People and Events
The Gratiaen, the Booker, the Pulitzer

by Nan
Yes, it is two weeks since the Gratiaen Award was made. But this year it was featured more widely in the media and let’s admit it, generated a mite of controversy since a translation from the Sinhala won the award for 20O2. Even the loudest critic was totally congratulatory of Vijita Fernando who won the award for her translation "Out of the Darkness" but the stipulation in the awarding criteria by Michael Ondaatje himself that translations were to be considered was what troubled some.

The genres that compete are wide enough already - poetry, short story, drama, novel - in fact all creative writing is in. So also translations. This last is what causes some head shaking, since the original creativity and writing is in either Sinhala or Tamil and the Gratiaen is for creative writing in English. Counter argument is that translating to English too is creative writing. I pass no judgement. It’s not that I perch myself on a fence but accept the judges’ decision completely.

"The Gratiaen Prize is given every year to the best work of literary writing in English by a Sri Lankan, resident in this country. The judges can make their selection from any work of fiction, poetry, literary memoir or translation either published during the previous year or in manuscript. The winner receives a prize of Rs 100,000."

So there! It’s all clearly stated and the objective of the award needs to be changed if translations are to be out. Over to the Trustees: Godrey Gunatileke, Ranjini Obeysekere, Arjuna Parakrama, Nihal Fernando, Kammi de Soysa, Gillian Ratnayake, Radhika Coomaraswamy and Walter Perera.

Workshop to help the also-rans

My strong contention/plea is that a workshop be conducted where those who submit manuscripts and do not make it to the short list of five, meet the judges and get feedback on their work. That would be a big bonus to would-be writers.

Hopefuls have this idea of the Gratiaen in their mind and then set down their literary creation systematically (what a word to use with creativity!) all through the year, or as some do, in frantic hurry awakening to the fact the year is fast drawing to a close. Then it’s a rush to get print outs of your computer work; three more copies and a dash to CBA or wherever to get the four mss. bound and another dash to Marga Institute to hand over the copies by the afternoon of 31 December. I have seen more than one mss. being bound by CBA on the 31st!

A week before the awards ceremony, hopefuls go to the British Council for the announcement of the short list with a reading ready. The list reaches the bottom of the alphabet but your reading lies undisturbed in your bag or pocket. The five short listed entries are all commented on fully.

So the also-rans want to know the whys and wherefores of their failure - not, I repeat not in the belief they should have been short listed but to know where and how they fell short. That would be of immense help and an encouragement to a try-again-Bruce the next time around.

Thus the plea for a workshop where the judges would comment on the works submitted admittedly no easy task since the year 20O2 had more than thirty entries. But the judges have read all the mss. The commenting could be assigned equally to the three, and perhaps confined to those entrants who indicate they want feedback.

Kamini de Soysa was very supportive of the idea when it was suggested over the telephone. She would have to bear the brunt of the organisation of the workshop. She had organised a workshop of a somewhat different nature earlier on, but it was really too massive a job of work. She was positive about this type of workshop.

The British Award

The Booker Prize, referred to colloquially as the "Booker", is a literary prize sponsored by Booker McConnell Ltd and administered by the National Book League in the UK. It is awarded to the best full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the UK, the Commonwealth, Eire, Pakistan or South Africa. Publishers are invited to submit entries with scheduled publication dates between January and November of the award year.

In the past few years an effort had been made to limit the number of books a publisher can submit - now three per publisher. The prize itself, currently valued at 20,000 pounds sterling, is awarded in late October. As of 1999, short-listed novelists also receive 1,000 pounds each. Being short listed alone bumps up sale of the book immensely.

We are rather familiar with the Booker, having had Michael Ondaatje winning it and the controversial novel The God of Small Things bringing honour to our neighbour country through Arundathi Roy.

The American Award

The Pulitzer Prize was, like the Gratiaen, the endowment of one man. In 1904 Joseph Pulitzer made provision in his will for the awards as an "incentive to excellence". He specified four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one for education and four travelling scholarships. In the letters category, prizes were to go to an American novel, an original American play performed in New York, a book on the history of the United States, an American biography and a history of public service by the press. He made provision for changes in this and changes there have been.

