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Sunday, 12 June 2011





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How noble are Sri Lankan literary awards?

Continuing on the ongoing debate on the social currency of Sri Lankan literary awards, I would like to focus on Nobel Prize for literature and how it has earned its prestigious position in the literary world.

Nobel Prize for literature

Since French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907) won the first ever Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to any author from any country who has as Alfred Nobel himself mentioned in his last will and testament, produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

Although sometimes individual works may be cited as noteworthy, ‘work’ referred to here is an unabridged literary work of an author. The Swedish Academy nominated for the purpose will make its decision on, who will receive the prize in a given year.

In early October the Academy announces the shortlisted authors for the prize. The Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1885. The other Nobel Prizes include the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Physics, Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

However, the recent broad interpretation of the word ‘Idealistic’ or ‘Ideal’ in the Will to include English Translations for the Nobel Prize for Literature has generated a controversy about the prize.

The earlier strict interpretation of the Will had, in fact, deprived a galaxy of literary giants such as James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James of this most prestigious Prize for literature. Although the outstanding authors had not suffered due to the deprivation of the Nobel Prize for them, its reputation was somewhat tainted by the fact that it had not recognised true literary talents.

One may argue that the broad interpretation of the Prize would also lead to diverse interferences into the selection process and the possibility of considerations other than literature may influence the prize.

It has been stated that “The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm is when each a Nobel Laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden. ... Under the eyes of a watching world, the Nobel Laureate receives three things: a diploma, a medal, and a document confirming the prize amount".

What is important to bear in mind is not the monetary reward one may receive along with the prize but the international recognition accorded to the selected author.

Although the Nobel Prize for Literature was recently criticised, the Prize remains as the most prestigious literary award owing to its strict selection process. The official website of the Nobel Prize clearly outlines the selection process as follows:

Nomination and selection of literature laureates

The Nobel Committee sends invitation letters to persons who are qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other persons who are qualified to nominate, but who have not received invitations may also submit nominations. The names of the nominees and other information about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.

Process of nomination and selection

The Swedish Academy is responsible for the selection of the Nobel Laureates in Literature, and has 18 members. The Nobel Committee for Literature is the working body that evaluates the nominations and presents its recommendations to the Swedish Academy, and comprises four to five members.

The candidates eligible for the Literature Prize are those nominated by qualified persons who have received an invitation from the Nobel Committee to submit names for consideration. Other persons who are qualified to nominate but have not received invitations may also submit nominations. No one can nominate himself or herself.

There are a couple guidelines stipulating as to who would constitute the nominators of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The qualified nominators may be drawn from members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose, Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges, Previous Nobel Laureates in Literature and presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

Social currency of the Nobel Prize

It is noteworthy to observe the fact that the universal acclaim that the Nobel Prize for Literature has gained over the years despite some controversy over the selection process, is more or less due to its recognition of literary excellence.

Almost all the Nobel Prize winning literary works are outstanding literary works irrespective of the fact whether they are originally written in English or in their translations.

The Man Booker Prize also maintains its reputation largely due to the truly recognition of literary excellence. So far the selection process has been maintaining a higher degree of professionalism and objectivity in short listing and presenting awards for the selected literary work.

Award dependency

In comparison with The Nobel Prize for Literature and a host of other literary awards such as The Man Booker Prize, Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, what seems to be absent in Sri Lankan literary awards, both for Sinhalese and English literary productions, is professionalism and objectivity in the selection process.

The emphasis seems to be on personal or different kinds of relationships between the author and the selection committee or the panel of judges rather than on the literary excellence of the works submitted for the selection.

Unlike the authors who won and shortlisted for international literary awards, some authors seem to depend on awards to prop up their public image and to make a quick sale exploiting the reputation of the awards.

However, the fact remains that literary zest of the book is in the reading and ultimately what matters for readers is not the award-tag on the book but the literary excellence of the book which would in some way enrich their lives.

It is high time that Sri Lankan readers should ponder on whether Sri Lankan literary awards, so far, have lived up to their noble objectives often enunciated in their brochures.

If the selected literary productions are not worthy of the literary award conferred, marketing strategies and grand ceremonies would reduce to mocking theatrical exercises amusing the readers on annual basis.



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