Literary awards are geared towards increasing the productivity of writers as well as bringing out the best in them by showing appreciation for work well done. They aim to encourage established writers to hone their craft as well as to inspire more people to write. However, judging by the situation of literature in Nigeria, it is obvious that many things are still needed to make the exercise worthwhile.
The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), founded in 1981 with novelist Chinua Achebe as its inaugural president, represents Nigerian creative writers at home and abroad. The Association collaborates with organisations and individuals in the country with the objectives of encouraging a culture of writing and reading.
ANA has had a great impact on the business of identifying promising Nigerian writers through its association with Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited, with which it created the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The Prize was launched in 2004 and aims to improve the quality of writing, editing, proofreading and publishing in the country. It is awarded annually to the best work by a Nigerian writer and alternates among four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children's fiction. The prize money was initially $20,000 but has since increased to $100,000. ANA also oversees a number of other prizes, but the NLNG-sponsored award is the best known.
The Engineer Mohammed Bashir Karaye Prize for Hausa Writing (founded in 2007 by the widow of the prize's namesake) is funded by the Bashir Karaye Foundation and is also administered by the ANA. In 2009, the prize was split into two categories: one for prose and one for drama. The total prize money is N600,000, with the winner in each category taking N150,000 and two runners-up taking N100,000 and N50,000
There is also the Wole Soyinka Literary Prize, which is now sponsored by Globacom, a telecommunication coy. It is a pan-African writing prize launched in 2005 by the Lumina Foundation for books of any type or genre. It is awarded every other year and the winner receives $20,000 with entries entered in either English or French. It is awarded every other year and the winner receives $20,000.
However, despite the best efforts of these institutions, there has been little or no improvement in the sustainable development of Nigerian literature. The reason for this is not hard to grasp: there is too much emphasis laid on the cash prize when the focus ought to be on promoting the revival of our reading culture for the intellectual development of Nigerian society. The literary prizes may make winners rich but they do not necessarily make the Nigerian public more literature-conscious as many of the prize-winning books do not reach the majority of the country’s citizens.
There must be a holistic approach that will take into consideration every aspect of literary production, including a strong reading culture, workshops on creative writing, editing and publishing outfits and writing residencies. Bodies in charge of Nigerian literary awards should sponsor these ventures as a matter of urgency.
There is a need to create awareness about Nigerian books and encourage public interest in reading, for example by organising reading competitions and creating mobile libraries. Partnering with publishing outfits to ensure that continuous reprints of award winners' works are available for libraries and bookshops would help as many such books are often difficult to track down. Libraries and bookshops can also play a key role by getting more award-winning books on their shelves and raising awareness about them either through book reviews or posters.
More efforts are also needed to increase the productivity of our writers and broaden their perspectives. Other ethnic groups should try and emulate the Karaye Prize and establish prizes for works written in their indigenous languages.
Furthermore, ANA's approach in handling its awards is not appropriate enough. Alternating among four literary genres cannot adequately encourage writers to be productive as, for instance, once a poet is declared winner one year, other poets will have to wait for another four years before their works can be considered for the award. Instead of the alternation, writers in each of the four genres should be recognised annually.
All hands should be on deck to ensure that the impact of literary awards in Nigeria can extend beyond the mere competition for cash prizes and the glitz and individual glory attached to the ceremony.
This piece was first posted on August 28, 2012.