Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wales Book of the Year 2008

You may need to visit the hospital to have your toes surgically uncurled after viewing this horror show. As you probably already know 2008's Wales Book of the Year award didn't exactly go according to plan. Instead of reading out the name of the winner (Dannie Abse), hapless culture minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas inexplicably read out the name of the runner-up (Tom Bullough), and thus caused much embarrassment.

If it's any consolation to Tom Bullough he is probably now the most famous living writer in Wales. The Academi and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have inadvertantly conspired to give him more publicity than he would have enjoyed had he actually won the prize itself. Ordinarily the Wales Book of the Year barely troubles the national press but this year's monumental cock-up even (allegedly) made CNN.

Unsurprisingly a large amount of the column inches generated by the fiasco have implicitly been of the: 'couldn't organise a piss-up in a provincial brewery' variety. But, in the long run, this gaffe is unlikely to do the Welsh Academi any real harm. Publicity is publicity. The world is awash with literary awards and suddenly the Wales Book of the Year has some colour, a bit of history, and crucially, a reference point for those outside the narrow range of Welsh letters.

Not that this will be of any comfort to Tom Bullough. Who knows, he may now use his £1,000 runner's-up cheque to recruit a team of hot-shot lawyers to sue the Welsh literary agency for mental cruelty. Of course, the issue here is not about money but I'm sure if Bullough applies for one of Academi's writing bursaries - say, £9,000 - they're highly unlikely to turn him down. Get your application in now mate.

Literary prizes are an odd business anyway. In what sense is Dannie Abse's The Presence genuinely a Welsh book of the year? If the winning work was determined by something measurable, like sales, the nation's favourite tome would probably end up being the latest Dan Brown effort. What we actually have here is the: Wales Book of the Year in the Opinion of X, Y, and Z award. Change the three judges and, in all probability, you'd have a different winner. The whole thing is pretty arbitrary.

Of course, this award is really all about promoting Welsh fiction. An exercise in status-raising. So, why not just give the prize to the book which is likely to generate the most publicity? Last year, for example, it would have made far more sense to present the award to Byron Rogers for his RS Thomas biog The Man Who Went into the West rather than Lloyd Jones for Mr Cassini. This year the widespread media success of Nia Wyn's Blue Sky July ought to have been enough to earn her victory.

Sensitive souls will say: but surely you must always dish out such prizes on merit alone. But merit according to who? Trevor Fishlock and Mavis Nicholson? Why not just grab three 'judges' from the nearest pub and let them decide instead? In fact, why should the man (or woman) in the street be completely excluded from the whole process? After all, it is ultimately they who are subsidising the prize money and the swanky awards ceremony at the Cardiff Hilton. Academi might, at least, consider getting a member of the public to read out the winning name on the card.