The book award they never give out
by Sal Robinson
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is in the process of testing one of literature’s most fundamental questions: Is a prize better if you never give it out? What happens if you dangle one for years in front of an increasingly hungry and spellbound field of authors who boomerang between admitting that it has any worth at all and obsessively tracking their Ladbrokes standing in the months, days, minutes, and seconds before the prize is awarded?
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which is worth Dh750,000 (roughly $200,000) and is thus one the world’s more lucrative book prizes, has, for the third year, not given out a prize in the general “literature” category. Year One of authorial indignity was 2010, when the prize was initially awarded to Dr. Hafnaouoi Ba’li for Comparative Cultural Criticism: an Introduction and withdrawn later in the year after it was alleged that passages in the book had been lifted from Cultural Criticism: A Look at Arab Cultural Patterns by Dr. Abdullah al Ghathami, who was actually one of the 2010 judges. 2011 was smooth sailing: the literature prize went to Moroccan author Mohammed Miftah for his work of criticism Mafaheem Muwasa’a Li Nazaryah Shi’ryah (“Broader Concepts on the Theory of Literature”).
But in 2012, the judges didn’t give out a single dirham to hopeful aspirants, saying that the books nominated did not meet their “stringent criteria.” And in 2013, they’ve done it again. Though there are actually fourteen books on the list—seven collections of poetry, six novels, and one collection of short stories—but none were deemed worthy of the prize.
Here is the incredible thing about this prize—there are no restrictions on the nationality of the writers: the authors longlisted come from Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and two are Iraqi in origin but identify also as being from the UK and Germany. There is no restriction on the age of the authors: Mohamed El-Bisatie, who is in fact deceased, has a novel on the list. There is no restriction on category: criticism now has its own prize, “literature” being reserved for fiction and poetry, but a list that includes novels, short stories, and poetry would seriously addle the category-happy U.S. prize scene.
And still, no prize! M. Lynx Qualey of the always-reliable Arab Lit in Translation blog comments: “One year of not awarding the prize (like the US Pulitzer) is annoying; two years is silly: If this prize is to continue, the judging system clearly needs an overhaul.”
The judges’ identities are kept anonymous, so it’s impossible to come up with any kind of wild speculation about why this has happened again. We’re left only with the official announcement, by Dr. Ali bin Tamim, the award’s secretary general, quoted in a story on the prize by Emily Cleland in the National:
After naming the winners in seven of the categories, he said that the awards for two categories–literature and children’s literature–had been withheld because the entries did not reach the standards required.
“Which doesn’t mean that their creative or aesthetic aspects were lacking but they fell short of what our ambitions and standards were,” he said.
On the one hand, this judicial reticence makes me curious —and maybe even a bit respectful. Do they really just have very, very high standards that no poet, novelist, or short story writer writing in Arabic today can meet? What are these incredible standards? Or is it something about the nomination process? Are books getting nominated that aren’t any good? Are there competing factions among the nominators that the judges are choosing to stymie by crowning none?
Or—deep dark nightmare of the author—do they just not like giving out literature prizes? Not even to children’s book writers? Isn’t that kind of mean??
The minimal degree of overlap between the Sheikh Zayed Awards and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction raises other, more serious, interesting questions: are there different literary communities represented here, different tastes? Different purposes served by the prizes?
In any case, we’re left hanging. Along with fourteen probably pretty pissed-off-at-this-point authors.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.