EDITORIAL NWR Issue 33
"Book of the Year" debacle
The recent decision to award the Arts Council of Wales's 1996 'Book of the Year' prize to Nigel Jenkins's study of the Khasis in preference to R.S. Thomas's latest volume of poems, No Truce with the Furies
, beggars belief.
It is not that Jenkins's study is without merit; far from it. But to prefer it to the work of a poet of Thomas's reputation writing at the peak of his powers and in the very year in which the Arts Council itself has nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature is to bring into question the competence of the judging panel and once more throw into doubt the value of literary competitions.
Of course, all such competitions are incomplete these days without disputes, either amongst the jurors or amongst the public in general, and this has proved to be no exception. One of the three jurors, Belinda Humfrey, has expressed her unhappiness at the decision to which she was nevertheless party; the other two were Peter Stead and Hilary Llewellyn-Williams. With great respect to both of them, neither is a literary critic and it seems strange for the Arts Council of Wales to convene a literary competition and then to select as jurors those whose practising and professional qualifications lie outside criticism.
Mr Stead is an historian and commentator and biographer, inter alia, Ms Llewellyn-Williams a poet and reviewer; their views as jurors are no doubt interesting, but of no greater interest than anyone else's. What a 'Book of the Year' competition requires is the considered judgment of those habitually given to weighing such matters. Even if only literary critics were chosen to perform the task controversial decisions would be reached (not long ago Paul Ferris's biography of Caitlin Thomas was preferred to Gillian Clarke's latest book of poems), but one would at least hope that the rationale would be clearer.
So, one of the questions thrown up by the debacle is: who chooses the choosers? It would be helpful to have from the Arts Council of Wales a statement of their procedures: who selects the judges and how are they selected? That much, at least, ought to be in the public domain. We would also like to know from the two judges whose choice this was their reasons for making it were, as well as hearing from the dissenting juror why she felt unhappy with their decision.
We should also like to hear from our readers about the value they place on such competitions, for this is the most pressing question of all-is the Book of the Year a reward for excellent work based on literary criteria or is it primarily a promotional exercise whose main aim is to shift books and raise the profile of Welsh literature amongst the book-buying public? Some might think it should be both but the present unhappy experience suggests that you cannot compromise and the sooner literary pretensions are dropped or lived up to, the better. If you want the competition to be a literary affair, then appoint critics who command general respect; if you want a bit of publicity, then wheel on the celebrities. Lord Tonypandy, Sirs Anthony Hopkins and Harry Secombe, William Hague and all.
This problem is by no means unique to the Welsh Book of the Year. Competitions all over the world have had difficulty in trying to marry critical appreciation with marketing. We do not believe they have been particularly successful - who cares who wins the Booker? - and it is sad to see the Arts Council of Wales repeating their errors. Let us at least have some clarity of thought and clarity of purpose.
There is one ironical twist to all this: R.S. Thomas has won the Book of the Year award three times in the past. Surely, you might say, that literary worth has not been overlooked?
All - but it was the fourth time that mattered.
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