“Some people won’t buy your book unless they see that winner thing on the cover. I am not sure if it is all good – but that is the way the industry works.”
This statement was made by award-winning author Helon Habila in an interview with African Writing Online. His comment speaks to the anxiety of many readers who want know if a book has won an award before reading it as - presumably - the more decorated the author, the better the book. Since reading his comment, I have been wondering about the great books we miss and the writers we neglect (not to mention the knowledge we miss out on) because such work has not received “official” recognition. Aside from the money made from publishing books or the need to tell stories, one major reason why many people are drawn to writing as a career is the desire to be famous. And being famous these days seems to stem from the number of awards accrued during your career, rather than the quality and timelessness of your work.
In the article ”What makes a book great?” Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon, suggests that many supposedly great books (award-winners amongst them) are not quite as great as they are made out to be. She argues that “the space between the poles of personal preference and the notion of objective merit is where the electricity of literary prizes is generated,” suggesting that it is difficult to distinguish between what is truly a great novel, and what has been deemed so by a group of people who may or may not be friends with the shortlisted authors or simply looking to assert their own literary importance. In another related article, Miller argues that prizes are becoming “the means by which many people now decide which books to buy, when they bother to buy books at all,” referring to the US's National Books Awards “vanity book awards – a new twist in the age-old practice of profiting off the dreams of aspiring writers” in disgust. Many award-winning authors have delivered below expectations on occasion. Growing up, I fell in love with the works of multiple award-winninghorror author Stephen King, John Grisham (recipient of the Peggy V Helmerich Distinguished Author Award), and Sidney Sheldon (an Academy Award-winning American writer). But sometimes they have let me down – take, for instance, Grisham’s A Painted House (I’m sure some of your favourite award-winning authors might have failed you at one time or the other too). I recently decided to read any book I come across – whether the writer has won an award or not – based solely on my feelings about the synopsis printed on its back. You would be amazed if I told you how much I had missed out on by neglecting certain books because their authors are not award winners: from Femi Oguntuase’s Scoundrels in Uniform to Bartholomew Gill’s The Death of an Irish Tinker, and a host of other Nigerian and non-Nigerian novels. Prizes have come to assume much significance in the Nigerian literary industry. Many people believe that in order for an author to be taken seriously, he or she has to have won a string of prizes - whether from ANA, NLNG, or the Lumina Foundation. This aspect of the book industry, as noted by Habila, is problematic and needs immediate attention not only from its major players but also from us, the consumers, especially as it was not always the case. As prolific and entertaining as Cyprian Ekwensi was, he only received one award over the course of his sixty-year writing career. If we continue to read books based on the number of awards won by their authors, Ekwensi would be quickly forgotten – and how bad would that be? Similarly, with all the books Chinua Achebe wrote, many expected him to be crowned a Nobel Laureate, but this was not the case. This does not detract from the excellence of books such as Things Fall Apart, Chike and the River, Arrow of God, and Anthills of the Savannah. Kola Onadipe was another great writer known for his engaging stories for children. With over twenty-two books to his credit, including Koku Baboni, Sugar Girl, and The Boy Slave, Onadipe never received any awards but the quality of his work speaks for itself. If the award-winning mind-set held sway in Onadipe’s time as it does today, perhaps his work would have gone unrecognised and he would have lost interest in writing. It is time we stopped looking to see the label ‘award-winning’ on the cover of a book before reading it. We as readers should let the focus be on the joy of reading, not on the author's accolades. What influences your decisions regarding the books you read? Share your thoughts in the comments.