Conservative confirmation or progressive lottery? The world of Czech literary awards

The small Czech language community has lost its literary authorities. Czechs don’t have time to read fiction; on the other hand, there are more fictional books being published than ever before. The contemporary situation in literature is generally perceived as that of a crisis or chaos. And the existing literary prizes play a considerable role in all of this.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Cian Ginty

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The Czech Republic is a country with a relatively small book market; in spite of that, more than twenty literary and book prizes are awarded every year, of course excluding the daunting number of regional, genre and amateur prizes. My guess is that almost nobody in the various literary circles would be able to enumerate them all. If the current situation in literature lacks transparency and readers find it confusing, then this also applies to literary prizes. Of course certain awards are more respected and enjoy more publicity than others, and writers themselves truly crave them. Here we will focus on the top prizes and some of their interesting circumstances.

Exile, underground and big publishers

Some of the contemporary awards have existed uninterrupted for decades. For example, the State Prize for Literature (Státní cena za literaturu) has been awarded, with a few breaks, since the dawn of modern history as it was founded two years after the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Another example would be the Tom Stoppard Prize (Cena Toma Stopparda) which is an initiative of the exile circles and was established by the Charter 77 Foundation in Stockholm in 1983; or the Jaroslav Seifert Prize (Cena Jaroslava Seiferta) which was started in 1986 by the same foundation.

On the other hand, the Revolver Revue Prize (Cena Revolver Revue) has underground origins – the journal Revolver Revue was formed in 1984 as a samizdat magazine with underground poetics, which still exists today. The prize’s policy covers not only writers, but also critics, philosophers, translators, musicians, visual artists and “secret organizations.”1 Another important literary prize – actually a survey – is The Book of the Year (Kniha roku), which is bestowed by the conservative daily Lidové noviny and is based on the votes of a host of intellectual celebrities. Its focus ranges from novels to memoirs and essays.

Winners of these prizes enjoy a substantial increase of critical response, but the prizes themselves have little more than a limited impact on the readers who don’t belong to the small intellectual community. There are, however, two prizes which are often criticized for shameless commercialism. These are the Magnesia Litera Award and the Book Club Prize (Cena Knižního klubu). The winners of the former are selected by boards consisting of nearly three hundreds literary personalities (writers, critics, publishers, theorists, etc.). The final awarding ceremony is broadcast live on TV and the show is usually moderated by one of the most popular and sexiest Czech actresses.

Thanks to its wide medial support, Magnesia Litera can indeed increase sales and helps to promote contemporary literature. The Book Club Prize is organized by one of the biggest publishing houses oriented towards commercially successful fiction, and the winner – possibly a rising star – is chosen among hitherto unpublished manuscripts. We can’t omit the Jiří Orten Prize (Cena Jiřího Ortena) which is intended for young authors under the age of thirty. The winners include more than one, presently respected author –as well as lots of those whose books were a little more than youthful attempts.

Two ways of evaluating literature

In the most recent Czech history, i.e. the twenty-two years following the Velvet Revolution, literary awards have played a very ambivalent role. In general, we can distinguish two basic strategies. On the one hand, we expect the revelation of new trends or authors (the “progressive” awards: the Jiří Orten Prize, Magnesia Litera, the Book Club Prize); on the other hand, we only appreciate living legends (the “conservative” awards: the State Prize, the Seifert Prize, the Tom Stoppard Prize), i.e. writers representing unquestionable qualities who had been excluded from the official Czech literary circles before November 1989.

This illustrates two tendencies. First, we are trying to repay a historical debt which was formed during the communist era. With some exaggeration, we can say this is the task of the “conservative” awards. The awardees represent outstanding achievements in literature, but presently the prizes are often seen as awards for earlier merits, for the author’s previous works and political attitudes during the twenty years of normalization. This makes sense as some kind of dealing with the past. Literary prizes, however, need to function in the real contemporary world. Literary contests should work, at their best, as a link between writers, publishers, reviewers and readers; they should point out tendencies, emphasize values and quality and last but not least, promote literature in the context of other media.

Strengths and weaknesses

The most threatened species among Czech literary prizes are the “conservative” ones. There are two reasons for this. First, the relationship between jury members and the authors has been recycled many times – the jurors are frequently former or future awardees. This provides something like a private party. And second, prospective awardees are becoming scarce. This is reflected in the case of the poet Karel Šiktanc, who was awarded the Seifert Prize for the second time last year. Does it mean that current literature is gasping for breath, at least when compared to former generations? Or is it just that the criteria is changing? Will the “conservative” prize committees prove bold enough to step out of the safety of their authors’ circles?

On the other hand, the generally bolder “progressive” awards are often struggling as far as quality is concerned. As if their juries were at their wits’ end, unable to decide whether they want to seek new talents, or just look for an interesting story for the media. This is the case of Lan Pham Thi – a young Vietnamese female student who was awarded the Book Club Literary Prize in 2009. The fact of a Czech literary prize being awarded to a young Vietnamese sounded extremely unusual and a great uproar was expected. However, the hoped-for sensation didn’t take place and the affair was exposed as a hoax: Lan Pham Thi was no Asian beauty, but the pen-name of a not-so-attractive second-rate author called Jan Cempírek.

An undisputed weakness of commercial prizes is their ambition to create attractive and bestselling writers. Czech critic Petr A. Bílek calls this phenomenon “one-year authors” – which is essentially a showbiz principle. The idea of a reliable touchstone of literary quality belongs to the realm of dreams. Another thing is that a second-rate writer can grow young, acquire some exotic beauty and join a minority group of the society – thus securing the interest of the media for himself, and even gain some literary acclaim.

Such a situation only deepens the gap between critics and readers. But what is more important – while faltering critics long for some kind of multicultural revival, and at the same time strive to serve as prudent guardians of true values, everybody realizes how elusive and incalculable contemporary literature is. We are still recovering from the Normalization of the seventies and eighties which all but killed this country’s literary life.

Our situation in literature is like that in politics, or the economy, where it seems that a transparent and incorrupt democracy will be much more difficult to achieve than it had appeared in the nineties. But the cures are also similar: a connection must be restored – between the state and the citizen in the realm of politics, and between literature and the reader in the realm of books. Literary prizes are one of the instruments we can use while trying to achieve this aim.

Eva Klíčová

Eva Klíčová

is a literary critic. Her articles appear in several periodicals, including Respekt and Host.