Council funding for O'Connor literature award under threat


FEARS FOR the future of the younger of Ireland’s two major international literature awards threaten to overshadow the outcome of this year’s prize, due to be announced early next week.

“In the current economic climate, harsh decisions are constantly being made,” said Pat Cotter, director of the Munster Literature Centre and administrator of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, now in its eighth year.

“Cork City Council can give no guarantees that the award will survive [beyond this year]. We are all living in a time of uncertainty about everything. It’s not that the council is threatening to withdraw funding, it is just that it is as uncertain as we are. The prize has certainly justified itself,” he said.

According to Mr Cotter, there is huge international interest in the prize. “Publishers from all over the world know about it and are very active in submitting their best books,” he said.

However, as is traditional with things Irish and literary, the prize, initiated during Cork’s European capital of culture year in 2005 in honour of its native son, Frank O’Connor, is more celebrated abroad than it is here.

“It is international and to date we have had only one Irish winner, Edna O’Brien, last year,” said Mr Cotter, who recalled his embarrassment when two Japanese TV stations contacted him in 2006 for news footage when Haruki Murakami won. “I had to tell them we couldn’t help, as no Irish station had covered the event.”

Mr Cotter also stressed the consistent interest the Guardian newspaper in Britain has shown in the award: “It has given it far more detailed coverage than any Irish newspaper and it always assesses our shortlists at length.”

Originally the idea had been to have a competition for a single story but Mr Cotter urged it should instead be open to collections.

“I believe that the Frank O’Connor award has in its own way, and in a far shorter existence to date, been as vital to promoting the international short story form as Impac has been to the international novel.

“Many publishers had been reluctant to take on collections, but our prize has alerted publishers and readers to the quality and amount of good stories being written. And of course, Ireland is so closely associated with the short story.”

Since its inception in 2005, the prize, which began with €50,000 to the winning collection, has gradually been reduced. This year, the winner’s cheque is a more modest €25,000. “But this doesn’t seem to matter,” said Mr Cotter.

“We had our biggest entry this year, with international publishers submitting 78 collections from all over the world, including five in translation, one of which has made the shortlist.

“I know this is a prize to win. Eying Li won the first award and her US publisher was just as keen, even more so, to enter her second collection last year.”

Mr Cotter said he had been in contact with the council over funding. He said he was told the council could not confirm to him whether funding would be continued for the award programme and a decision had yet to be made. The council could not be reached for comment yesterday.