Winged victory of Nike. The system of literary prizes in Poland

The situation with literary prizes in Poland can be compared to the global film industry. In the country of the Vistula River, we have a literary equivalent of the Oscar, the Nike Literary Prize, conferred annually since 1997 by Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest daily newspaper in Poland. Each year this award provokes media discussions and fierce debates, it turns prize-winning books into bestsellers, and puts authors into the literary Pantheon.

Foto: Creative Commons/ dlisbona

The Nike prize is a product of its time. The fall of communism destroyed not only the rules of the socialist economy, but also the system that shaped the hierarchy of the country’s cultural scene supported by the regime and manifested by competitions and prizes founded by different authorities, state-controlled branch unions, and associations or newspapers. The system, however, had an increasingly smaller impact on the taste of the Polish readership after the mid-70s when an independent cultural circuit established its presence in Poland.

Following the breakthrough of 1989, there appeared a void that was not even filled by a literary prize awarded by the Geneva-based Kościelski Foundation which was commonly referred to as “the Polish Nobel prize for writers under the age of 40” not only due to the age limit imposed on potential candidates. Despite the fact that the award ceremony moved from Switzerland to Poland and the judges panel consisted of acclaimed critics and academics who rarely erred in their verdicts, selecting authors who later made their mark on the Polish literary landscape (such as Jerzy Pilch, Andrzej Stasiuk, Olga Tokarczuk and Tadeusz Słobodzianek), the Kościelski award remained a prestigious distinction that was mainly recognized by a narrow circle of writers, scholars and critics.

Hopes, uproar and frustration

The void was eventually filled by the Nike award, whose initiator – again a sign of the times – was a representative of the world of business and not the world of arts. The award was created by Henryka Bochniarz, a businesswoman and Minister of Industry in one of the first Polish governments after the political transformation. She convinced Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, of the merits of her idea and it was decided that the prize would be awarded to the best book of a single living author written in Polish and published in the preceding year.

A novel can thus compete with a historical book, and a collection of poems with a biography. The winning author receives a statuette designed by prominent Polish sculptor Gustaw Zemła and a check currently worth 100,000 złoty (approx. 24,000 euro). The prize money made a great impression as there was no other equally generous award for writers in Poland. The three-stage selection process lasts six months, with the final vote taking place only a few hours before the award ceremony amid unprecedented media coverage. The announcements of official nominees, and then the seven finalists chosen by the judges (luminaries of the Polish cultural life appointed each year), are greeted with great media anticipation and fanfare and there is a live broadcast of the award ceremony on public television.

The Nike award has been noted as a gigantic success. It appeared that in a country whose readership ranks close to the lowest in Europe (60% of Poles admits to not reading books at all) literature can cause strong emotions. Debates rage not only among the prominent jury members, professors, writers and critics, but also among web surfers and on internet forums not even associated with literature.

Some authors lose their nerve. In 1998, Professor Zygmunt Kubiak, a prominent scholar of antiquity, could not come to terms with his defeat (the Nike award was awarded that year to Polish Nobel prize winner Czesław Miłosz), and ostentatiously left the ceremony before its end. Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, a right-wing poet and essayist who often launched fierce attacks on Gazeta Wyborcza and was in a legal dispute with Agora, its publisher, was the Nike laureate in 2003. He did not attend the award ceremony but gladly accepted the prize money.

The Nike award proved to be the main driver for the book trade in Poland. Books honored with the Gustaw Zemła statuette disappear from bookstores the day after winning the prize. A significant increase in sales is noted by both novels and niche collections of poems, other nominated books sell equally well.

Prompted by the list of Nike winners, Poles rush to buy new additions to their home libraries. Most important is the fact that the judges panel, whose members change each year, dares to make brave decisions and promote young and controversial authors like Dorota Masłowska (the laureate in 2006), or authors forgotten and subsisting on the fringe of the mainstream, like Marian Pilot, the winner last year, one of the last representatives of the rural trend in Polish literature. Andrzej Wajda, a film director, is right in saying that thanks to the Nike award he can discover an author living in the province.

Response from the right

The market, media and influential success and renown of the Nike award is a thorn in the side of most right-wing conservative circles and Michnik’s opponents, who interpret the jury’s verdicts as a demonstration of cultural politics imposed by Gazeta Wyborcza. Nasz Dziennik, a daily published by a media group headed by Fr. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a populist Roman Catholic priest, declared the prize awarded to Dorota Masłowska for her whistle-blowing book written in Polish slang The Queen’s Peacock (Paw Królowej), to be “an act against Polishness.”

Five years after the foundation of the Nike award, conservative right-wing circles created their own award under the auspices of Józef Mackiewicz, a writer and publicist. The judges panel has been headed by Marek Nowakowski, a prose-writer, and the other members include leading academics, writers and publicists who are also open to the former’s political views. These views are demonstrated in their selections, which, especially over the past five years, have promoted authors openly sympathizing with the right wing of Polish politics.

The award has even been nicknamed “the rightist Nike,” which rather reflects the wishful thinking of its organizers than its actual prestige. It attracts much less interest, does not incite public debates, barely translates into higher book sales, and offers much less prize money (the winning author receives a check worth $10,000).

Regional, but noteworthy

Two other literary prizes founded by local authorities enjoy much more prestige, namely the “Angelus,” financed by the city of Wrocław, and the “Gdynia,” sponsored by the local government of Gdynia. Both were founded in 2006, and are an expression of a new trend in the politics of Poland’s major cities. Following European Union accession, local Polish politicians have promoted the marketing potential of culture, sensing that literature can promote their cities as effectively as a football club or film festival, maybe not in an equally spectacular manner, but at a relatively lower cost. However, the similarities between the two literary awards end here.

The “Angelus,” which derives its name from a baroque Silesian poet and mystic Angelus Silesius, is an international award. The jury, headed by Russian poet and journalist Natalya Gorbanevskaya, awards authors from Central Europe who, in their books, “take on issues most important for the modern world and deepen the knowledge of other cultures.” Malicious commentators say this is the reason why the “Angelus” statuette (and a check worth 150,000 złoty, equivalent to approx. 34,000 euro) has never been awarded to an author from Poland. To date, the winning authors have included foreign writers such as Yuri Andrukhovych, Martin Pollack, Josef Škvorecký, and György Spiró.

The “Gdynia” literary prize, sponsored by the city’s mayor, is awarded in three categories: prose, poetry, and essay writing. The winning authors, who are selected by a judges panel consisting of leading literary academics and translators, receive memorial statuettes and checks for 50,000 złoty. Because of its division into three categories, the “Gdynia” is perceived as the “fairest” of the major literary prizes in Poland. The Gdynia judges do not have to face the dilemmas that the Nike judges have – there is no need to compare a novel with a collection of poems, or a collection of essays with short stories.

And the rest…

Other awards recognized by a statistical poll include “Paszporty Polityki” (Polityka Passports), awarded by the editorial board of the leftist opinion weekly “Polityka” in several categories, including literature. Awarded since 1993, the prize is dedicated to young promising authors (under the age of 40) and is intended to be a passport for their future literary career. The idea has indeed worked. The verdict of the editorial judges panel, supported by nominations by acclaimed publicists and critics from other media who are invited to join the selection process, is broadly discussed and the winning authors are assured of the publicity generated by the award’s sponsors.

The literary marketplace is rounded out by two more literary genre awards. However, neither the Silesius award, sponsored by the city of Wrocław and awarded to poets for their entire literary output, for a debut, and for the book of the year, nor the Janusz A. Zajdel Award, awarded to science fiction authors, are of greater significance. They are prestigious, yet niche distinctions recognized by their own literary circles and of rather limited influence on the reading preferences of the Poles.

There is only one literary Oscar in Poland. The prize which enjoys authentic public recognition and can influence the bestseller book lists much more strongly than the Nobel Prize is the Nike award.

This article was published in Visegrad Insight 2/2012

Cezary Polak

Cezary Polak

is journalist and publicist. He works as an editorial staff member of the weekly “Kultura TV”, writes for Tygodnik Powszechny and the weekly news magazine Wprost. He is the founder and organizer of “Literature in the Suburbs”, a literary festival in Warsaw.