Book ’em! How literary awards are getting up close and personal

The Welsh literary world is using its awards ceremonies as a way of making authors and their books more accessible to the public. Nathan Bevan speaks to the man behind one of the industry’s biggest prizes to find out more

We all love award ceremonies, the excitement, the glamour, the red carpet – can’t get enough of it.

And who doesn’t like winning awards and being recognised by one’s peers? Exactly, nobody.

But are such nights of glitter and gongs as suited to the book world as they are its film and musical counterparts, and who benefits most from the whole idea of literature as a horse race – the small number of writers who get nominated, the booksellers who flog their work and whoever’s behind printing those ‘nominated for’ and ‘winner of’ stickers that materialise on the dust jackets of titles the moment they’re shortlisted?

“Hopefully it’s a combination of the first two,” laughs cultural historian Professor Peter Stead, founder and chairman of the biennial University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize, the prestigious award for young writers under the age of 30.

“That said, I was in a book shop recently and saw the new paperback version of a South Africa-set title we short-listed last year – Andrea Eames’ The White Shadow – and on the front on it were the words ‘Dylan Thomas Prize nominated’ in big gold letters. I’ll admit, I was quite thrilled.”

And Prof Stead adds that just to have been listed as a contender for its whopping £30,000 top award – one of the largest in the literary world – could be seen as an honour in itself.

“There’s a notion that if someone doesn’t win the whole thing then they’ve failed, but it’s no disgrace whatsoever to be listed and not win. Some very, very good books often miss out on the top prize. However, to be the proud recipient of that kind of money can be incredibly freeing for an author.

“A cash amount like that can give a person a year or two to concentrate solely on their work, be free of financial worry and go on to bigger and greater things, and I know that Rhondda’s Rachel Tresize – who was overall winner for her short story collection, Fresh Apples, at 2006’s inaugural ceremony – is full of praise for the way in which it helped her career progress. Equally, we take great pride in having played a part in that. But just to think that someone can be a published author by the time they reach their mid-20s is simply amazing to me.”

And while the money might be a big enabler – the annual Wales Book of the Year bash also offers £2,000 to the victors in its three main categories, plus an additional £6,000 to each year’s overall winner – Prof Stead explains that one of the most important elements of such awards is how they bring together authors and their audiences.

“I’ve seen from such events as the Hay Festival just how enormous an appetite there is to meet writers in the flesh,” smiles Stead, adding that short-listees from the Dylan Thomas Prize regularly visit schools and universities across Wales giving readings and participating in creative writing workshops to help inspire the next generation of young writers.

“Back in days of old when we largely borrowed books from libraries, authors were seen as these almost mythical figures – solipsistic JD Salinger-type shut-ins – when, in fact, they’re nothing of the sort.

“They’re flesh and blood just like you and I and love nothing more than to smile, laugh and talk to the folks that hang on the words they type. The sheer joy of that interaction makes them come alive.

“Of course, taken at its crudest level it’s just a more direct method of marketing one’s product, of raising the profile of some latest work or another and boosting its sales as a result.

“But there’s also a genuine frisson from both the writers and the readers at such get togethers, and if that inspires someone to seek out more books or even have a go penning their own then any award ceremony will have proved its worth.”

Robert Minhinnick, who’s won the Wales Book of the Year Award twice, says to be recognised for his achievements by his literary peers is even better than the public buying his work.

“There was a double satisfaction in getting the nod from those who understand exactly what you do,” says the 60-year-old from Porthcawl, whose travel odysseys Watching The Fire Eater and To Babel And Back bagged him the top spot in both 1993 and 2006.

“I didn’t expect to win the first time round, but to come up trumps twice was a privilege.

“What is more, it really made me much more confident in my writing and in my ability to develop myself further and have a go at penning novels and short stories.”


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