International Dublin Literary Award Q&A
Why is the longlist so long? Why are the books out so long? Is an Irish writer always shortlisted?
Jose Eduardo Agualusa, winner of the International Dublin Literary Award 2017, with his book A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, at the awards ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House. Photograph: Alan Betson
The 2018 winner of the International DUBLIN Literary Award will be announced tomorrow. As we head for our 24th year, here we answer some of the questions we get asked all the time.
What is the award?
The International DUBLIN Literary Award is the international book prize from Dublin, a Unesco City of Literature. Presented each year since 1996 for a novel written in English or translated into English, the award is sponsored and managed by Dublin City Council.
Uniquely among literary prizes books are nominated by libraries in major cities throughout the world. There is no commercial input from publishers, booksellers, or agents. It is also unique in that no title is excluded because of geographical boundaries, author nationality, country of publication etc. unlike other awards. Because of this very open process, books are brought to our attention, and to the attention of the wider world, which might otherwise remain national.
“I applaud the way this prize will put Dublin’s name into the international lists and I both admire and sympathize with the library services’ involvement.”
Seamus Heaney, June 1995.
“Dublin is a city of literature. It’s a city that has been inscribed in literature in a way that few other cities have and I think that for us to make that a living thing we need to engage with the new work that is being published every year.”
Chris Morash, Vice Provost of Trinity College, November 2017
“Dublin has been recognised by Unesco as a City of Literature since 2010, which is not surprising considering its rich literary history and internationally acclaimed writers. However, City of Literature status is not something that, once awarded, is given forever. Unesco is not just concerned with history but also fully expects those within its creative cities network to constantly strive to nurture and support contemporary and future literary endeavour and to collaborate internationally. Dublin City Council is strongly committed to maintaining Dublin’s City of Literature designation which not only confirms our position on the world literary map but also brings significant benefits to the city from cultural tourism.
“In this context, the International DUBLIN Literary Award is the jewel in the city’s literary crown with its vast worldwide network of writers, translators, libraries & publishers.”
Alison Lyons, Director, Dublin Unesco City of Literature
I would like to thank this city of Dublin for adding to its long history of love for writing and this language we all speak, for offering it a home and a name and lending it some of the glory of a long tradition.
David Malouf, first winner, 1996
It is more than fitting that Ireland should have a major literary award, considering its own long tradition.
Margaret Atwood, May 1996
I think it’s a lovely thing that (Dublin) City Council sponsors this award. It’s a great tribute to the city as a place where books and literature are valued.
Joseph O’Connor, 2015
We were so pleased with it’s (the award’s) contribution to the life of the city and particularly the literary life of the city that we felt it was well worth continuing and we are delighted now that it is a city council initiative, sponsored by the city council and generating we believe significant benefits for the city.
Owen Keegan, chief executive, Dublin City Council, 2015
Why is the long list so very, very long?
The long list has already been selected by librarians in cities all over the world. Any book is eligible regardless of where it was published or where the author is from. Librarians have considered who knows how many books to come up with the three they send to us. Some libraries only nominate one title but when you think about 111 libraries taking part in 2018 that adds up.
Also different from other prizes, we do publish the list of all the eligible books, so everyone can see who is there and get involved in the process from the start. You may not agree with what the judges put on the shortlist but you will know all of the books that were in the mix.
Where are the libraries from Asia and other parts of the world?
Do we invite them? Yes, we invite libraries in over 400 cities all over the world to join us and we would be delighted if they did. However, we do understand that not all libraries are in a position to do so. There may be a language problem, though we do translate the rules into the major languages. Also, this is a prize for a book that has been translated into English in the last five years and not all libraries can find a book that meets the rules. Many libraries don’t have time to get involved and we understand that too. We are happy to help as much as we can and to make it as easy as possible for any library who wants to participate. As Jim Crace said in 2015: “This is a prize that looks in every nook and cranny in the world to find its winners.”
