Does IMPAC have an impact?

 

With its huge prize and global span, the Impac should be the most high-profile of literary awards – but it depends on where you live, writes SINÉAD GLEESON

THIS WEEK, the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction was announced (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna). Every year, that prize spawns obligatory editorials about the inverse sexism of an all-female prize. Similarly, when the Man Booker shortlist is announced, there is hand-wringing about unjust omissions. Both prizes are well-known, yet both are trumped financially by the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. This year’s winner, announced on June 17th, will net a €100,000 prize, but the award doesn’t have the huge profile of the other contests.

There is something far more democratic about the Impac, with its absence of lobbying or of PR tsunamis by publishers clambering to get their books on the shortlist. Selections are submitted by libraries around the world and more than 150 entries are reduced to a shortlist of eight.

Eoin Purcell, of Irish Publishing News, has mixed views about how the books are chosen. “The fact that it’s selected by libraries is both its strength and its weakness,” he says. “No one has any ownership of the prize because it comes from such a broad spectrum. Even the judging panel – though frequently comprised of big literary names – are not household names.”

When the Orange Prize appointed singer Lily Allen to its judging panel in 2008 it was first accused of dumbing down, and then of snobbery after Allen withdrew before judging began. Founded in 1994, the Impac award is a year older than the Orange Prize but its relative youth isn’t the reason it doesn’t share the same international reputation.

Purcell believes that while the Impac doesn’t have the profile of other prizes, it’s slowly starting to establish itself. “One thing that makes it so important is that it has a global input,” he says. “It’s aggregating the reading tastes from a very broad range of cultures, and it’s good that there’s a prize that actually does that.”

This global span of nominating libraries always throws up obscure authors, small publishers and books in translation. The Impac has opened this journalist up to authors – Per Petterson, Christoph Hein, Jean Echenoz – that I would never have discovered otherwise. Its inclusion of non-English-language books is often criticised, but when Petterson won in 2007, his was the only book in translation on a shortlist that included English- language heavyweights Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy.

“As with subtitled films, there can be a certain resistance to books in translation, which affect their commerciality,” says Purcell. “If Joseph O’Neill was to win this year, it would improve the Impac’s profile here. O’Neill is the only Irish writer on a shortlist that includes British writers Ross Raisin, Zoë Heller and Robert Edric, American Marilynne Robinson and European writers Muriel Barbery (French), Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch) and Christoph Hein (German).

The consensus is that it’s one of the most accessible Impac shortlists in years. Robinson won last year’s Orange Prize, Heller is best known for the book and film version of Notes on a Scandal,and O’Neill’s Netherland had a ringing endorsement from Barack Obama. Shortlist inclusion generates publicity, but does it seep into public consciousness and translate into sales? Louisa Cameron runs Raven Books, an independent bookshop in Blackrock, Dublin.

“As a bookseller, the Impac prize is notoriously non- commercial, but this year I’m genuinely able to enthuse about it,” she says. “I really respect that about the prize – there are nominated books that wouldn’t have gotten attention here at all.”

When the shortlist was announced, Raven Books prominently displayed all eight books. Cameron finds that people ask about the titles but not about the prize. “No one has come in and asked for ‘an Impac book’, but will ask about shortlisted titles on the basis of word of mouth.”

Across town in the Jervis Centre’s Waterstone’s, there is a different attitude to the prize. David Minogue, a senior bookseller in the shop, says customers are very aware of the Impac and ask about it before it happens. Waterstone’s emphasises the prize with in-store signage and three-for-two offers on shortlisted titles. “Customers realise it’s an Irish prize, and financially a big one. Last year we had people coming in the next day looking for the winning book.”

So it affects sales? “Yes, significantly, and that’s spread across all eight books. We’ve even seen an increase in the sales of. Zoë Heller’s previous book, Notes on a Scandal. It’s an Irish prize, but it’s international and deserves to be celebrated.”

Dublin has always been feted as a literary city, and some argue that the Impac should embrace this. “There’s a need to promote the Irishness of the prize,” says Eoin Purcell. “It could be marketed more in terms of Ireland’s literary calendar.”

THIS WOULD MAKE it a fine centrepiece for Ireland’s application for Dublin to be named a Unesco City of Literature. “There’s a lot that could be done, and for very little.” There’s also a case to be made that if an Irish author makes the shortlist in any given year, the book could double as the Dublin: One City, One Book choice.

Outside Ireland, the prize’s reach is even smaller, despite its international element. Jonathan Main runs Bookseller Crow, one of London’s best known bookshops.

“We’re aware that it’s the richest book prize, but it doesn’t have a profile here, which probably comes down to very little UK press coverage, save for a small paragraph in the Guardian,” he says. “Very interesting books get chosen, but people fear translated books. That said, Petterson’s Out Stealing Horsesdefinitely got a sales boost from winning the Impac. We stocked last year’s winner but, to be honest, we sold as many copies as we would have without it winning.”

The 2009 winner, Man Gone Down, was by Michael Thomas, a debut American novelist with very little profile in Ireland. According to Nielsen BookScan, it has sold 3,563 copies in Ireland, which can only be attributable to Thomas’s Impac win.

The prize has huge merit – its selection process, its championing of books in translation and generous prize fund – and deserves a wider reputation. Perhaps its next 16 years, spurred by internet activity and cross-pollination with Irish arts events, could achieve that.