Dublin’s cosmopolitan literary award has an effervescent, lofty, democratic and acrobatic integrity – by comparison to some other well-known prizes – Sarah Gilmartin
A slum with spectral addicts in bleakest England. Lost chances and lost lives in the damp Dutch countryside. Murdered miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. Cape Breton Island, Canada, and the perils of the ice. As it announces its eighteenth annual award, the International Impac Dublin Literary Award is a portal to a wide world of literature.
Open to novelists writing in any language, provided they have been translated into English, the Impac was established in 1996 after the then energetic mayor, Gay Mitchell, commissioned an expert group to consider the feasibility of a Dublin-based literary award. Sponsorship comes from a company with the prosaic goal of improving company productivity with a name that conjures the awful management clichés and illiteracies that centre on the tiring use of ‘impact’ as a verb, but which in fact deserves credit for a beguiling effervescent integrity.
The judging panel this year includes an Estonian, a Pakistani, an Algerian and Patrick McCabe all chaired by a US retired federal judge. With a momentous monetary value of €100,000 for the winner – or a 75/25 split between author and translator for a novel written in a language other than English – the Impac can radically alter a writer’s circumstances. It also attracts for its nominated authors an international platform of readers. Each year the longlist is generated by invited public libraries across the world, from Jamaica to Australia, Kenya to Mexico. Typically in the region of 150 to 165 books, the gargantuan list is then whittled down to a maximum of ten titles by a panel of transnational judges with literary airs. This shortlist is announced in April each year, with the eventual winner proclaimed by the Lord Mayor of Dublin at the unavoidable gala dinner in the Mansion House in June.
As this issue of Village goes to press, the 2013 awards ceremony is underway. Among the favourites are Kevin Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’, the only Irish novel to make this year’s shortlist, previous winners Michel Houellebecq and Andrew Miller for their novels ‘The Map and the Territory’ and ‘Pure’ respectively, and the multimillion selling ‘1Q84’ by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
There are ten books in total on this year’s shortlist, five of which are in translation, the highest number in the history of the award. That so many international works make it on to the list is not surprising for an award that is known for the diversity and equitableness of its selection. The 2013 longlist comprised 154 titles nominated by libraries in 120 cities from 44 countries across the world. Equally unsurprising then is the conversational frequency of the word ‘cross-eyed’ from members of the judging committees.
“It’s a lot of reading”, says author Colum McCann, who judged the award in 2001 when Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod’s ‘No Great Mischief’ prevailed. “I think I read well over a hundred books, but you get to discover new voices and jump around from continent to continent. It’s also great that it doesn’t go on reputation or your previous publishing history. It goes for a particular piece of work. It’s selective in that respect and it was a fun thing to judge”.
McCann of course knows all about awards – his novel ‘Let The Great World Spin’ won the Impac in 2011. How did it change things for him as a writer? “To get an award like that in your home town, an award that comes from libraries, the heart of the reading population, was fantastic”, he says. “It was a moment of pure pride for me. Of course it’s also a very generous literary prize and that changes things and shifts things for you. It justifies the work and it shows you that there are readers out there that believe in literature”.
Fostering this love of literature ubiquitously is one of the primary motivations of the Impac award, according to Deputy Dublin City Librarian Brendan Teeling: “We set out to create an award that would celebrate Dublin’s literary heritage and reward excellence in world literature. I think we’ve managed to do that and the quality of the winners is there for everyone to see. We’ve brought literature to people’s attention that they otherwise maybe wouldn’t have come across”.
The range is the core of the Impac’s reputation. “There is nothing local about the Impac”, says Irish author James Ryan who judged the award in 2009, when Michael Thomas won for ‘Man Gone Down’. “It brings voices to us that we wouldn’t have known. The year I was judging there were two or three contemporary French authors who I had never heard of, whose work I consequently came to value very highly”, And how did he handle the workload of reading approximately 150 novels in the space of a few months? “It’s a great pleasure when you see those four big boxes arriving in your office on a truck cart, not least because you look like such a dogged and unrelenting reader”, Ryan says. “But seriously, coming into contact with that kind of fiction is an education and a privilege”.
In literary circles the Impacis seen as loftyish. Whereas the Man Booker Prize has in the past been criticised for its selection process – novelist and former Booker judge, AL Kennedy, disdained the award as “a pile of crooked nonsense” in 2001 – but the Impac is applauded for its more democratic ontogenesis.
“It’s a leveller”, says arts journalist and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson. “With other awards there are criteria and structures for getting books into the realm of nomination, but with Impac you don’t feel the weight of publishers and publicists pushing their books towards the libraries or judging panel. It’s libraries listening to what people are talking about and acknowledging the books they’re borrowing. The jockeying that goes on in other awards is absent and that’s what makes Impac so refreshing”.
It’s a great pleasure when you see those four big boxes arriving in your office on a truck cart
Poet and former judge Gerald Dawe agrees and also rides the ugly horseracing metaphor, highlighting that the lack of commercial pressure ensures fair judgement based on literary value: “There’s no agenda. The Booker and these other awards are very valuable, but they seem to have become almost like horseraces. Impac lives in a stress-free zone outside of the commercial marketing hothouse. It’s not caught up in the literary business. It also has great outreach schemes that engage readers. Groups across the globe will follow through on the longlist and nominate various titles”.
But is the Impac as well known as the Booker or the Costa? According to Sinéad Gleeson, a monetary prize of this magnitude deserves more recognition: “It should be as big as the Booker or the Costa. It’s a life-changing prize for an author but people don’t talk about the Impac as much, there isn’t the same hype as there is with some of the others. It’s a shame”.
Dublin City Library says that the media coverage for Impac has increased over the years. “We get a lot of support from the Irish media, but it’s also picked up internationally”, says Teeling. “The Booker is on the go an awful lot longer and the English language publishing world in Europe is centred on London so a lot of media coverage for the Booker or the Costa and those types of awards is generated in the UK. It’s a much bigger market and they are bound to get much more publicity there as a result”.
McCann says that the award has a significant profile in the US. “The Impac has an impact over there. You’ll always see an article in the New York Times the morning after the awards. It does have a currency over there that maybe it doesn’t quite so much have in Britain. But it has huge influence in Ireland and in the States it’s the same. It’s an important and recognised award”.
As a lecturer in Trinity College, Gerald Dawe prizes the fact that the award gets people making judgements about the fundamentals of good literature: “How a character is created, how a world is rendered, how a story is dramatised – it brings a book back to the structure of using language”. Dawe was on the panel in 2007, the year that saw Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s book ‘Out Stealing Horses’ win from a shortlist that included Salman Rushdie, J M Coetzee, Sebastian Barry and Cormac McCarthy. Did the judges have difficulty agreeing? “There were frank and robust exchanges,” he teases. “But the consensus was reached easily enough for Petterson’s wonderful book. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a judge”. Happy though cross-eyed.
Translations such as ‘Out Stealing Horses’ get their chance to shine in the Impac. Since 1996 when the award was first established, seven of the 17 winners have been translated works. “I love the fact that there’s work in translation and that the translators themselves get involved”, says McCann. “There’s far too little attention given to translators so it’s great to see those works on there. The award is internationally acrobatic in that sense, it’s transnational”.
His new novel ‘TransAtlantic’ is out this week, but McCann feels no trepidation: “I feel like I’ve been lucky so far and I’m happy for the luck to go elsewhere”, he says. “It doesn’t put any extra pressure on. In fact, what the IMPAC really does is give you new readers to expand your lungs”.