It’s been a fruitful time for literary lists and prizes of late, and the two prizes I’m most interested in have both finally revealed their contenders for this year’s main event. The British version, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize revealed its choice of fifteen challengers (prematurely…) last Friday, while across the Atlantic, the Best Translated Book Award announced its own longlist consisting of twenty-five of the best a few days later 🙂
For reasons of both background (I’m English) and convenience (library availability and publisher contacts), my focus is on the IFFP, but when I look at the two lists, I can’t help but feel (and not for the first time) that the BTBA list is a much weightier, better-looking one – and I don’t think I’m alone in this. The question, of course, is why… I’ve been doing a bit of thinking over the past few days, trying to compare the relative natures of the two awards; consider this my attempt to unravel some of the reasons behind the contrasts in the two lists of books.
The first things to look at are the rules governing the two prizes, and there are some clear differences here affecting availability. For one thing, the IFFP has a strict policy of submitting books by living authors, meaning that for those writers who have shuffled off this mortal coil, the BTBA is the only option. This year, there are several works by deceased writers on the BTBA longlist, including Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse and Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night. Obviously, they’re not going to be able to collect the prize money in person if they take home the prize, but is that a reason to exclude them? Even if the IFFP’s reason for this is to avoid translations of old books overshadowing more contemporary fare, it smacks of (for want of a better word) overkill.
Another possible issue over in the UK is the effort and cost involved in submitting titles for the prize. There are some quite detailed instructions on the number of review copies which need to be submitted, and this may be a factor in limiting the number of entries. I came up with an imagined scenario in which a press entered three books, two of which made the longlist, with one progressing to the shortlist. According to my calculations, the publishers would be up for 110 review copies (plus postage) for their troubles…
Back in the US, by contrast, things run on a relatively small scale. There’s a handy list of e-mails and addresses on the Three Percent site, showing publishers where to send the books, which (as is most certainly not the case for the IFFP) can be e-copies. In extreme situations, the publishers might not even need to send in a copy at all; if enough of the judges have already tried (and liked) a book, it could conceivably be sent straight to the longlist without a finger having been lifted by anyone at the publishing house…
But surely even that’s not enough to explain the discrepancy between the two lists? Well, there are some other possible factors. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend whereby successful novels in translation often move from the UK to the US, but not in the opposite direction. While not many of them made the BTBA longlist, several books from last year’s IFFP longlist made their way to the States after originally coming out in Britain (examples include Travel(l)er of the Century, The Fall of the Stone City and The Detour/Ten White Geese).
However, the flow doesn’t seem quite as steady in the other direction. Is there likely to be a British edition of the 2012 BTBA winner Stone upon Stone? When will Mikhail Shiskin’s Maidenhair appear in British book shops? Is there any chance of works like A True Novel or Blinding being picked up by a British publisher (and thus becoming eligible for the IFFP)? I’m not sure… Not being a part of the industry, I don’t really know what the reason for this is (in fact, I might have got this all wrong, and British publishers may be preparing to bring out some of these great books as we speak), but I suspect that territorial rights play a role here. If any of you have any insights into this murkiest of areas, please let me know 🙂
More than any external reason though, it’s the whole ethos behind the prizes that perhaps explain the differences between the two longlists. Even though the BTBA ends up with a much wider selection of books to choose from (and some of the judges have a good go at reading as many as humanly possible), I have a feeling that the nature of the organising body responsible means that the judges only have one goal – to choose the best piece of translated fiction published in English in the United States in the previous year. It’s a prize which is fairly limited in scope, concentrating on the community of readers passionate about literature in translation, and while the prize money may come from Amazon, the rest of the effort comes across as something put together by a bunch of hard-working volunteers.
By contrast, the IFFP, organised by Booktrust (an independent British charity with some government funding) with The Independent newspaper hovering in the background in the role of an unofficial partner, appears to have more of an agenda. This is a highly subjective view (so don’t sue me), but I feel that along with the goal of choosing the best work of translated fiction, the IFFP is attempting to promote translated fiction in general, meaning that a much more general-reader-friendly longlist is always on the cards. The prize certainly has the aura of a semi-official, state-sanctioned push to promote translated literature to the masses…
In short, then, after close to a thousand words of idle speculation and guesswork, what it all boils down to is that in addition to having a wider range of books to choose from, owing to differences in rules, entry costs and titles published in the respective markets, the BTBA also has a slightly more high-brow approach to its task, meaning that for people like me, wanting to read the absolute best of what’s being written in other languages, their longlist is more likely to throw up intriguing books. Perhaps the relative lack of prescription on the part of the organisers (which, unless I’m wrong, is just Chad Post and his minions) allows for a much more interesting selection of books.
Still, I could be wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time…). Please feel free to agree with my claims, contradict me, or force amendments to my post (preferably not through legal action though – I’m always open to change). Thoughts, anyone? Comments below, please 😉