Furore Over NLNG Literature Prize For 2009


Onike Rahaman



It beats one imagination that the 2009 NLNG Prize on literature was not awarded to any of the nine entries shortlisted by the panel of Judges. The development has equally generated mixed reactions from members of the literary community and other lovers of literature. This is however not unexpected considering the controversies which surrounded the prize, right from the inception. Over the years, some cynics have continued to criticize the NLNG awards. Rather than think of how to improve or contribute to the attainment of the goals of the awards, attempts are being made to sabotage the prestigious prize for literature.


Despite the furore, the Nigerian prize for literature has the potential to promote, nurture and enhance the growth of Nigerian literature. As a matter of fact, NLNG literature prize seems capable of motivating and inspiring writers to write creative works in all the genres of literature. It is also necessary to point out that those that constitute the panel of judges for literature prize are persons with intimidating credentials in all areas of literary and creative arts. As expected, the panel of judges might not be absolutely perfect in their evaluation of the entry submitted by the writers. However, they cannot be accused of biasness.


Candidly, one may not be able to rule out the possibility that there was technical error or procedural hitches in the management of this year’s edition of the prize for literature. However, such probable lapse is not a sufficient reason to condemn the decision of the jurors not to award any of the nine poetic entries.


Besides, there is nothing fundamentally wrong in the decision of the panel to deviate from the usual practice of drawing the final short list of three when it is evident that none of the shortlisted books meets the set standard for the award. Indeed, the panel of judges reserves the right not to award any of the entries submitted by the writers, if there is reasonable ground not to award any of the entries. The challenges pose by the decision of the panel not to award any of the nine poetic entries is that most books published in Nigeria this year were adjudged to be of low quality by the NLNG panel of judges.

But all these notwithstanding, the writers of the nine shortlisted entries need commendation. Even after none of the entries was considered worthy of being awarded, the NLNG supposed to appreciate the writers of the shortlisted entries. It is disheartening that many of the poets on the shortlist were not properly invited to the award ceremony.  There was also lack of adequate sensitization of members of the literary communities about the rationale behind NLNG pronouncement to hand over the prize money to the Nigerian Academy of Letters.


Essentially, the quality of literary text depends on its degree of exploitability, readability, content suitability and social relevance. If the nine entries shortlisted had actually failed to satisfy these criteria, the decision of the panel becomes justified. The fear of being criticized by the commentators and the literary minds shouldn’t have made members of the panel to compromise the set standard for the award. No matter the circumstance, it is plausible that decision not to award the prize this year was a unanimous one by the jurors.


Again, the imbroglio around the NLNG literature prize for 2009 further raises the question of poor state of Nigeria book industry. The decision not to name a winner of 2009 literature prize also exposes the weaknesses of Nigeria publishers, authors and editors. As I have argued in another piece, attitudes and policies of book publishers toward young writers have significant negative effect on the quality of the available books on literature in Nigeria. Also, incompetence of some of the book editors counts on the quality and value of some of the available books on literature in Nigerian market.


In addition, the work of the book editors is such that requires special skills which could be acquired through accumulated experiences and continuous training. Nowadays, most publishing firms do not have competent personnel to handle editorial services.


Of equal importance is the challenge of self-publishing posed to the Nigeria literary writers. Books that are self –published are usually characterized by syntactic blemishes, stylistic infelicities and inelegant renderings. But in many respects, the work handled by the publishers used to be of better quality than most works that are self published. The fault however does not lie with the writers but the government who has failed to provide good business climate for book publishing industry in Nigeria. For us to develop our publishing industry, there should be deliberate policy to motivate the writers and stimulate the growth of book publishing industry.


  In rejecting all the shortlist of nine, the panel of judges must have critically evaluated the works. No doubt, the ultimate goal of all literary study is evaluation and it is closely allied with judgment, which is the faculty by winch we can distinguish between good and bad work of literature. The most significant lesson of the 2009 NLNG literature prize therefore is that literature is the property of all and a writer needs to be conscious of this fact in presenting his literary works to the public. Of course, literature as an art employs techniques and offers problems that can be understood only through analysis. Hence, literature should be seen to be beyond mere expression of thoughts.  


The argument in some quarters that the Nigerian Academy of Letters ought to have rejected the offer of the prize money is untenable. By the formation, objectives and status of members of Nigerian Academy of Letters, the body seems capable of ensuring effective utilization of the fund. The other point is the manner with which the prize money was offered to the academy of literature. The fact that some members of the Nigerian academy of letters constituted the panel of judges that oversee the awards of literature prize has not rendered the body ineligible to manage the prize money. This is because members of the Nigerian academy of letters on that panel were nominated by the NLNG, in their individual capacities not as representatives of NAL. It seems to me the NLNG is right to offer the prize money to Nigeria academy of letters to develop Nigerian literature.


To get the best out of the opportunity, the NAL should gear effort towards improving the literary culture, programmes and activities in Nigeria. Of course, substantial part of the prize money should be used to train young writers on book publishing, editing and marketing.


Now that the prize money had been entrusted in the care of Nigerian Academy of letters, the world literary community is eagerly awaiting the success the highest professional body in the humanities would be made of the 2009 prize money in her trust. I wish to restate here that despite the insinuations, challenges and lapses in the management of the award and discontent that usually surrounded the selection of the winners of the literature prize, the NLNG’S prize is a welcome development.


Public Affairs Analyst