38th SIBF: Experts discuss how prizes affect book quality

Afkar Abdullah /Sharjah
Filed on November 9, 2019 | Last updated on November 9, 2019 at 10.36 pm


Four leading personalities from the Arab world took part in the discussion moderated by Salha Obeid.

In an interesting panel discussion at the Sharjah International Book Fair, Arab literary experts engaged in a debate on whether literary awards affect the development of a cultural movement.

Four leading personalities from the Arab world - Lebanese author and critic Dr Yumna Al Eid, Cultural Personality of the Year at SIBF 2019; Dr Shahla Ujayli, a Syrian novelist and professor of modern arabic literature and cultural studies at the American University in Jordan; Iraqi writer Maysalun Hadi, author of 15 novels and 10 short story collections; and Dr Mohammed Al Mazouz, a writer and research professor of political anthropology from Morocco - took part in the discussion moderated by Salha Obeid.

Dr Al Mazouz was critical of the manner in which awards were handed out in the Arabic literary scene. 

"A prize has value only when it is awarded for the quality of your work; not when 'favouritism' is the deciding factor," he said. 

Many powerful works have fallen by the wayside to be forgotten forever solely because of this reason, he said. "This ideology has killed innovation and creativity in the Arab world."

Dr Al Eid, who has been on several jury committees said that although some literary prizes may seem unjustified, it is essential to have transparency even in the selection of jury members for the awards. 

"We need to ask the right questions to derive the answers," she said. "Is the issue with our culture, or is it the prize itself or the committee?"

However, she admitted that the monetary benefits associated with awards often enabled writers to dedicate their lives to writing, instead of having to work multiple jobs. 

"For me, there are two ways in evaluating a novel - in the way it tells a tale; and its artistic merit. I welcome all prizes as long as they serve literature and art."

Winner of several prestigious awards and shortlisted twice for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Dr Ujayli pointed out that although many influential awards have come with a measure of controversy and disappointment, it is still a positive development as they also have the potential to be fair. 

"A prize is an award for an effort, for your hard work," she said. "Even being nominated for an award places new responsibilities on your shoulders. It makes you vulnerable to criticism.

"I believe that your work should show the whole truth, not half-truths," she said.

"Eventually, when all political conflicts get levelled, books will remain."

Afkar Abdullah

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