Singapore Writers Festival 2012: Day 1

by Zafar Anjum

The first session that I attended on Saturday, 3 November (day 1 of the SWF 2012) was a panel discussion titled ‘Of Book Awards and Bestsellers’. The panel featured Shin Kyung-Sook, Michael Cunningham and Brian Castro and was moderated by Stephen McCarty. Except for a bad sound system, it was an interesting session.

Michael, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, talked about his experience of judging the Pulitzer Prize. The discussion ranged from the usual topic of prizes being used as opportunities to create marketing buzz for nominated writers/winners (and so being rigged by publishers) to the necessity of having prizes at all when all that publishers cared about was sales. Michael stressed the fact that prizes are necessary, especially to discover new talent, and should support talented new writers. However, this does not mean that eminent writers, if they are deserving in a particular year, should be bypassed for a prize in favour of a younger, lesser known writer just to support new talent.

He said that every year is not the same in terms of prize-worthy books. There might be seven prize-worthy books in a year and there might be none the next year. So, it all depends.

Michael also discussed about the biases judges might have regarding books and the certain tendencies they have that might affect the neutrality of a prize. For example, he said that he personally cared a lot about language in a book (‘Ah, look at those sentences’) but other judges might care more for a plot or a story. The judges should be aware of each other’s weaknesses in this sense to reach a neutral decision.

So, what kind of book should win a prize? The panel agreed that a book, no matter who has published it and how many copies, that is beautifully written,  has something new and different to tell, should win a prize.

More coming soon

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