The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity

The final shortlist for the 2013 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature is out.  Sincere Congratulations to the lucky three:  Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Amu Nnadi (through the window of a sandcastle), and Promise Ogochukwu (Wild Letters). This year, the prize is for poetry and the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).

Last month, eleven poets graced a thoughtful longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi,  Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji. I thought it was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender.  

But this is what struck me after the longlist was announced. I have great respect for the longlisted writers. However, of the eleven books, just TWO were available for sale online or anywhere – Afam Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights and Amatoritsero’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children. Shortly after Iquo Eke’s Symphony of Becoming joined the group online, followed by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. I would like to own each of these eleven books.

Several of my friends are on the ground in Nigeria looking for the books in bookstores. My friends are either lying to me (possible, but highly unlikely) or these books are simply not available for sale. They are definitely available for prize sponsors. I own and have read Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights, Ede’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children and Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. They are beautiful books deserving of the recognition that they have gotten from the NLNG folks. However, I cannot tell how many copies of these books have been sold at home, worldwide or even on Mars; it is not the fault of the NLNG folks, but it is the truth. We need a conversation about the (lack of a) distribution network of books in Nigeria.

Of the three shortlisted books, only Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments is available for sale or review anywhere I can think of. My friends are hunting for the other two books. I am sure the books exist, how else would the judges have judged them worthy of consideration for $100,000? As things currently stand, this is not a literary prize; this is a lottery, a jackpot for one lucky writer. Let me just say this: It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen.

It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers. In the 21st century, it is not hard to sell a book on the Internet. There is absolutely no excuse for this farce. It is not too much to ask that between now and October 9th, 2013 when the winner will be announced, that Nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle, and Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters be made available to the general public online and elsewhere. It would be nice if the publishers would go online to announce where these books may be bought by regular readers like me. We would like to buy the books; we would like to see with our own eyes, what the judges saw in the books. This is what obtains elsewhere with real prizes. When the shortlist is announced, there is usually a run on the books. And trust me, no prize sponsor worth its name would dare put on a shortlist a book that only the writer, his/her publisher and friends have seen or read. They definitely would not be getting $100,000. Nonsense. 

It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us?

The press release announcing the shortlist says this of previous prize winners:

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume of poetry The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner 2004 – poetry); Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto, for his volume of poetry Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner 2004 poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2005 – drama) for his book Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008 – prose) for her novel Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010 – drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011 – children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.”

And dear reader, just in case you think, I am picking on this year’s prize, try this game; please go to any bookstore online and try to find any of these books that won previously. If you are in Nigeria, go to as many bookstores as your energy can muster and look for the books. Come back and tell me how many you found. I know the answer but I am trying hard to make a point, that we have to find a way to use the NLNG funds wisely. The NLNG folks are wasting money that could be better utilized to help our ailing publishing industry for instance. Do not get me wrong, I have said this ad nauseam, many of these writers deserve to be honored and rewarded for a lifetime of work in the service of our literature, but that is not what the NLNG Prize is currently doing. It is honoring books that are remarkable mostly by their absence from the market. That is absurd. There has to be a structural way to ensure that our  writers are not hurriedly stapling things together just to meet the deadline of a jackpot er literary prize.

And I have another suggestion for the NLNG folks. I know Nigeria honors patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but for heavens’ sake please include some young people who actually read contemporary literature, I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable, who does not actually use bifocals to read stuff. I doubt that there is anyone on that judges’ list that knows what a blog is. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown fond of the NLNG Prize but I think that there has to be a concerted effort by readers, writers, and publishers to ensure that the money allocated to this laudable activity yearly is well spent. Right now, I believe it is shaping up to be an annual farce.

What do I really think of the shortlist? Well, Ipadeola’s book sings. The Sahara Testaments is quite simply drop-dead gorgeous poetry. I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are similarly drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.*cycles away slowly*

16 thoughts on “The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity”

  1. Oh well! The books are out there, that much I am sure about, although you make a very salient point. Truth is we don’t have an existent book industry. Supply chain management is a fancy word in these parts. For the most part I doubt its been taught in schools. In what may be considered a miracle I saw eight of those books on the longlist in one space. Our writers and publishers need to start, applying their minds properly as I personally, don’t buy excuses to the effect that Nigerians don’t read. We can’t even distribute newspapers. SHAME!

    1. that a book has not gone around in appreciable circulation should not unjustify it from being a winner, most especially for a genre like poetry. if a certain book like ‘yellow yellow’ had been published in the same year as ‘things fall apart’ and sold 20,000 copies and things fall apart for some reason barely sold up to 500 copies and on a given yearly prize they were brought before the judges, are you trying to tell me yellow yellow would do what?!
      i am an embittered entree; why? I need to read all the shortlisted fellows. For christ sake Promise Ogochukwu the luminar madam, Ipadeola president of Pen and someone tells me this is not a cartel. if these persons have written noteworthy poetry we would have heard them as it happened with Chimamanda.
      I dont mind this devolving to the bolekaja way; let us take to a poetry public forum like poemhunter, and piblish our works one after the other, I am talking to the shortlisted fellows, and the public decide how the duel goes. I am selfpublished and probably my of course my package is not glossy as the shortlisted fellows
      but my poems… you are yet to the read the most innovative after Okigbo and Soyinka. And that collection ain’t the jewel of crown.

  2. I run an online literary magazine every Sunday and we publish news about the Nigerian book industry and have about four regular columnists writing on differenr topics. Of recent, we saw the need to employ more writing hands and buy publicity for the magazine. This will cost us a sum.
    If NLNG can invest a tidy sum into the publishing industry every year, they will be doing the sinking industry a great favour.

  3. “…the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).”
    Among other concers, this really baffles me. It is depressing that the NIGERIA LNG should even think of the prize money in dollars.

