Literary competitions: You cannot judge a good book by its prizes


The last week has been all about literary prizes. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from my friend and Caine Prize director, Lizzy Attree. In the e-mail, Lizzy informed me that the inaugural Mabati-Cornel Kiswahili Prize for African Literature was won by Anna Samwel Manyanza for fiction; Mohammed K. Ghassani for poetry and had Enock Maregesi and Christopher Bundala Budebah as runners up.

This had me smiling as I was present when the founders of the prize, Lizzy and Mukoma wa Ngugi, announced it at Ake Festival last year.

In other news, my fellow Etisalat judges, Molara Wood, Ato Quayson and I read through 35 novels to come up with the Etisalat Prize for Literature longlist. For those that are still analog in these digital days and may, therefore, not have seen the titles of the books on various online platforms, the Etisalat longlist is as follows:

Ifeoluwapo Adeniyi (Nigeria), On the Bank of the River Penny Busetto (South Africa), The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself Z P Dala (South Africa), What About Meera Kurt Ellis (South Africa), By: Any Means Paula Marais (South Africa), Shadow Self Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Tram 83 Masande Ntshanga (South Africa), The Reactive Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), The Fishermen Rehana Rossouw (South Africa), What Will People Say?


Quayson, the Chair of our judging panel, rightly said of our longlist, “The range of submissions for the Etisalat Prize represents the vitality of literary writing on the continent, and the longlist is a selective showcase of the best to be found. The subjects covered in the longlist are so fascinating and varied that it would take another novel just to describe them all.” For the reason he mentions, I am happy to say that this was an easy list to come up with as we were generally in agreement on the books on the list.

In the same week, I was pleasantly surprised to get a text from a friend informing me that I had just won the prestigious South African Literary Award’s K. Sello Duiker Prize for my fourth novel, London Cape Town Joburg.

Named after the late Commonwealth Award-winning author, it was an honour to get an award associated with this great writer. I am under no illusion that mine was the best book among my peers who published South African novels last year. Primarily because — and I can say this now without sounding like sour grapes because I am now award-winning instead of just shortlisted — a book winning literary prizes is not always the best way to judge the best works of literature. I will explain.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with someone who had just judged a literary prize. The writer of what all the judges rightly felt was the winning book had been accused of plagiarism before. They, therefore, did not want the prize associated with an alleged plagiarist.

Sometimes, too, a judge will go with the popular choice, which may not necessarily be what they consider the best book.

Many of us are sensitive to what people will think about us if we admit to not liking a book everyone talks highly of. More so in literary and intellectual circles. Therefore a judge on a panel of three or five will not admit that they do not get a well-spoken of book like Open City.

Finally, a possible reason why the best book may not win is that the judges did not have access to all the books. As an example, while judging Etisalat, 100 books were entered for the prize. Some readers separated the wheat from the chaff — or at least we hope they did — and gave us the best 35.

But what are the possibilities that one of the 65 may very well have been a competitive-enough book? My experience is, quite possible. It is then possible that, perhaps, my novel was not the best book published in South Africa last year but may just have been the best book that the judges got to know about. In the same way that whoever we will pick to win the Etisalat would be the person whose book we consider the best out of the 35 books we received.

This is not to take away anything from the winners of the Mabati-Cornell, my win or the future winner of the Etisalat. Congratulations to us all. It is merely to highlight that some of the best books have not won prizes so those who love reading should be careful not to judge a book by its awards (or lack thereof).