Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Dylan Thomas Prize

I meant to post about the announcement of the Dylan Thomas Prize earlier in the week, but illness intervened. I attended the prizegiving on Monday night at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. I’ll admit that I had both Dinaw Mengestu and Ross Raisin pegged as the leading contenders – with Caroline Bird also a distinct possibility. But, in the end, the £60,000 purse went to Nam Le for his collection of short stories, The Boat. The charismatic Le gave a terrific, witty and moving acceptance speech, much of it a tribute to the achievements of his fellow nominees and the delights of the ugly, lovely city that has hosted them over the last week. He did it without the aid of prompt cards and kept it down to a matter of minutes. A true pro. Le will be moving to the UK shortly to take up the prestigious David T.K. Wong fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Congratulations to him.

The Prize announcement attracted less media attention than one would have hoped. Coverage has been given by some newspapers in the UK but (unless I’ve missed something) through their online format only. A friend remarked that perhaps the plethora of literary prizes have reached something of a (down) tipping point. Interesting. Certainly, I’ve noted over the last few years that many of the major UK literary prizes are being given somewhat less attention in print media than previously. Even the Man Booker is not quite the event than it was in the 90s. Is less more? Something for the cultural theorists to mull over. James F. English, Professor and Chair of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a fascinating analysis of the cultural value of the prizes in The Economy of Prestige, and Peter Finch contributed an excellent feature on the book to Issue 72 of New Welsh Review.

But whether there is a tipping point or not, the challenges of the Dylan Thomas Prize are quite particular to it. After all, it’s a biennial prize and, to boot, it highlights authors under 30. Biennial prizes suffer very often from a lack of momentum and, given eligibility, the chances of a major league, headline-grabbing writer appearing on the long or shortlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize are relatively slim. But I think in due course the prize will establish itself well into the literary prize calendar, particularly as its winners go on to great things. Rachel Trezise, the inaugural recipient, has recently signed a deal with Harper Collins. Her profile, boosted by the validation of the prize, will in turn go some way towards boosting validation for the prize in the longer term. Le seems likely to follow suit. Trustees of the prize are, we were told on Monday night, looking to enrich and enhance the prize with other initiatives in the future, including fellowships. If you would like to find out more about how you can support the Dylan Thomas Prize, which includes educational outreach work in Wales and beyond, visit the Dylan Thomas Prize website

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