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A Special Plea on Nigeria Prize for Literature, By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The celebrated season of the Nigeria Prize for Literature always ends on the note of winner-takes-all. It is incumbent on me to plead now that the longlisted and shortlisted authors be also rewarded with cash. While the overall winner goes home with the grand prize of $100,000 it stands to reason to console the longlisted writers with $1,000 each while the shortlisted ones can be gifted with $5,000 each. I think this is a modern democratic ideal as opposed to the ancient one-man-standing of bull-fighting or the Russian roulette!

The 2022 longlist included Augusta’s Poodle by Ogaga Ifowodo, Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten by Iquo Diana Abasi, dispossessed by James Eze, Ife Testament by  Segun Adekoya, Memory and the Call of Water by  Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Nomad by  Romeo Oriogun, The Lilt of the Rebel by Obari Gomba, The Love Canticles by Chijioke Amu Nnadi, Wanderer Cantos by  Remi Raji, Yawns and Belches by  Joe Ushie and Your Crib, My Qibla by  Saddiq Dzukogi.

The eventually shortlisted three authors are Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Romeo Oriogun and Saddiq Dzukogi. It makes me feel somehow that only one out of these gifted poets will walk away with something while the rest are left barren.

Let’s take the example of the Booker Prize awards in Great Britain where in 2022 the winner will go home with the £50,000 grand prize while the six shortlisted authors will receive £2,500 each. It will not be a wrong move to go the way of the long-established Booker Prize.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature has always been open to change in its affairs as it always engages the general public and the media toward the improvement of the award over the years. This way, the prize money has been increased from the initial $20,000 in 2004 to $30,000 in 2006, $50,000 in 2008, and finally $100,000 in 2011.

The essence of literary awards happens to be the exposure of books and not just bagging the ultimate title as an end in itself. The more books that are given the exposition through the stages of the awards will render more clout to the exercise. There is the tendency for perennial contenders, who are eventually unrewarded, to lose interest in a way that detracts all meaning to the drive for literary awareness.

One champion does not a community make. The call for diversity should make as many books as possible to be showcased. Giving all attention to that one book that wins the prize detracts from the multiplicity of voices needed to give a rounded education to the community.

Literary judgement is fraught with idiosyncrasies such that even the real best book can never ever be determined by even the greatest assemblage of judges. A book that ought to have won could end up being discarded. The books that somehow beat the odds to get to the point of being shortlisted or longlisted deserve recognition in monetary compensation.

While the prize winner can go with the accolade of “best novel of the year” or “best play of the year “or the finest collection of poetry”, there is the concomitant matter of not leaving all the runners-up in the lurch. While in Britain and the United States there are established publishers for the marketing of books, Nigeria still lags behind in not having clearly defined book-publishing organs. Most of the Nigerian publishers are printers who make no returns as royalties to authors. There should be no denying of these striving authors of any monetary rewards that may come their way through literary awards.

It is not for nothing that most Nigerian authors organize the elaborate launching of their books so that they can at the very least cover the printing costs of the books. A book produced on such arduous terms that goes all the way to the shortlist or longlist of the Nigeria Prize for Literature deserves to win some money for the effort!

Writers abroad enjoy the services of astute publishers, experienced editors, savvy marketers and dutiful publicists. The Nigerian writer is what is known as the one-man-riot squad because he intervolves himself in all aspects of the publishing trade before he can ever get a book out there. Waiting for a publisher to help him along the line would amount to waiting for Godot.

If Britain where correct publishing thrives can reward shortlisted authors with cash prizes, what stops Nigerian literary award organizers from doing the needful? This would do a world of good toward enlarging the creative process in Nigeria.

Time was when Nigeria had proper publishing as represented by foreign-owned companies such as Heinemann, Longmans, Macmillan, Evans, Oxford University Press etc. That time is gone, and most Nigerian authors must perforce pay the so-called publishers to print their books sans editing, marketing or any publicity whatsoever.

As the NLNG put out in its mission statement as per setting up the Nigeria Prize for Literature, “prior to inauguration of the Prize, the quality of writing, publishing, news features and articles in newspapers and magazines, and the quality of film production on television and radio did not paint a picture of the excellence the industry was previously known for.”

These authors who struggle past these Herculean odds to get to the longlist or shortlist deserve to be monetized!

The NLNG goes ahead to stress: “It therefore became evident to us at Nigeria LNG that a well-run literary prize with transparent adjudication process, administered by respected academics, writers and lovers of literature, and with respectable monetary reward will spur creativity and contribute to the improvement of the quality of writing, editing and publishing in Nigeria. The rest, as they say, is history.”

It is my plea that the “respectable monetary reward” that will spur creativity should be spread across board beyond the one-person winner. Creativity will grow in leaps and bounds once the erstwhile denied runners-up are encouraged through some monetary rewards due them in the dire Nigerian scheme of things. The NLNG remains a listening organization, and I can count on the management to help the authors of Nigeria by way of this special plea.             

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