Literary prizes: A brief overview and discussion of literary prizes with examples from the Afrikaans literary field

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Literary prizes have a long history in most literary fields and are known to generate media attention for authors and other literary role players, such as publishers. It has become an important mechanism of canonisation, especially since commercial attention is increasingly becoming a determining factor within the broader cultural field. Traditionally, literary prizes have, however, not been a topic that garnered much academic interest. The reason for this lacuna concerning academic research relates to the hierarchical nature of all cultural prizes, as well as the broader field of literary evaluation, and the perception that it is, therefore, too subjective a process to be investigated scientifically. The phenomenon of literary prizes also tends to be accompanied by showmanship and controversy which the academic literary establishment often finds distasteful. In this article we argue that literary prizes are, however, an important part of the literary field today. Literary critics and researchers who aim to understand how the literary field functions need to be cognisant of the role and impact of prizes.

We explore literary prizes with regard to their history in the cultural field and the proliferation of prizes in the past few decades; the acquisition and exchange of capital – specifically in the symbolic sense – that is part and parcel of the award process; prizes as a canonisation mechanism and the changing nature of literary gatekeepers; the role and impact of prizes within the literary field; and lastly controversy as a distinct characteristic of the awards circuit. Examples from the Afrikaans field are employed to expand on the discussion.

Concerning theory, the framework of literary evaluation is utilised as well as James F. English’s (2005) seminal text on cultural prizes, The economy of prestige, which is still relevant nearly two decades after publication. The currently available research on the Afrikaans, English and Dutch literary prizes is referenced as well as the field theory of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s work is discussed at length in English’s book as well as in most of the research articles on prizes we reference. Concepts such as symbolic capital, social capital, symbolic power and the production of belief are integral to the understanding of the role of awards within the literary field, as the gains derived from the winning of a literary prize are not mainly monetary, even though prize money can be substantial (especially when funded by commercial organisations as is the case, for example, with the kykNET-Rapport Book Prizes in Afrikaans). Important prizes within a literary field (the Ingrid Jonker Prize may serve as an example in the Afrikaans field) do not necessarily involve large amounts of money for the authors of the winning texts. Furthermore, popular fiction, rather than more academically acclaimed texts, are the best sellers in most literary fields even though being crowned with a literary prize can increase book sales. When it comes to literary awards, the rewards gained can best be described as symbolic capital, a term famously used by Bourdieu (1993, 1994) to explain the functioning of the literary field.

Symbolic capital indicates recognition and prestige. Social capital, another term employed by Bourdieu to refer to status and influence, is also very relevant on the awards circuit. Authors who win many literary prizes can even become literary celebrities in a particular literary field. With this in mind, the role of showmanship and controversy becomes apparent, since celebrity feeds off publicity – something which literary awards seem to generate, particularly when contention and disputes accompany the prize or prize event. To illustrate this phenomenon of media attention several Afrikaans examples are mentioned in the article, such as the controversy surrounding the impact of Afrikaner nationalism on certain historical awards made by the South African Academy for Science and Art, the non-awarding of the Ingrid Jonker Prize in 2010, the race debacle surrounding the judging of the Media24 Books Literary Awards in 2020 and Johann de Lange’s recent refusal of the South African Literary Award (SALA) for Poetry in 2021. As many researchers have noted, capital intraconversion is, therefore, an important aspect of literary prizes. Winners (and, in some cases, nominees as well) gain symbolic or social capital after receiving a literary award. This leads to media attention which results in economic gains and symbolic capital for other agents (such as publishers) involved in the production of the prizewinning text. The celebrity status of the winners also promotes the symbolic and cultural capital of the prize as well as of the organisation which issues the prize.

English (2005) repeatedly makes the point that there has been a “proliferation of modern cultural prizes” since the 1900s. This development is also apparent in Afrikaans, although somewhat later in the 20th century and 21st century than abroad. Literary prizes as a form of literary evaluation essentially contribute to the canonisation of literature, just like other forms of literary evaluation, such as literary criticism and literary education / academia. The argument is, however, made by some researchers that literary criticism (as well as education) is being replaced by new gatekeepers such as new types of literary prizes and social media. Websites dedicated to books, like Goodreads, and social media groups, like the Afrikaans Facebook group Lekkerleesboekrak, play an increasingly large role in the marketing and reviewing of books. Literary prizes of a commercial nature are also playing an increasingly important role. Traditionally scientific academies or organisations with government affiliations dominated the award sector. To this day a prize such as the renowned Hertzog Prize of the South African Academy for Science and Art is the most important literary prize in Afrikaans. Prizes of a large monetary value and wide media reach, like the kykNET-Rapport Book Prizes in Afrikaans, are, however, also growing in importance. This trend of shifts in the type of gatekeeping in a literary field is a worldwide phenomenon and is resulting in a more rapid canonisation process, often influenced by commercial factors.

De Nooy (1988) created categories or statuses to distinguish between the importance and canonising impact of various literary awards. He placed older awards with large prize money for oeuvres, administrated by academies or the government, first (such as the Hertzog Prize); then smaller yet established prizes with longer histories and/or big prize money in the middle group (for example the kykNET-Rapport Book Prizes, W.A. Hofmeyr Prize and the Ingrid Jonker Prize in Afrikaans); and debut prizes with small prize money and short histories (such as the Protea Poetry Prize in Afrikaans) in the last or “lowest” category. De Nooy’s categories are somewhat dated today, and as illustrated in the article the division of existing literary prizes into the different categories is problematic.

With regard to the role of prizes, various impacts (social, institutional, political, ideological and economical) are mentioned and briefly discussed together with relevant examples from the Afrikaans literary field. Ultimately, the awards process is part of what Bourdieu calls the production of belief which lies at the root of the formation of the literary field. It consists in the idea that art (or literature) has intrinsic value which can be identified through processes such as literary evaluation. Awards, according to this belief, can and should judge literature in a sort of political, social and economic vacuum and reward “the best text”. In this article we try to unpack the process and role of awards by exploring the phenomenon as not merely a mechanism to identify “the best literature”. We also aim to illustrate the importance of prizes when it comes to the understanding of the functioning of the literary field and literary gatekeeping today.

Keywords: Afrikaans literary field; Pierre Bourdieu; canonisation; gatekeeping; literary evaluation; literary prizes

  • The featured image by Arek Socha (qimono) of this article was sourced from Pixabay.

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