What we need are more literary awards


AS A guest speaker last June at the Creative Arts Programme (CAP) - an in-camp hothouse for local literary talent - I asked my audience of secondary and JC students what would most motivate them to keep writing as working adults.

There's no dearth of closet writers: merely a shortage of channels for them to come to light

''Money'', was the first answer.

''To win awards'', was the quick second.

Such youthful idealism, no?

Hey, these are some of our best and brightest - as apt to scale the heights of investment banking as pen the Next Great Novel.

They're spoilt for choice, really.

And in a society that values visible achievement, why expend their talents where it's unlikely to be noticed, or be added to CVs?

''Why waste time'' is the cardinal principle they're obeying here.

After all, even their seniors cleave to the hard calculus of cost-benefit.

Some of my prolific literary colleagues - credible, award-winning writers, mind you - admit in private that they used the Singapore Literature Prize (now defunct) as an incentive to spin out words to a regular deadline.

Seems that awards are still a great way to get artists to crank up their creative juices. So, why can't we have more of them?

The only big-time literary award we have left is the National Arts Council- (NAC) and SPH-backed Golden Point Award, for which entries closed last Friday.

Last year, the organisers received 400 submissions in the English short-story section alone.

For the first time this year, the Golden Point is open to poetry, and it's been flooded with entries.

The good folks at NAC are still counting the chads on this one.

There's no dearth of literary interest in Singapore - merely a shortage of channels for our closet scribblers to come to light.

To be fair, it's not only the mercenary impulse at work here.

Without an established culture of critique and review, awards are just about the only way to get one's work noticed, appraised and recognised.

And, like it or not, the busy reading public relies on awards to tell them which are the must-reads.

Established literary capitals bank on a plethora of high-profile awards to sustain public interest in the book business.

Many are open - at least in theory - to an international field.

So why not develop our own classy literary award, and invite entries from all over the region or the world?

Better yet, get a few international names as judges in order to raise the bar and the level of interest.

Heck, make it big enough and you might even attract some real literary foreign talent into our little cosmopolis.

But, let's first demonstrate that we appreciate quality when we see it. And never mind if it ruffles a few feathers.

If winning and giving world-class awards are what it takes to put us on the literary world map, fine. Our own folks are up to it: Singaporean Teng Qian Xi, now 18, was the first overseas winner of the British Poetry Society's Simon Elvin Young Poet Award last year.

And some of our veterans have either won, judged or organised international awards such as the South-East Asian Write award and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

And that's why, when this year's CAP participants tell me they're only waiting for an award to write for, I'll tell them: Why not go start one?

© alvin pang
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