On Prizes, Artistic Penury and Publicity

One of my favourite short stories by Roberto Bolaño is ‘Sensini’ which opens the collection Last Evenings on Earth beautifully translated into English by Chris Andrews, but which first appeared in Spanish in the volume Llamadas telefónicas, published in Barcelona twenty years ago. In it Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego, a twenty-something-year-old exiled writer living in the outskirts of Girona and ‘poorer than a church mouse’ ekes out a living by entering municipal writing competitions. The story is as much about literary friendship as about the reality of literature and the market, about the difficulties which writers have to endure while waiting for their breakthrough. Both Sensini and Belano strike up an unusual epistolary friendship, as they share the fate of the luckless writer who soon learns to play along in the circuit of obscure literary competitions. I remember introducing this story into the compulsory reading list of the first-year module ‘Literature in History II’ at the University of East Anglia in the spring of 2012, and can only imagine the bemused English students when they first encountered it, when they read about the autobiographical element in the narrative, about how B. stands for Belano who is Bolaño, or a version of, how Sensini is only partly a fiction, based on the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto, how Ugarte in ‘Sensini’ is really Di Benedetto’s Zama, a novel which circulated for much of its literary life ‘by word of mouth’, as Belano tells us, and was then not available in English. Indeed, Zama was only recently translated into English by Esther Allen, and published last year, thirty years after Di Benedetto’s death.

This short story came to mind at our first meeting of New Spanish Books 2017 back in March, when we discussed the relative importance of some literary contests. Although publishers are always keen to flag up their authors’ awards and prizes, literary prizes, as literary texts, need to be ‘translated’ before they mean anything at all in another culture. Who grants this prize? Who judges it? In a UK context, for example, what is the difference between the Sherborne Short Story Competition (with its first prize of £250) and the Bridport Prize for Short Fiction (with £5,000 going to the winner)? And what about the ‘richest prize for a single short story in the English language’, The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, with its fabulous ‘prize tag’ of £30,000? I can only think that Belano would have calculated his chances carefully, entering only those little regional contests he had a chance of winning, bearing in mind that in most cases he’d have had to pay a fee to enter. And, as a struggling exiled writer, if the fictional Spain of the story’s setting had been the UK, he might not have been eligible for The Sunday Times award, as you need to have ‘a record of prior publication in creative writing in the United Kingdom or Ireland’ to enter. Sensini, rather than Belano, would have stood a better chance here.

All this is to say that prizes, and the publicity that comes with them, may make a difference, may lift an emerging writer out of penury, may signify the first breakthrough. But what happens when literary prizes are revealed as yet another area in which imbalances become more apparent? In 2015 the writer Kamila Shamsie ‘lit a fuse’ (as And Other Stories has it) when she challenged the literary establishment to make 2018 the year of publishing only women. This was intended as a provocation, especially in the context of a gender imbalance quite noticeable in ‘publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc.’ (for the whole article, see http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/article/the-invisible-women/). With 2018 fast approaching, it’s useful to revisit Shamsie’s closing questions: ‘What would it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what would happen in 2019?’

The truth is, not many publishers have taken up the challenge, besides And Other Stories. But, at least, it got people writing and talking about gender imbalance in the literary world. And the conversation is still ongoing. The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was set up last year and will be awarded for the first time this coming November to the best work (any genre) written by a woman and translated into English by a female or male translator, and published by a UK or Irish publisher. Apart from addressing the gender imbalance in literature in translation, it also aims ‘to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership’. While literary prizes constitute landmarks on the literary landscape, it’s important to acknowledge the work carried out underground – the list of acknowledgements on the University of Warwick’s website does precisely this, highlighting first the contribution made by Meytal Radzinski, the mind behind Women in Translation Month (worth reading is her post on http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk/2015/ which addresses some tricky issues and asserts that this is an inclusive project which will seek to embrace transgender authors or nonbinary genders). This is followed by a mention of Joanna Walsh, who runs @read_women, which led to her winning the Women In Publishing's 2014 New Venture Award, and which the New York Times called 'a rallying cry for the equal treatment of women writers', as well as Katy Derbyshire, one of this year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlisted translators, who took part in the ‘Women in Translation’ panel discussion at last year’s BCLT’s summer school (and which you can listen to at https://soundcloud.com/bclt/women-in-translation). Talking about the prize Maureen Freely, current President of English PEN and Head of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick, has highlighted that it is markedly more difficult for women to make it into English translation.

While it was never the aim of the 2017 New Spanish Books panel to focus on works written by women, but rather on literary quality and a sense of newness and difference, as a woman working in translation, I am delighted to see how many titles by women have made it to the final shortlist. Indeed, this year’s panel’s indisputable favourites are two novels written by women which focus on the lives of women and the constraints under which they lived. The first one, Carmen Martín Gaite’s Entre visillos (From behind the lace curtains), is a true ‘forgotten classic’. First published in Spain in 1957, it was the recipient of the Premio Nadal, itself a literary institution, as the oldest literary prize awarded to an unpublished novel since 1944, and portrays the lives of women in Franco’s Spain in the 1950s. We hope that its inclusion in New Spanish Books 2017 will lead to its translation into English and thus will contribute to raising the profile of Martín Gaite, one of Spain’s finest novelists, in the English-speaking world. The second one, Tea Rooms. Mujeres Obreras (Tea Rooms: Women at Work) by Luisa Carnés, focuses on the lives of women working in a fancy café in the first half of the 1930s and exposes the constraints of class and gender at the time. Its impressionistic, fragmentary descriptions of 1930s Madrid recall the prose of Virginia Woolf, says literary translator Annie McDermott in her report.

Other titles worth highlighting here, also written by women, are Artes subversivas para cultivar jardines by the Galician novelist Teresa Moure, and the thriller El silencio de la ciudad blanca by Eva García Sánchez de Urturi set in the Basque city of Vitoria. Even amongst those titles which didn’t make it to the shortlist (and here I must refer to a personal favourite of mine, Buena Alumna by Paula Porroni) there was also a strong presence of women writers. Things are beginning to shift and we clearly have come a long way from the times when Virginia Woolf had to have the excuse of going to buy a pencil in order to walk ‘half across London between tea and dinner’ unchaperoned. In the recent announcement of PEN Translates award winners, English PEN note that ‘women authors and translators make up more than half of the award winners’. Another cause for celebration, considering books are selected for their outstanding literary quality, strength and innovation, as well as their potential contribution to literary diversity in the UK. We hope that this year’s New Spanish Books will also make a similar contribution to the British literary map in facilitating the translation into English of these different voices, speaking in the four languages of the Iberian Peninsula.

Dr Cecilia Rossi