What’s the Point of All These (Arabic) Literary Awards?

Earlier this week, Qatar’s culture ministry hosted a symposium on the ways and means of literary awards. According to The Peninsula, organizers behind various awards were in Doha to speak and argue and learn; these included representatives of the King Faisal, the Sheikh Zayed, the Abou El Kacem Chebbi, the Nobel, and others.

This comes on the heels of the major March awards ceremonies staged by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) and the Sheikh Zayed.

In the past decade, there has been a modest increase in Arabic-language literary awards: We’ve seen the arrival of the Sheikh Zayed, the IPAF, the Etisalat Prize for Children’s Literature, the Beirut39 contest, and others. While these high-profile prizes have caused shifts in the literary landscape, there are still relatively few of them. I don’t have a number, but it’s certainly it’s not the 600 that Professor Claire Squires estimates are given annually in Europe. Goodness knows how many are on offer in North America.

Squires, who does her research in the world of literary prizes, seems generally to find them a positive thing for the literary arts. In her essay, “A Common Ground? Book Prize Culture in Europe,” Squires asserts that they can help keep literature alive, and writes, “Literary prizes can be used to encourage and develop regional and national publishing industries, particularly those whose economies are disadvantaged or within which a reading culture is less developed.”

In this light, literary prizes should be a particular boon to the Arabic-reading world. And Qatar’s former Education Minister, Mohammaad Abdel-rahim Kafoud, took this position at the symposium, calling his talk: “Literary Awards in GCC Countries and their Effects on Cultural Development and Creativity Boosting.”

But out in the messy, non-theoretical world, literary prizes are a complicated affair. Do literary awards always encourage creativity, or do they sometimes encourage a particular way (prize-sponsored, state-sponsored) of crafting books? For Squires, literary prizes echo the tensions of the publishing industry, sitting on a fault line “between culture and commerce.” However, she fails to mention the fault lines within “culture” (official culture, unofficial culture) and the pull of state or elite power.

With some awards, power relations are clear: The Ghaddafi Prize for Literature and Egypt’s (pre-Jan25) Novel Award, for instance, had obvious regime ties. But there are also awards that seem quietly to go to a certain sort of author, as the Prince of Poets award that bypasses more serious or political poetry, such as Tamim Barghouti’s, in favor of a gentle moderation.

Certainly, problems with literary awards exist everywhere, even (or especially) in the house of the biggest one, the Nobel. After last October’s prize, Adam Gopnik wrote:

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

A kind of Devil’s Theory of Value seems to rule: A prize is always assumed to be shining, intact; it is those wrong prize-winners who are discredited by it. When we win it, the world will be restored to its proper balance. We blame the winners, not the prize, for the errors. Why should this be so? The bleakest theory is that the purpose of a literary prize is not to reward the deserving but to provoke conversation and controversy within a community. When a prize goes to a Brodsky or a Milosz or a Walcott, the way that once in a blue moon a decent apartment goes to a newcomer in Manhattan, it keeps the game alive.

Gopnik’s is, of course, hardly the bleakest theory on offer. (I can associate a few bleaker ones with Ghaddafi.) If Arabic literary awards were “only” to provoke conversation and controversy, well, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.