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Will literary prizes outlive the pandemic? The DSC Prize’s Surina Narula has an answer

  • Published at 04:11 pm May 4th, 2020
Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the DSC Prize 2019, receiving the trophy from Pradeep Gyawali, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal.
Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the DSC Prize 2019, receiving the trophy from Pradeep Gyawali, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal.

Publishing and the Pandemic

I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that there could be a connection between a virus and a literary prize, yet here I am writing about the coronavirus and its impact on literary prizes. These are strange times, but it has never been so calm and beautiful. With death tapping on our shoulders and the virus playing hide and seek, we have all settled down into hibernation, and invited the birds and the animals to use our spaces till we can reclaim them.

It’s a beautiful world which has been brought into sharp focus by a tiny virus. What is ironic is that something designed to kill us is teaching us the importance of life and what really matters.

So, what is going to change in the literary world with this lockdown imposed upon us by this microscopic creature?

Let’s start by looking at the positives. With the lockdown firmly in place in most countries and families staying at home, people are starting to read a lot more. New reading lists are being assiduously shared and old favorites are being re-read.

Reading habits will change because we have to depend more on the digital and electronic media rather than the usual hard copy. Quite a few of my friends who hated the Kindle are now reading books on it because the publishing industry is not able to print fresh copies and book stores are shut. Holding a newspaper in our hands and reading the daily news over breakfast is giving way to receiving e-newspapers in our mailboxes. I do not know whether this sudden movement to the electronic and digital media was always inevitable, but I do recognize that it is not easy for everyone to make this transition.

Literary prizes, too, may have to consider the possibility of sending electronic books to the jury to read and evaluate. Will the jury be comfortable with this? Will it affect their reading? What about the notes and comments they tend to scribble down on the books for later reference? At this time we can only imagine the situation, we have no means of knowing for sure how it will pan out.

I guess prizes will only be able to take a call once the availability of books is assessed a few months down the line. The other thing that literary prizes will have to consider if the lockdown gets extended is the viability of holding longlist, shortlist and winner announcement events. If approvals for public gatherings are not forthcoming, these announcements may have to be made through a press release, without an actual on-ground ceremonies.

The virus among other things has also thrown up issues of commercialization, fake values and serious philosophical questions. Governments are putting in place new legislation which may not change after the pandemic, which will allow literature to play a greater role in uncovering truths, while censorship may become stronger and there could be an impact on the seamless global distribution of books.

I think the virus will open our mind to reading a lot more than we have ever done and therefore strangely this may be the positive connection we are looking at between the virus and literature. There are two sides to every coin. While the virus is opening up the world for animals, birds, flowers and the environment on the whole, and trying to teach us humans to give up on greed, it also threatens to change the world order in a way that could hurt democracies, the poor and the needy.

Artists, writers and poets are coming together to provide solace and hope, and document the reality of what this may mean to future generations. In a time of crisis one has often seen the most poignant literature and music being composed. We may have new authors and new writing emerge during and after the pandemic. 

The question is: Will all the literary prizes still be around, and will they have the wherewithal and resources to continue in the same fashion as before? After all, an economic crisis and a financial crunch will definitely follow the pandemic.

Coming to the funding side of a literary prize, if it is being sponsored by a private company, it may be hard to convince them to continue during a financial crisis. On the other hand if prizes have the backing of a trust that has been set up specifically for it the funding will continue even during a crisis, like the Nobel Prize does.

Moving on to our prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, it was instituted a decade ago, in 2010, with the specific vision of encouraging fiction writing pertaining to the South Asian region. Initially the prize was awarded at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which we were a sponsor of, and we saw a synergy as well as an opportunity to promote the cause of South Asian literature.

Thereafter in line with our South Asian DNA, and to support writing in other countries in the region, the prize has become peripatetic in nature and has announced its winner in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal in recent years. As the prize was a privately funded effort, it took a lot to continue in an era of economic downturn, especially in the infrastructure sector where the parent company operated in.

A couple of years ago we started the South Asian Literature Prize & Events Trust, which administers the prize, and we hope it will sustain the prize over a period of time. Apart from administering the prize, the trust will also engage in social initiatives across different segments of South Asian society to build awareness for education and interest in reading, especially South Asian literature. It is the sheer dedication of a few people behind the prize that it is still existing and moving forward in these difficult times. 

The administration of our prize, which takes a huge amount of time and effort, may continue with fewer resources, but our love and commitment for the prize will ensure that the final experience for the writers, jury members and the readers remains as enriching as before.

The virus has arrived to break the proverbial camel’s back and the publishing industry has been severely affected. This in turn directly affects literary prizes, which depend on publishers to submit entries. The DSC Prize is an international literary prize and is open to publishers and authors from any part of the world as long as the novels entered are about South Asian life, culture and its people.

As a result, over the last five years, about 30% of our entries have been submitted by publishers from beyond India and South Asia, from countries like the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and South Africa. This means that even if the publishing industry in a couple of countries remains in the doldrums because of the pandemic, there will be publishers from other countries who will step up with their entries. This is the tenth year of the DSC Prize, and we are determined to find a way forward even though there will be a slight delay in the calendar as compared to previous years.

I don’t think the virus can shake businesses that are on a good footing to start with, but businesses that were on the brink before the virus hit may be hard to sustain. Literature and prizes were not really a fashionable business before the Jaipur Literature Festival, which made literature and writers more newsy and accessible to the public at large.

Prior to this there were literature festivals and prizes of a more serious and closed-door nature that existed in India, where literature was considered the sole prerogative of the intellectuals, and mere readers weren’t allowed to interact or debate with the authors. This whole business of making literature accessible to everybody was only achieved a few years ago, and this has made the literary environment much more sustainable.

The virus may affect mega gatherings like literature festivals and sponsorship from the usual businesses may dry up because of the economic downturn. However, now that the reach of literature is wider, I feel that there will always be people who will come forward and provide a means to promote books and authors. Literary prizes, too, will continue to exist because patrons will find ways of contributing to society and the arts, while also furthering their own marketing and philanthropic needs.

Surina Narula is the co-founder of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

(This article first appeared on Scroll.in) 

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