Of a Dearth of Literary Criticism; The NLNG Sponsored Prize for Literature

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By Bura Bari Nwilo

Three books were shortlisted for the 2016 NLNG Prize for fiction. The novels are: Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John, Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer. Abubabar’s book won. In the next few days, save for the 2016 controversial Nobel Laureate in Literature, the media would be friendly with Abubakar. His win has a monetary attachment of 100,000 dollars. He will be interviewed. The few literary festivals within Nigeria would have him talk about his book. TV stations would spare a moment to talk about the book too and the journalists will ask him what he would do with the prize money. In a few more months, he will be off the news. Abubakar may go back to writing or may fix some personal issues with his money.

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I am a literary critic. The university I attended will graduate about 64 English and Literature majors in few months. Some 50 more that combined other courses with English and Literature will also come out with a degree. The study of Literature prepares one for the life of literary criticism, but often times, it is just what it is – getting a university degree.

These backgrounds have been drawn for a purpose. The web and print media barely received any critical writing on the three shortlisted books. There was no engaging debate about the books and the authors and their possibilities. The literary circle got busy with popular culture – life, of Kim’s robbery in Paris and Kaffy’s caressing of a chicken on the front page of a magazine. Pop life is big news. Graduates of literature see it as un-cool to spend about 10,000 of hard earned naira to purchase three books whose authors were on the list of being millionaires and talk about them.

I am guilty. I have not read any of the books that made the shortlist. I have read short stories from the authors but not the shortlisted books. And I am particular with pop life, like my peers. And we have let down the tradition of literary criticism; such led by the likes of Prof. Charles Nnolim and late Isidore Okpewho.

Outside the committee for the NLNG Prize who were paid to screen the entries, no other scholar has done a voluntary work on the books. Literary criticism sustains a literary work but not in Nigeria, currently. How then would a work survive if it is not talked about? Should the committee for the NLNG Prize pay special critics outside the circle to fuel debate on the entries yearly? Should they run a contest on the review of the shortlisted books across universities in the country so the books can be read? What about newspaper houses? Can they pay critics to review such shortlisted books and drive a debate?

It is amazing to have huge sum as reward but can the NLNG Prize institute a nationwide tour and discussion in the geopolitical zones in Nigeria? Can there be residency attachment to the prize, something that can rotate among selected schools with facilities for such, so the winners can share their experiences and teach creative writing for at least 6 months? What are the steps that can be put in place for the rejuvenation of literary criticism? The Nigeria Academy of Letters, what do they do again? What about some international exposure with foreign universities? What would it take to have international media cover a hangout of the shortlisted writers and facilitate a discussion about their works? Wouldn’t this help shoot up sales and increase demand for the authors and the publishers’ relevance? Or can the NLNG run a centre for creative writing so the works by the winning authors can be studied and given to schools for free, since the prize money has taken care of copies?

I believe every author wants a large audience while nursing royalties for his or her work. It is possible that with the funds available at the NLNG, a writer can be a star and not just walk home with prize money but such exposure and prestige given by the many tours.

Bura Bari Nwilo lives in Port-Harcourt.

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