Awards discourage curiosity

Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah poses for a photo call prior to attending a press conference, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in London on October 8, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Keeping with its reputation, the Nobel Committee sprung another surprise this year by awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah. Like every year, names like Haruki Murakami, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others did the rounds. Mr. Gurnah’s award has disappointed all the speculators. The jury is out, and the readers are divided. Some also wonder if he is really that good, but we hear that every year, don’t we?

A safe choice

Often criticised for its Eurocentrism or affinity for obscure white writers, the Nobel Committee has made a safe decision by picking Mr. Gurnah. He hails from Tanzania and later escaped to Britain. Mr. Gurnah is the fifth writer from Africa to win the award. He is a writer of migration, displacement, post-colonial identity – all themes and issues that have come to dominate literary conversations the world over. These are also conversant with the realities of the world we live in today, where large-scale migration and refugee crisis make headlines every other day. Mr. Gurnah’s novels and stories therefore interest disciplines beyond literary studies, such as sociology and anthropology. This could also be seen as the Nobel Committee’s politically appropriate gesture after having made several controversial choices in the recent past. Writer and publishing expert Jane Friedman tweeted saying that Mr. Gurnah had only sold about 3,000 print copies in the U.S. market and his latest novel does not even have a U.S. publisher. Several writers retweeted her post drawing comfort from the fact that poor sales may not be the end of the road for them. Numbers are just a publishing game, after all.


Since the announcement of the award, Mr. Gurnah’s books are hard to find online or their price has considerably increased. Bookstores will also run out of copies they had stocked. There will be new commissions, translations into other languages will follow, upcoming book tours will be organised for the new Nobel Laureate. His publishers will benefit from the awards as all publishers do when one of their writers wins the big prize. It is nothing short of a publishing blitzkrieg.

An industry game

But does the Nobel Prize really change our lives as readers or the health of our literary cultures? The euphoria over the winner will eventually die down. The media will find another favourite in a few months. Another big award will be announced soon, and the same circus will follow. This is nothing more than an industry game. Numbers lead to more numbers. Mr. Gurnah has been an active writer and theorist of post-colonial studies for a long time. Why should we rely upon an award to discover him as a writer? Doesn’t that indicate a systemic problem? We also ought to probe the relevance of these awards to a generation that doesn’t seem to believe in the reputation that being published in certain forums, such as The New Yorker, brought once upon a time.

The problem with awards is their complete failure in creating curiosity among readers. The curiosity is always for the award or the individual winner and not for purposes of reading or literature in general. If philosopher and critic Roland Barthes were alive, he would have probably written an essay titled ‘Death of Curiosity’ bemoaning the literary culture we have become that lives in the shadow of awards. This is also the biggest fallout of neoliberal capitalism which creates momentary interest in an individual before finding another icon to replace the existing one. This obsession with the individual feeds into a culture of adulation and not critical questioning or self-reflection.


In India too, many awards celebrate the best in Indian writing. There’s no denying the fact that awards help writers find new readers and brings them some financial rewards which might help to start their next project or give them more time to work on their next book. But we cannot become a culture held hostage by awards which then determine what we read and how.

Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 7:04:39 AM |

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