out the blurry lines of its architecture. The solemn duty of a literary prize does not end with the award of a cash prize. We expect the entire architecture to be solid and to project the winning author and the winning book in the most extensive way possible.
It deserves mention that the Nigeria Prize for Literature also now has other complementary awards such as The Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism and The Nigeria Prize for Science—all sponsored by NLNG’s The Nigeria Prizes initiative. Clearly, one can see that an effort, albeit unspoken, is being made to create a something similar to the Nobel Prize. To all intent and purposes, a prize for the sciences is long overdue. One has to look at the Nobel Prize for the sciences to see that there is a major problem in or with Africa in relation to STEM. Considering how Africa has been continually ignored in the Physiology, Physics and Chemistry Nobel prizes, would it be safe to say that our scientists are all sleeping on the job? In as much as Africa still has a long way to go in STEM research, I doubt that this is the case.
There are certainly some African scientists in Western research centers making great strides in their various fields. The truth that must be echoed in this light is that Africa necessarily needs to blow its own vuvuzelas. Thus, the addition of the sciences to the NLNG Nigeria Prizes deserves commendation. I also expect that what the science prize will do for its laureates will go beyond financial reward, especially in view of the circumstances of STEM in Africa. The other prize, given for Literary Criticism, has the feeling of an afterthought, since there is very little bubble around it outside a few academic cliques. But literary criticism remains an important aspect of a literary culture. Thus more should be done to increase its overall visibility.
The month of October is a special month in the literary world, for this is when some of the major literary awards announce their winners. The Nobel Prize has come and gone, with Annie Ernaux announced as the 2022 winner. Other prizes such as the Booker Prize will be announced later today. This year, the Nigeria Prize for Literature has a shortlist of three young poets: Romeo Oriogun for Nomad, Saddiq Dzukogi for Your Crib, My Quibla, and Su’eddie Agema for Memory and the Call of Waters.
As the prize announces its winner later this month, it should look at these older prizes critically and see what more positive things it can glean from them. For one thing, one expects a lot from a prize of that magnitude. We expect our Nigeria Prize for Literature laureates to be widely read across the country at least. We expect to see their books everywhere. We expect much more from a prize that awards a hundred grand in dollars.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Praxis Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment.