‘Give Me the Names’: Should the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Release Names of All Submissions?

On the eve of the Booker longlist announcement, critic M.A. Orthofer went on at some length flogging one of his favorite horses: Transparency and the Man Booker Prize. So…what of transparency and the Arabic-language prize affiliated with the Booker?

There were more novels in contention for the 2012 Booker (at least 147) than there have been for past International Prizes for Arabic Fiction (IPAFs). But we don’t know which 147, just as we don’t know which novels have been in contention for the IPAF.

We do know the names of a few of the titles, as some publishers announce which titles they’ve submitted: Dar Merit, for instance, and Kotob Khan Books. And we do know a few that aren’t in contention, because some novelists announce that they refuse to be in the running (and authors must “sign off” on being submitted).

We also can guess that, in the early years of the IPAF, publishers submitted very few books by women.

I had asked prize administrator Fleur Montanaro about the lack of transparency, once upon a time. She said:

I think partly it’s so that authors, you know, who are not nominated don’t lose face, as such. And I think actually a lot of authors would prefer that, actually, not to be known. They might be disappointed. That’s one reason.

Orthofer disagrees. He writes:

It seems pretty obvious to me that, in claiming to judge anything, the least you can do is acknowledge who, or what you’re actually judging. The Man Booker folk (and many other literary prizes) fudge this by focusing on their ‘we’re-judging-the-best-book’-claim — without ever revealing what their starting point is. The Man Booker is a particularly egregious case of misrepresentation, since they, at this time, only allow each publisher to submit two titles — when, obviously, many publishers have many more titles that should or could be in the running.

Now, with the IPAF, each publisher gets three (not two), although judges have acknowledged that this is problematic: A giant publishing house like Dar el Shorouk gets three submissions, and they might have 10 very good titles. A tiny publishing house like Dar el Whatchamacallit also gets three, and maybe they only published three books in total, two of them by the publisher’s brother-in-law.

As with the Man Booker, IPAF judges also can “call in” extra books, although the motivation to do this has to be fairly low, since they’re already getting eye twitches from so much reading.

Orthofer notes, “Amazingly, transparency isn’t very popular. Few literary prizes allow it.” He cites a few literary prizes that do — the Guardian first book award, the Canadian Governor General’s awards, the IMPAC, the Best Translated Book Award.

Are those better prizes? Do they find better books? Well, I don’t know about that.

Would it put off authors if their books were listed as “in contention” for the IPAF? Surely it would for some; some are already uncomfortable with the idea of a horse-race literary prize.

Is there a value to transparency, to knowing what is being (and not being) considered for the prizes? Sure, yes, certainly.