  4. Father, Fighter, Lover . . . Just wondering which of them fits in with this piece! The issues are are well-reasoned. Makes me feel guilty about my own work. I am almost losing enthusiasm for writing. I prefer to edit those who are more naive about and definitely less cynical of the publishing industry. The Nigerian book desperately needs help.

  5. When I stumbled on the link to this post on Aunty Lola Shoneyin’s facebook status, I knew Pa Ikhide was up to some mischief again. Why My Dear Pa has to always *Cycle Away* after making such a sumptuous reading feast, I cannot wrap my swooning head around, shaa.

    Well, the baba has it laid on thick here. The facts whipped up in this here rant makes up the truth. The truth of the sham of Nigerian literary awards is stripped down here.

    If not that $100,000 is tempting I wouldn’t have been considering entering my (soon to be “hastily-stappled-together) poetry collection for the award next time.

    And this reminds me, Pa Ikhide Ikheloa, you never got back to me on the poetry draft I sent you for your perusal. You asked to see it that year. Even if it sucks, you shouldn’t cycle away without letting the budding poet know, abi?. Please get back to me. I also want to see my name in print and on a short list.

    In sum, I thank you for not disappointing the followers of your blog. Keep bringing on the incisive appraisals of things Nigerian Literature. Thanks also for being born when you were born. We appreciate having you in our lifetime, even if you are too much trouble.

  6. When I stumbled on the link to this post on Aunty Lola Shoneyin’s facebook status, I knew Pa Ikhide was up to some mischief again. Why My Dear Pa has to always *Cycle Away* after making such a sumptuous reading feast, I cannot wrap my swooning head around, shaa.

    Well, the baba has it laid on thick here. The facts whipped up in this here rant makes up the truth. The truth of the sham of Nigerian literary awards is stripped down here. But Ezeigbo’s My Cousin Sammy is available at Terra Kulture in Lagos. Demands for books by the Nigerian reading public determine the distribution pattern of books locally. As for global and internet, you can tell us better. You are the native, we are the aliens (literarilly)

    If not that $100,000 is tempting I wouldn’t have been considering entering my (soon to be “hastily-stappled-together) poetry collection for the award next time.

    And this reminds me, Pa Ikhide Ikheloa, you never got back to me on the poetry draft I sent you for your perusal. You asked to see it that year. Even if it sucks, you shouldn’t cycle away without letting the budding poet know, abi?. Please get back to me. I also want to see my name in print and on a short list.

    In sum, I thank you for not disappointing the followers of your blog. Keep bringing on the incisive appraisals of things Nigerian Literature. Thanks also for being born when you were born. We appreciate having you in our lifetime, even if you are too much trouble.

  7. Why should readers be hunting for books to buy? The British phrase that ‘the buyer is always right’ does not exist in Africa where the buyer is the one who plays the fool in order to get bargains. Do freebies exist in Africa? Can you buy one and get one free or three for two? No way o! They will call you a thief aka ole!

    We need to deal with the fact that self-publishing means that such books are not usually on sale therefore self-publishing should be discouraged in Nigeria at the moment while new publishers should be encouraged to start publishing. Courses and workshops on publication should exist at major universities.

    Online book selling should be encouraged but what of houses with odd addresses? it could mean that those with postal boxes may be better off for online purchase of books. We need more online sellers in Nigeria but what of lack of trust or Yahoo Yahoo boys? I would rather buy books from Amazon since I am used to them. Within a few days, books arrive in my house through the post box. Please make life easier in Nigeria for readers. Konga.com is doing well in Nigeria. You can buy assorted items, from books to electronics. Wow!
    http://www.konga.com/t/categories/books

  8. @Okiri CR,
    It looks as if no reply could mean that you got a cut off point. Better luck next time. I would not force a Baba book critic to criticize me. Such a critique could land somebody on a stretcher. I think it is better not to criticize an unpublished writer because it could lead to a writer’s block.

    I once got a university don to assess my work and it took me over a decade to write again therefore watch what you ask for. You said you want to see your name in print. If that is all that matters to you then print your book via Lulu cheaply etc. Good luck! As for Pa Ikhide, silence is golden!

  9. I have read a book by Nnadi Amu and I think he is a great writer! I love good literatures and I wish all of them well.

  10. If it possible that we are repeating history? How we access books should be informed by the times we live in. Everyone is crying for prink books …. while print books are dying to get online. In my view, only bibliophiles will continue to buy books. How many of those exist in the world is the question that needs to inform the future of publishing in Nigeria, Africa, and anywhere else.

  11. […] It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers…It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us? Read more. […]

  12. […] In one word: Wow. Yep, wow! I love what this generation is doing with social media, blogs and so on.  I am hoping that history will be kind to this generation, it is easily the most innovative generation when it comes to writing. When you adjust for the child abuse that passes for public education in Nigeria, add a buffoonish government, many contemporary Nigerian writers are certified geniuses – and lunatics. I think it is the height of injustice to judge Nigerian writing based on books, no, this generation is bigger than that.  I stay on Twitter and Facebook and on those blogs and literary journals reading you guys non-stop. I would start mentioning names, but I would omit some and that would upset me, but to be in Abeokuta with all these writers I’d only met on the Internet, kai, it was like I died and went to literary heaven. So, yes, there is a quiet revolution going on with respect to the literature of Nigeria. We are talking of an era that spans generations. We are seeing technology forcibly rewriting how we see our world.  This is not to say all is rosy, the Internet has surely democratized the reading and writing culture, it has also introduced dysfunctions. There is a lot of literary noise and it takes patience and a certain skill to navigate the noise. We need good editors, we need a robust publishing industry and I worry that there is too much focus on winning prizes. […]

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