Since 1996 libraries in 85 countries and 237 cities have selected novels for the award amounting to 3,064 novels.
The nomination forms have literarily travelled the world from Mongolia, Iceland, Sierra Leone, Hawaii, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Tanzania and Suriname, bringing delight and wonder to us that libraries all over the world are basically doing the same job wherever we are and also bringing great joy to the stamp collectors on the staff!
Libraries love being the ones who pick the winner!
“Biblioteca Demonstrativa has been presenting Brazil’s nominations since 2004. This is the first time that we achieve the top of the list. It is also the very first time the prize is given to a book written in Portuguese. Many thanks for this fantastic opportunity given to us, libraries of the world.”
Ana Maria da Costa Souza, Brazil 2017, on hearing that A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from Portuguese, was the winner of the 2017 award.
“The appeal and magic of international fiction was illuminated in the moment that we saw a medium sized metropolitan city in the US (Jacksonville) and a library in the capital city of the second most populous country in the world (New Delhi) had this title in common. The distance of over 8,000 miles separation to be unified by a novel is a truly wondrous concept.”
Kathy Tekin, Jacksonville Public Library on hearing that Family Life by Akhil Sharma was the winner of the 2016 award.
Authors also love the fact that their books were nominated by libraries. For many of them it’s where they spent much of their childhood and even where they wrote their first books.
“I was glad to learn that a book of mine was chosen for this prize for many reasons, but particularly because of the selection process - because the books are chosen by public libraries - and because the whole award process is run by Dublin City Public Libraries. I became a writer in public libraries. Not only because if I hadn’t had access to books in some of these libraries, as a child, I never would have started writing, but because to a great extent my first book was actually written in a public library.”
Jose Eduardo Agualusa, 2017 winner
“But now I have the pleasure to tell you both how immensely delighted I am for this honor and especially for the fact that my work was nominated not only by a Finnish library but also an American one, which makes me extra proud. The Dublin Literary Award is an irreplaceable institution when it comes to recognising the quality and value of translated literature in English language market.”
Johanna Sinisalo, author of The Core of the Sun, 2018 longlist
Why have the books been out so long?
It’s true, that by the time we announce the longlist many of the books will be familiar to a lot of readers. Some will already have won awards. The reason for this is because of the lengthy nomination process. It takes time to send out the forms, to allow people time to make their deliberations and to contact the publishers. Remember these are coming from all over the world and from some quite remote places. On the other hand it does mean that people will have read some of the books and have heard about others, which makes the list much more interesting when it comes out. It has also been said that our award gives a book a last chance to make an impression before it goes out of print. Many of the books on our longlists have received a new lease of life as a result of their inclusion on our lists. Many have even been reprinted, found another publisher or been made available for purchase in Europe for the first time.
It’s not just about the money!
This is a very lively addition to the finances!
Kevin Barry 2013 winner
The winners of the award since 1996 have come from 17 countries; Australia, Spain, Romania/Germany, the UK, Canada, France, Turkey, Morocco, the USA, Ireland, Norway, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Colombia, India and Angola. They have included two writers who were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: Orhan Pamuk and Herta Müller.
Winning the award has made huge differences to their lives/ careers, not just financially but as Jim Crace said in 2015: “It is a prize which has become greatly coveted by writers everywhere – and not only because of the value of the cheque that accompanies it but also – mostly, I hope – because of the validation it provides to every book that is nominated or longlisted or shortlisted or declared the lucky winner. This is a prize that breathes hope into novelists but also gives new leases of life to the titles that make the final cuts.”
Last year Angolan writer, José Eduardo Agualusa and the British translator, Daniel Hahn were awarded the prize for their novel A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Portuguese.
Agualusa’s speech, delivered by Daniel Hahn, talked about coming from a war-torn country and the importance of access to reading which we take for granted in Ireland.
“Great literature, meanwhile, almost always works in the opposite direction. It allows us to see the humanity in others, even those foreign to us. Even those who seem like monsters to us. If literature develops our empathy muscles, makes us better people, then you might think of public libraries as weapons of massive construction: powerful tools for personal development and the development of societies.”
