American writer George Saunders recently won the Man Booker Prize 2017 for his experimental novel Lincoln In The Bardo based on the tale that Abraham Lincoln sneaked into the crypt of his dead boy to cradle him. His novel is expected to see a multifold surge in the number of copies sold, given that last year’s winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, saw sales jump by 658 percent in the week following the announcement. But, is this a universal trend for all literary prizes?
Indian authors would disagree. Barring major international literary awards like Man Booker, Pulitzer, and the Nobel, literary awards, more or less, fail to make a significant impact when it comes to books sales. Even the Indian literary awards like DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Hindu Prize, and Crossword Awards either don’t create any impact on the sales or the impact is so little or infrequent that it is negligible.
In an interview with us, noted translator Arunava Sinha too said that literary awards had ‘stopped making an impact because not many people seem to care about them now’. Yet discarding the local literary prizes would mean certain death for quality fiction emerging from the sub-continent.
Though Indian publishing industry is poised to grow at a rate of over 19 percent, most of the growth attributes to the education sector with the publication of academic books. The space for literary fiction is also growing albeit at a rate inconsistent with the rest of the publishing industry. There is a certain decline in readership and the crisis in literary fiction is a global one. In the age of two-click Instagramming and on-the-tap tweeting, the luxury of reading has been thrown out of the window. Genre fiction isn’t hit, rather writers like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi have been record-breaking deals. It’s the other end of the literary spectrum which is. And this is where literary awards serve as guards to an empire under siege.
Literary prizes do more than just enrich writers or get them through lean patches. They serve as a seal stamping that whatever the writer has written or will write stands out in terms of the quality of fiction. They serve as a lighthouse flickering in the haze of genre fiction which either dumbs down the narrative to appeal to the masses or resorts to cookie-cutter stories that have been written and rewritten endlessly. They bring forth the finest writing and storytelling which, according to a number of studies, is essential to enhance socialisation in a society that is increasingly and dangerously displaying faux pas social traits.
One award not just highlights one work of merit but a multitude of books that are either shortlisted or longlisted in the process of determining the winner. If there is an Arundhati Roy, there is also a Kalpana Swaminathan.
But every award needs time to grow. Even the Booker prize, when it was institutionalised, took a decade to generate a ‘significant interest in sales’. Indian literary prizes for writing in English have been relatively new. The $50,000 DSC Prize was first awarded in 2011, The Hindu Prize in 2010 and Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2008.
Whether literary awards survive the test of time or not, it can’t be prophesized. What does remain true, as what Booker-winning author Margaret Atwood said, ‘you’re never going to kill storytelling. It’s built into the human plan.’