Awards: European Writers’ Council Withdraws From the EU Prize for Literature

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The European Writers’ Council breaks with two sister organizations over a new structure for the European Union Prize for Literature.

The coverage area of the European Writers’ Council’s 30-country membership of 46 associations. Image: EWC

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: The EU Prize for Literature Consortium on the Program’s Changes

Writers’ Council: ‘The Decision Was Necessary’
A rift has followed a big change in the structural framework of the long-running European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL), as the sprawling 30-nation European Writers’ Council exits the field.

The council’s representation of some 160,000 professional writers and translators, of course, makes this especially embarrassing in a program meant to honor the work of writers. The rupture between the Writers’ Council and the prize also creates perhaps an uncomfortable inter-agency rift: the Federation of European Publishers and European and International Booksellers Federation are the associated stakeholders in the EU Prize for Literature.

In a season when so many world publishing and book prize regimes are clamoring for media attention to their usual early-year announcements, a contretemps between some of the international industry’s most important organizations over an awards program presents particularly unseemly optics. As recently as our announcement of the 2021 EUPL winners, Publishing Perspectives was offered collegial comments from the leaders of each organization.

Now, it seems, they’re on the outs with each other.

The crux of the writers’ council board’s complaint—causing the council to ankle the program completely—was expressed on Tuesday (February 1): “The new EUPL concept does not promote multilingualism as key to the European language diversity, and is not following the principles of equal treatment for all participating countries.”

Put a bit more plainly, the writers charge that the new newly instituted approach will favor the large markets (and/or their languages) and place smaller book markets (and/or their languages) at a disadvantage. And what was previously a three-legged stool of leadership—the publishers’ federation, the booksellers’ federation, and the writers’ council—thus appears to be left standing on just two legs.

It’s the European Commission that originally selected the three organizations, and on Thursday (February 3), it was announced that the commission had re-funded the program for 2022 to 2024—just as the European Writers’ Council was ducking out.

Described by the prize program itself as a “complete restructuring” for 2022, the European Union Prize for Literature writes in its selection regulations: “Instead of awarding one winner in each of the participating countries, a seven-member European jury will now award one overall winner for each edition of EUPL, together with recognizing five special mentions in different categories.

“This will be done based on a list of nationally nominated books, one for each participating country. The novels will be nominated by national entities, knowledgeable about the literary scene in their countries, used to promote their own literature abroad and which have expertise in literary quality, assessing the translatability and exportation potential of a book.”

What once was a win-for-every-country program, in short, is now a win-for-only-three-countries program in the course of each three-year cycle.

Background and Discussion

In a moment, we’ll have the full announcement of the writers’ council’s action.

But first, to refresh your memory:

  • The European Union Prize for Literature, overall, reaches 41 nations under the Creative Europe umbrella
  • Opened in 2009, the prize has recognized at least 135 authors as winners in 12 cycles (four rounds of three years)
  • Each year sees a third of the participating nations–14 countries or so–actively choosing national contenders and winners
  • The adjustment, then, to a single winner each year, as you might surmise, represents a big bump

The previous plan was putting 55 or so nominees into play each year, but for national awards. (Here’s our writeup on the 2021 shortlists.) They weren’t vying for cross-border victories. Nevertheless, the sheer fact of some 14 or so countries each year (think of the countries as categories) and more than 50 finalists in all has made this program one of those fairly unwieldy ones to get your head around. This parallels a kind of rolling debate in publishing that might be called “Is it possible that less really is more?”

It’s evident in our reportage on Thursday (February 3) of the big Audie Awards competition with 25 categories and some 126 finalists. And you see it in the annual scholarly PROSE Awards with 39 categories and 106 finalists this year—with one of its five super-categories tied behind its back.

  • Many professionals in book publishing seem to subscribe to a market ideal of more, more, more books. That view has been called into question for market efficacy in an entertainment-glutted world.
  • Many also seem to want only bigger, bigger, bigger awards programs. There, the question is whether armies of awards don’t make them all blur together on the battlefield in the fog of awards. And when was the last time you saw a book that hadn’t won something?