He went on to say that he intended to spend his prize money transporting his personal library from Portugal to Mozambique and opening a public library on the island where he now lives. We look forward to hearing about that.
Not to be outdone, Daniel Hahn announced that he was going to use his prize to fund an award for first-time translated novels. This has already been done and the inaugural first award was announced a couple of weeks ago.
In 2015, Jim Crace talked about how he felt that winning awards was a younger man’s game and how he had decided to retire from writing. However, with the success of Harvest and with winning the 2015 award he had decided not to put down his pen just yet. Three years later, The Melody was published. Jim talked about the money – “I don’t have to take an advance from my publisher” – but also about the validation, which encouraged him to continue writing.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s win in 2014 coincided with the World Cup. Though obviously very focused on his win, Juan Gabriel was also anxious to get to the pub to watch the Spanish match after his reading event in the Dublin City Library. Juan Gabriel was also a huge Joyce fan and extended his visit to Dublin to participate in the Bloomsday celebrations.
“For me, it’s all about the names: the names of writers who have received the award before me and whose work I’ve admired and looked up to; but particularly the name of James Joyce. I have often said that there are two books that made me want to become a writer: One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read when I was 16, and Ulysses, which I read three years later. I’ve always felt at home in Dublin and in Irish literature. So in more ways than one, this prize is a sort of homecoming.”
Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane was the winner in 2013. Kevin said: “It’s an amazing honour to get this prize. It was a brilliant shortlist with writers I’ve read and loved for years on it, and I’m really thrilled to get it. It’s big awards like this that keep books and fiction and the literature that we love and that sustains us at the centre of the conversation in this country. Literature still has such a central place here but we can never be complacent about that or self-congratulatory about it – we just have to fight like dogs to keep that true … Because what I believe very strongly is that books are the best of us.”
For Colum McCann as an already very successful writer the prize from a career point of view would not have had the same effect as a new author. However, it meant the world to him: “Winning the Dublin award was a return home for me. To receive an international award in my hometown was the single greatest honour of my career. I am still humbled and exhilarated by the whole experience… and I am eternally grateful for it.”
It also returned the book to the No. 1 spot in Irish bookshops. The British publisher of Let the Great World Spin, Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury, wrote: “We are thrilled that his book is number one in Ireland again as a result of the prize.”
The 2009 winner was a debut novel by US writer Michael Thomas. Larry Rohter, writing in the New York Times wrote: “Short of being selected for Oprah’s book club, winning the International Dublin Literary Award may be the best thing that could happen to a new voice like Mr Thomas. The prize is worth €100,000, or about $138,000, and coincides with publication of Man Gone Down in Britain. The announcement immediately generated inquiries from foreign publishing houses.”
Thomas said: “It lowers the stress of chasing money around and provides some time. I can pay off whatever credit card debt I have and get off this high wire for a couple of years.”
The announcement of the 2007 winner, Out Stealing Horses, by Norwegian Per Petterson, coincided with the publication of the US edition. The US publisher, Mary Matze of Graywolf Press, wrote: “Winning the International DUBLIN Literary Award has greatly contributed to the success of the book in the USA. We are thrilled to have been the publisher of a title that is winner of a major international prize. This prize, coupled with the high calibre of the other finalists, mad reviewers sit up and take a hard look at this novel. Per Petterson’s previous novels were subsequently reprinted or published for the first time in the US.
Is there always an Irish author on the shortlist?
203 novels have been shortlisted over the years. The shortlists represent the best 10 (maximum) books as chosen by the judges from the long list and almost invariably include an Irish author, for 17 out of 23 years, so much so that we were asked during an interview one year if the judges were instructed to put an Irish author on the list! Of course they are not, we have absolutely nothing to do with the judging process. The presence of Irish authors is just a testament to the quality of contemporary Irish writing. In this we definitely punch way above our weight.
