Friday 5 December 2008

The mixed Blessings of Awards and Prizes

Just over six months ago my first novel When the Mountains are scattered as Dust won the novel category of the Muslim Writers Awards 2008. It was a big event, perfectly planned, sponsered by Birmingham City Council and supported by the government. The evening provided live poetry, comedy and music and delicious food. The shortlisted writers had been invited in advance to film an interview talking about their work. I hated to see myself on a huge screen.

Let’s put this into context. I am an unpublished writer. I am still trying to find a publisher for my first novel while working on my third one. I submitted the novel for the prize because entry was free. Yes, this is one of my principles. I won’t pay for being judged. Deep down in my heart I probably go along with Béla Bartók’s wisdom “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” He died in 1945, when competitions were far less numerous than today. What would he make of today’s world? Competitions are everywhere, in every artistic field, from music to fine art to film making. No matter what I feel about competitions, the reality is that at the stage where I am I have to compete for the attention of an agent. Publishers won’t look at you without an agent these days. So how else can your manuscript receive attention, apart from being well written? Maybe mentioning that somebody else liked it enough to give it a prize will be of use? Or so I thought. It didn’t work. Agents are still rejecting it, and I have learned a very important lesson. Prizes are given on literary merit, but for agents to take you on your novel has to show commercial potential. Sometimes the two neatly merge, at other times they don’t.

So where does that leave me, writing with a voice that seems to be not mainstream or commercial enough?

In the six months since winning the prize and not getting anywhere nearer to publication I have gained a lot of inner strength. I have prayed a lot, and I have come to the conclusion that I am not writing for success. I am writing for truth, first and foremost my own. When I write I am not trying to escape from something, I am in fact facing many things I would rather keep buried. My writing is not distraction or entertainment, it is hard work for me, and of course, when it all goes well, shere bliss. In short, I shall keep on writing.

The Arts Council recently gave out a grant to publish 5,000 novels for free. My novel will be one of them. When they say publish they mean print on demand. It is no more than self-publishing without the costs this would involve. The copyright will stay with me, and my search for a mainstream publisher will continue because without it there won’t be any reviews, or any copies of the book in a bookshop. I have to do all the hard work of designing the book myself, and while I am wasting my time like that, I ask myself, ‘Why are you doing it?’ I am doing it because despite what I was saying above, there is an insisting nagging voice inside every writer that tells her that you aren't really a writer until you have found your readers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MashAllah may you continue to write and in doing so fill the void that exists for young Muslim readers - where they pick up a book and can assimilate to their reading experiences - I shall endeavour to read your book - Well Done .. and shall wait for the fourth inshAllah.