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Books Column: We need new (literary) awards


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Perhaps it’s time to do away with South Africa’s literary awards – or, rather, scrap the old prizes in favour of new ones.

Have you heard about the latest scandal to rock South Africa’s beleaguered bunch of literary awards?

I thought not.

Have a guess, then. Is it –

(a) The country’s most prestigious awards, the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction, seem to have vanished without so much as a whisper of explanation, having last been heard from in September 2019, when that year’s winners – possibly the final two? – were announced.

(b) The country’s most insular awards, the Media24 Books Literary Prizes – which are given to in-house titles – set a new standard for, well, insularity, by recognising only white writers this year. (They went seven for seven – quite an outrageous feat).

(c) It’s 26 years into democracy and, of South Africa’s major literary prizes, just three are named for black writers. Bonus points if you can list the three. Hint: one writer lends his name to two of them.

If you answered ‘all of the above’, you’ve been paying attention.

I’ve been paying attention, too – but that’s all I’ve been doing. At a Zoom-powered writing residency that I attended last week, two writers I admire reminded me that it’s past time to do more – that the age of ‘the writer as witness’ has expired. Cracks to a new world are showing through – thanks, first, to the severe sanding down that Covid-19 is giving the old order, and, second, to the earthquake of activism that has shaken nations around the globe from the epicentre of George Floyd’s murder in the United States. 

Now is not the time, in other words, to count yourself among the best who lack all conviction, with apologies to Yeats. Now is the time to help shepherd the world away from those who are full of passionate intensity about, for example, how statues stand for history. (Statues do, of course, but not in the way such people think.) 

If our literary awards were statues, a colleague of mine pointed out in the wake of the Media24 Books scandal, many would have fallen by now. 

What would we have in their place? Let’s help widen the cracks to the new world and conjure up some fresh prizes for our books.

First on our list of (currently) fictitious awards is the Peter Abrahams Prize, given annually for a novel. Abrahams, born in Vrededorp, is celebrated in many places outside South Africa – including Jamaica, where he died – but you’ll barely hear a word about him in domestic literary circles. That’s eminently fixable: put his name on a weighty gong.

Running literary awards is a difficult business – I know because I ran the Sunday Times awards for a couple of years.

Next, consider the Noni Jabavu Award for Non-Fiction. If ever there was a citizen of the world from South Africa, Jabavu was it. Her two memoirs criss-crossed the Atlantic like very few South African books do; their mere existence would have been barely comprehensible to the white men who ruled her home country. Keep them rolling in their graves: have her headline a large cheque.

Finally, what do you say to the Es’kia Mphahlele Lifetime Achievement Award? Call it The Dean’s award for short. Mphahlele’s name deserves equal billing with South Africa’s most celebrated writers, yet his memory lies in neglect. Wake everyone up: organise three weeks of wall-to-wall media adulation for whomever wins the prize to end all prizes bearing his name.

All three of these writers, who together contributed so much to world letters, had to leave South Africa to find creative freedom. This makes the association of their names with awards celebrating artistic struggle and triumph all the more apt, of course. All three were also born in 1919, meanwhile, and share centenaries that went largely unmarked last year, to our collective shame. 

If we’re seeking figures to assist with an ‘insurgent recontextualisation’ – to borrow a phrase from a professor I follow on Twitter – of our literary landscape, we would do well to recognise writers like Abrahams, Jabavu and Mphahlele.

Running literary awards is a difficult business – I know because I ran the Sunday Times awards for a couple of years. They’re expensive, they require an inordinate accumulation of human hours, they attract controversy all out of proportion to their ultimate significance, and they hardly move the needle when it comes to sales (in the SA market, at least). Frankly, they’re a nightmare. If they all disappeared – something that may be happening? – only the writers and their publishers would likely notice.

But awards also stand for a dream, the dream that we best know ourselves through our books. The old awards, those rough beasts, can slouch offstage, now, and hang out with the statues for 20 centuries of stony sleep. We need new ones. What doughty falconer out there is ready to pick up the tab? DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.