In 2011 the shortlist included three Irish authors, yet knowing who they were, no one would deny that each is an outstanding writer. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn and William Trevor’s Love and Summer were all shortlisted.
William Trevor came to Dublin for the shortlist announcement in what was possibly his last visit to Dublin. At that stage he was 83. It was such a privilege to meet the author of The Ballroom of Romance, Felicia’s Journey and so many more wonderful novels and stories. William Trevor approved of awards. He said: “What is most important is that these prizes exist. It is very important that people continue giving them, particularly to younger writers, because that is the time of life when, as a fiction writer, you need most encouragement. Indeed, all prizes and particularly this one, do a considerable service to literature”.
Following the shortlist announcement in the Mansion House, William Trevor gave a master class and a signed copy of Love and Summer to some very lucky English students from Trinity and UCD.
Placement on the shortlists has resulted in books becoming available in Ireland and the UK that may previously only have been published in the US, Canada or Australia and New Zealand. It also results in reprints as the books will once again be in demand when the shortlist is announced. In some cases being shortlisted has resulted in new book deals for authors, with publishers in different countries contacting agents within hours of the announcement of the shortlist or winner. Yasmine Gooneratne’s Sweet & Simple Kind, originally published by a small publishing house in Sri Lanka, was picked up by Little, Brown and published in the UK and Canada as a result of being placed on the shortlist in 2008.
Often described as the largest prize, just how big is it?
Firstly, this is the international literary award with the big statistics! Since 1996 libraries in 85 countries and 237 cities have selected novels for the award amounting to 3064 novels (all of which have been donated by the publishers and are available for reference in the Dublin City Library, Pearse Street.
The books were written in 45 original languages, translated by 414 translators and published by 561 publishing companies worldwide.
The 3,064 novels include books written by 2097 authors from 122 different countries. 1211 were written by men and 886 by women. The most nominated authors are American Joyce Carol Oates, who has had 11 of her novels longlisted, and British author, Ian McEwan, with eight of his novels nominated.
The books were judged by 115 judges from 33 countries who came up with 203 shortlisted titles and 23 winners.
Who are the judges?
Since 1996 115 authors, translators, academics and critics have given their time to undertake the labour of love that is judging the award. The judges are paid a small honorarium for the momentous task of reading an average of 150 books. The judging panel changes every year and we try to represent as much of the world as possible, once practical considerations of distance, availability and expense have been taken into account. The judges are directed by a non-voting chair. We have been extremely grateful to US senior judge Eugene Sullivan, who has undertaken this task since 2003.
We have been honoured to include on our judging panels over the years Irish writers Brendan Kenelly, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paul Muldoon, Julia O’Faolain, Medbh McGuckian, Colm Toibín, Colum McCann, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, John Quinn, Rita Ann Higgins, Mary O’Donnell, Gerald Dawe, Eibhlin Evans, James, Ryan, Eve Patten, John Boyne, Mike McCormack, Catherine Dunne, Pat McCabe, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Carlo Gebler, and Prof Chris Morash.
They have been joined by Margaret Drabble, Tom Shapcott, David Dabydeen, Michael Holroyd, Michele Roberts, Anita Desai, Agnes Desarthe, Andrew O’Hagan, Carmen Callil, Helon Habila, Rachel Billington, Anne Fine, Zoe Wicomb, Tessa Hadley, Michael Hofmann, Tim Parks, Dubravka Ugresic, Kamila Shamsie, Giles Foden, Tash Aw, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Ian Sansom, Maya Jaggi, Ellah Allfrey, Daniel Hahn etc.
To a man and women, they have said how much they enjoyed the year and how useful it was. They have also been a very useful source for recruiting new judges, which is a kind of recommendation.
“This Dublin prize, I have to say, remains the only adult writing prize that I have ever been a part of that has both seemed fair from start to finish, and been a pleasure.”
Anne Fine, May 2010
Cathy McKenna is Senior Librarian & Award Administrator of the International DUBLIN Literary Award