Monday, June 29, 2009

In praise of prizes

You might remember that in January I published a post (Local stays lekker), confessing that two of my favourite books of last year happened to be South African, nothing to do with patriotism, just pure reading pleasure. So I was thrilled earlier this month when Anne Landsman and Michiel Heyns won two of the top literary awards in the country, the M Net Prize and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, for The Rowing Lesson and Bodies Politic respectively.

Congratulations to two novelists who really deserve recognition - quite apart from the fact that I count them among my own favourites.

As all readers know, literary awards can be a frustrating business. Sometimes you hate the book being crowned, sometimes you can't understand why a wonderful book has been overlooked. Awards are the fruit of so much more than literary merit, depending on the personal tastes and moods of the judges, on politics and publishers' promotion, on timeliness and luck and sometimes even on the looks or age of the writer.

Which is why the French Prix de l'Inapercu, also recently awarded, is such a great idea. It could be translated as Prize of the Unnoticed - and it does exactly that. It notices the unnoticed, awards a deserving book that somehow got lost among the stacks of books published each year, suffering the sad fate of being ignored by critics as well as buyers. This year the winner is Dominique Conil's En espérant la guerre (Hoping for War), published by Actes Sud, which now gets a second chance to be seen in book shops, talked about on radio, reviewed by magazines - and, of course, discovered by readers.

I wonder if other countries have similar second-chance awards? Any means of informing discerning readers of good writers they might otherwise never discover, gets an enthusiastic shout of approval from me. As it is, I live in dread that somewhere out there is a really GREAT contemporary author whom I might not get to know before I die. You know what I mean?

Until about two years ago, for instance, I'd never come across the name - let alone read the all too rare novels - of Marilynne Robinson, who recently won the prestigeous British Orange Prize. My ignorance might be excused by the fact that this American author published only two novels in a quarter of a century - Housekeeping in 1980 and Gilead in 2004, the first nominated for and the second winning the Pulitzer Prize - not what you would call a prolific output. Fortunately for all her fans she seems to be entering a more productive phase. Home, the novel awarded the Orange Prize, was published a mere four years after Gilead.

I haven't read Home yet, but Housekeeping was such a delightful (albeit belated) discovery that I can't wait to renew the acquaintance. When it comes to really good writing, it is always a case of rather late than never. Or as we say in Afrikaans: Agteros kom ook in die kraal. Even a lagging ox eventually gets to the kraal of literary joy.