The winners of the Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards were announced recently. In the fiction category, the first and third prizes went to collections of horror stories, and this didn’t surprise me in the least as Malaysians are big on the supernatural, and these awards are, after all, about popularity.
I think that’s fine. It’s a good thing to reward writers for producing accessible, enjoyable work. However, what I’d like to see in Malaysia is a book award that is not about sales, your very cool book cover, or how many relatives and friends love you, but based solely on the quality of writing.
Goodness knows I’ve discussed the possibility of such an award countless times with book-loving friends and colleagues. We agree that it’s a way of recognising the efforts of Malaysian writers, and to encourage publishers to invest time and money on well-written books.
We also agree that there would be difficulties involved. For example, would there be enough books that would qualify as nominees let alone winners? And are there enough people who would qualify as judges? Another hard-to-answer question is if self-published works should be eligible.
Most international literary awards don’t allow self-published books to compete. There is probably some snobbery at play there, but, to be fair, the organisers must also be leery of the kind of work that they might be forced to plough through when selecting a long- or shortlist.
Self-published books are not always an editor’s nightmare. Internationally, there have been authors whose self-published books have been noticed and picked up by traditional publishers, and gone on to become critically-acclaimed bestsellers. And, in Malaysia, there are self-published authors who have produced solid work – for instance, Chua Guat Eng, who has published two novels and two short story collections under her own imprint, Holograms. Therefore, I think it would be a mistake not to allow self-published entries.
To tackle the problem of having enough titles to make up a shortlist, the award could be held every two years rather than yearly. The frequency could be revised if and when the number of good books published increases.
As for the selection of judges, of course the most important qualification is that they be readers – not just casual and recreational readers, but ones who read seriously and thoughtfully. They may be writers, publishers, literature academics, or booksellers who know their stuff, but they really need not work with books so long as they do read well and widely.
As the Malaysian book industry is small, it would be necessary to look outside the country for judges. Those from neighbouring countries like Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia would be my first choice. Other Asian countries like India, Japan and China would be where I would look to next. And then African and Caribbean nations.
The lit award I am envisioning is one for Malaysian fiction in English, simply because it’s the genre I’m most familiar with. Therefore, the judges must be English language readers whose literary diet includes a steady intake of fiction in the English language, including English fiction published in their own country.
It would be even better if they also had some degree of familiarity with English fiction published outside the West. I think this is important because those who judge Malaysian fiction in English should not have only Western literary styles and content as reference points.
Apart from a prize for published work, I think there should be one for unpublished work. Actually, a number do exist, although they are mostly not organised, run or promoted very well. The most glaring problem is that the organisers of such awards usually fail to think about what happens to the work after the prize has been presented.
In my opinion, there’s no use handing a writer a prize and then leaving them to their own devices. It is also irresponsible to include the publication of the winning work as part of the prize, and not ensure that the manuscript is properly edited and packaged, distributed and marketed. At the very least, the author of the manuscript should be offered sound advice on how to proceed.
Sponsorship of both kinds of awards is always hard to come by. Where does one find a book-loving billionaire who wishes to contribute to the development and advancement of Malaysian literature in English? If you happen to be such a person, please get in touch.
Daphne Lee has been so busy reading manuscripts that she hasn’t had much time for books and is still reading Beth Yahp’s The Crocodile Fury (SIRD).
** Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the first and second prizes were awarded to collections of horror stories.