On Book Prizes

November 9, 2018

This essay appeared in Singapore Literature Prize: Celebrating Our Writers 1992-2018 (2018), pp. 6-7. The book was published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Singapore Book Council.

The Book Council has always supported recognition for great books especially by Singaporeans. One way it has done so over the decades is to have created and awarded book prizes. In fact, its earliest effort bore its own former name, presenting what was called the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award. Then came the Singapore Literature Prize, the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award, the Scholastic Asian Book Award, the Scholastic Picture Book Award, and so on.

This diversification of prizes highlights the changing role of its prize-giving itself. The now-defunct NBDCS Book Award once nurtured literary talent as well as promoted the reading of a fledging national literature. The Singapore Literature Prize began as more a means to help worthy English manuscripts get published than what it is today: a badge for deserving published works in different languages and mediums. The newer awards for children’s books and picture books aim to develop content creation for the young.

Popular impression may link book prizes to irrefutable superiority, but an avid reader should know better. Any award – even The Book Council’s – is ultimately a symbolic act with real, practical limits. Constraints on time and judgement make it a challenge to know every work deeply, let alone to compare it thoroughly with other works. Thus, a winning work tends more to symbolise than to be, in an absolute sense, the best in its field. It also signals this honour for a finite period rather than for all time.

Artistic merit is a highly subjective notion, and the choice of judges further determines what wins. I say this as an occasional judge myself. A Singaporean judge may assess aspects of domestic culture better, but a foreign one offers a stronger trans-boundary perspective. A publisher or a bookseller tends to favour commercial appeal while an academic prefers critical or technical sophistication. Each writer-judge also asserts his or her own set of creative expectations and biases.

As such, all judges come to the table with internalised values – which makes it essential to change judges often and to assemble them with care. Even with an ideal judging panel, a book prize still cannot carry the same kind of finality as, say, a science prize. There is just no way of predicting cultural development and the life of literary appeal. In world literature, who today remembers prizewinners Sir Richard Blackmore, Christina Stead, and James Salter, or, conversely, who does not know once-nobodies Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Franz Kafka?

The question then arises: given literature’s unpredictability, are book prizes still worth giving out? I argue that they are – for reasons far subtler than we may have liked. I mentioned symbolic importance: in a context where events define collective memory, book prizes help to inscribe literature as key to social life. They remind a nation of its creative depth even as they offer good entry points to those keen to sample and explore literary culture.

Second, book prizes exist as topics of conversation for others who do read. People discuss the strengths and themes of featured works, their critical apprehensions, and even the validity of their taste. This discussion can create potent maps of appreciation that link more than they rank individual works. Tied to the point is a third: book prizes record what is valued by a community at a historical moment. They let future critics look back in understanding, curiosity, amusement, or shock and to scrutinise the wisdom of experts and the literati of a time.

Fourth, of course, book prizes benefit the book industry itself. Given the instant attention they prompt, these can help boost book sales – although the outcome depends largely on how stakeholders harness them. Last but not least, an award can help writers with a personal thing, to emerge from their own shadows of uncertainty and self-doubt. While this point makes winning more urgent for those needing a breakthrough, judges still need to weigh its good fairly against the craft of more established writers.

My five reasons can thus be summarised roughly as symbolic, social, academic, commercial, and professional. That last point can finally remind us of a paradox with regard to book prizes we should not ignore. Winning may encourage writers, but it can also inhibit their development should it become a fixation. This warning is needful, sounding an inevitable challenge to bodies such as The Book Council: how, while conferring prizes, to ground the fact that writing’s importance precedes recognition. After all, a literary culture is only as strong as its writers’ self-belief, independent of external validation.

Gwee Li Sui


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