Goodbye books, hello stories

Mariko

By a staff reporter

APWTA

IT'S WAR. Luckily the weapons are just pens, and the combatants mild-mannered authors and poets—but the prize is enormous.

The global book industry is a US$100 billion-a-year market in expansion mode, and the world’s fastest-growing division by far is Asia.

Yet authors and poets from Asia feel marginalized and are fighting back by exploding the basic concept of the book itself.

“As digital delivery systems replace traditional ones, the old rules about standard lengths, structures, formats and categories make no sense,” argues Sri Lankan crime novelist Nury Vittachi, head of the biggest writers’ union in Asia Pacific.

And so the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association is launching a prize--and one which may genuinely deserve the word “revolutionary”.

It calls not for books, but for written stories, which are defined as “text-based entertainments based on sustained acts of creative imagination”.

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There’s plenty of proof the concept works, in Asia at least, which is where more than 60 per cent of the world’s population lives.

The story Deep Love was a massive hit in Japan in 2003, with each chapter delivered to mobile phones. A multi-million selling book edition came later.

The Ghost Blows Out the Candle attracted six million readers in China as computer-delivered text episodes in 2006. A bestselling physical edition came later.

(And remember, the Kindle was just a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye until the end of 2007.)

Asians spend twice as many hours reading as Westerners, consuming books on paper, plus every other medium possible.

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(Chris Song Zijiang)

Everyone is eligible to enter works for the new prize, the World Readers’ Award, and so it sidesteps the thorny issues of nationality that have bedeviled the Man Booker and the Pulitzer prizes.

But by setting a geographical theme each year, the prize aims to gently move the planet’s authors away from stale characters and stock locations (such as geo-political thrillers set in the US or crime novels set in the UK or US), to social and physical settings where the majority of the world’s consumers live. This should broaden the mind—and deepen the coffers of smart publishers.

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Perhaps the most daring move of all is the venture’s openness to non-standard narratives. Association members complain that the Man Booker Prize is wedded to a certain type of high-end literary fiction, which they describe as “a narrow and often inaccessible genre that sells poorly outside the UK”.

The new prize is offered simply for “the best read of the year”, and stubbornly refuses to even draw a distinction between fiction and creative non-fiction.

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Judges for the prize, called the World Readers’ Award, will not be literary professors, but readers. And the new prize will avoid the “people from the west judge people from the east” ethos which has soured other literary ventures based in Asia.

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Nury and jane at the mandarin

Jane Camens and Nury Vittachi at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok event

The Asian authors’ group is getting heavyweight backing. Penguin Random House has signed up as its publishing partner, through its North Asian operation.

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The Thai government is enthusiastic, feting the group at Bangkok’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel, associated with authors such as Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene.

Growth projections for the world book industry between 2013 and 2017 by PricewaterhouseCoopers identified Thailand as the world’s fastest-growing market. Asian countries took three of the top five slots.

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A research lab has been set up at the new Innovation Tower (above) of Hong Kong Polytechnic University to look at the future of text and supply data to the group.

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Robert McCrum, former literary editor of the UK Observer, wrote in his blog: “Mr Vittachi and his co-conspirators have served notice on the literary prize world. In the golden age of the reader, Pulitzer, Booker, Costa and the rest will have to acknowledge that the borders of the literary world can no longer be policed in the traditional way.”

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Writers in Asia are enthusiastic. Mariko Nagai, a writer based in Tokyo (pic at top), said: “This new award subverts the notion of the West, subverts how an award is chosen, and most importantly, it questions the idea of who a writer is, and what makes a book a book.”

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(Tejaswini Apte-Rahm)

“An award such as this one will act as a catalyst to give literature from this region the attention it deserves,” said Menka Shivdasani, a writer from Mumbai.

Chris Song Zijiang, a Hong Kong poet and literary translator added: “An international book prize which allows Asians to enter has been long awaited."

"Writers everywhere are going to cheer lustily for a prize without borders," said Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, an author living in Myanmar.

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Notes:

The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association can be contacted through: www.apwriters.org.

The executive director is Jane Camens jane.camens@apwriters.com

The World Readers’ Award has its own website:www.worldreadersaward.com

Nury Vittachi can be contacted at nury@vittachi.com