The initiation of the prize was in 1917. The Pulitzer Board has wide ranging powers, even to overturn judgements made by juries of the different categories. It has increased the number of awards to 21 including poetry, music, and photography as subjects. In 1999 the Board extended the competition to newspaper online presentations and the music award was opened to mainstream music, not confined to classical music alone. Thus in 1998 and 1999 awards were made to George Gershwin and Duke Ellington - their centennial years respectively.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer died in his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, a dream of his fulfilled to have university education offered journalists. The Board he entrusted his mandate to was composed principally of newspaper publishers and the President of Columbia University and scholars. In 2000, the Board had two newspaper executives, eight editors, five academics including the President of Columbia University and Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, one columnist and the administrator of the prizes. The Chair rotates annually to the most senior member. Voting members are allowed three terms of three years each.

A gold medal is awarded the winner in public service; the 2003 winner being the Boston Globe. The other winners each get cash awards of $7,500, raised in 2001 from $5,000. Four Pulitzer fellowships of $ 5,000 each are awarded, enabling foreign travel, study, etc. The cash award to most winners is incidental to the prestige accruing to them and their works. "The Pulitzer accolade on the cover of a book or on the marquee of a theatre where a prize-winning play is staged, usually translates itself to commercial gain".

By the 1970s it was found that the money accruing from the original endowment was inadequate. In 1978 a foundation for the creation of a supplementary endowment was made and fund raising undertaken. The program is now comfortably funded with two extra endowments and the fee of $50 charged for each entry to the competition.


Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911)

The benefactor was born in Mako, Hungary, the son of a wealthy grain merchant of MagyaJewish origin and Gennan mother. The family moved to Budapest and Pulitzer was educated there. At 17, restive and impatient, he became a soldier and tried to enlist in the Austrian army, but weak eyesight and indifferent health made this impossible. In Hamburg, he met a recruiter to the US Union Army and contracted to enlist. He served one year and then moved out and to St. Louis, where he immersed himself in self-study in English and law, while working as a baggage handler and waiter. His great career opportunity came his way in the city’s Mercantile Library’s chess room. He criticised a move and found the players were editors of the leading German language daily, Westliche Post. A job was offered and four years later, in 1872, Joseph was offered a controlling interest in the paper. He became a front line newspaper journalist and then, at 25, a publisher. He married Kate Davis, a socially prominent Washington woman.

He faced severe competition as the head of the The World and was taunted as "the Jew who denied his race and religion." But his paper did very well; he became known for his integrity and sharp yet honest news retailing. He managed to collect sufficient public subscriptions to have a pedestal build for the Statue of Liberty, which had been lying in France waiting to be installed in the entrance to New York harbour.

In 1890, at age 43, Joseph Pulitzer left his editor’s chair for good, and never returned to the newsroom, although he was part of his publishing and newspaper world from his home. He was virtually blind and was subject to severe bouts of depression, brought on mostly by the verbal lashing he received from rival newspapers and William Randolph Hearst. He developed a rare illness that made him excruciatingly sensitive to noise and so he went abroad seeking cures. He failed to find them. The next two decades he spent in his "soundproof vault" as he referred to his cabin aboard his yacht Liberty, his "Tower of Silence" in his mansion in Maine and at his New York residence.

He left $2,000,000 for the establishment of a school of journalism, one fourth of which was to be "applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature and the advancement of education." In doing this he stated: "I am deeply interested in the progress and elevation of journalism, having spent my life in that profession, regarding it as a noble profession and one of unequalled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people. I desire to assist in attracting to this profession young men of character and ability, also to help those already engaged in the profession to acquire the highest moral and intellectual training." (No Booth Luce with her camera and Anapour TV reporting worldwide were in the business then)

Pulitzer summarised his credo thus: "Our [Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which a popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists future generations. "