These topics are contentious. Just as in the question of publishing fewer books, the idea of awarding fewer titles is something you should bring up only when carefully crouched to run very fast as soon as you’ve mentioned it.

So here’s the irony of the EU prize dilemma: The new approach lowers the number of winners, slimming down the program. That should be a goodly direction to take. And yet, in this case, because a national winner may make more sense in market and linguistic context than a pan-national victor. And this, the writers’ council is asserting, is what makes it a uniquely incorrect approach for this awards regime in particular.

Here are some quick notes of explanation from the prize program to help clarify the new approach. Note that all this gall will still be divided into three parts with about 14 nations in play each year. And translation is, happily, a part of the plan:

“The 2022-2024 cycle,” the European Prize for Literature memo states, “introduces a new format for the prize: initial book selection for each participating country will be conducted by national organizations, each entitled to submit one book that is of high literary quality with potential for translatability.

“A second round of selection will be conducted by a seven-member European jury, which will thus select an overall prize winner and five special-mention awards.

“The authors whose works win these new categories will be awarded a financial prize, half of which will include a grant to support translations of their winning books.

“The results of the 2022 edition of the Prize will be announced at the Paris Book Fair on April 21.”

This, then, is intended to create a more focused approach, producing one winner rather than 14. And the European Writers’ Council is not onboard.

The European Writers’ Council Statement

Led by its president, Nina George, the Writers’ Council statement says:

“The European Writers’ Council board has decided to fully withdraw from the organization of the award in the course of a relaunch-process of selection procedures. For the first time since its inception, the EUPL, with the departure of EWC from the consortium, is no longer organized by all representatives of the book value chain: authors, publishers, and booksellers. In the current cycle, only publishers and booksellers will be organizing the EUPL.

Nina George

“The decision, hard to take for EWC, was necessary. Here is why:

“Each year since 2009, on a rotating basis over three years, 12 to 14 countries nominated three to five writers and national winners with the participation of a balanced national jury from all book value chain stakeholders. All of these 12-14 national winners were awarded the EUPL, which aimed at recognizing European language diversity and literary quality.

“From 2022, only one winner and five “special mentions” of the European Union Prize for Literature will be chosen from the now only one proposal by each of the 12 to 14 participating countries.

“Furthermore, as the selection processes have changed considerably at national as well as pan-European level, the EWC Board concluded that the new EUPL concept does not promote multilingualism as key to the European language diversity, and is not following our convictions of equal treatment for all participating countries.”

“Discovering a wide range of new authors every year was a highlight for us and the core meaning of the EUPL. As this approach has now changed, the EWC no longer wishes to endorse this format.

“We would like to thank all EWC members who, through their jury work over a decade, have contributed to making the diversity of voices and themes of their country visible. We would also like to thank the FEP and EIBF team and last year’s EUPL coordinators for their collegial cooperation.

“The EWC welcomes any future formats of EU programs that focus on its value principles of ensuring equal treatment, fostering multilingualism and recognition of writers’ achievements.”

As you can see in the tone from George and her board of directors, the writers are leaving the door unlocked. They’re also maintaining a tone of cordiality and regret rather than hostility. Perhaps there’s hope of a reconciliation.

Update, February 4: To get the viewpoint of a leadership figure in one of the national sections of the European Writers’ Council, we add here–with his permission–the commentary written by Arno Jundze, chair of the Latvian Writers’ Union. Jundze has also served twice as chair of Latvia’s national jury for the European Union Prize for Literature, first in 2017, then in 2021. His commentary takes the form of a message of support for the European Writers’ Council’s decision to withdraw from the prize program.

Jundze writes:

“I am fully supporting this decision [of the European Writers’ Council], with all due respect to Nina George for the courage to say no to bad plans.

“Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in the Zoom session, where the new format of the award was discussed.

Arno Jundze

“As the chair of the Latvian Writers’ Union and chair of the EUPL of  National Jury of Latvia (2017, 2021), I can say that the new EUPL model for small countries’ literature such as Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian, takes away any hope of receiving this award in the next 100 years.

“The prize does not have its own identity. The contradiction between the dream of discovering a new bestseller in European literature and the attempt to support serious and non-commercial literature at the same time is childish and unprofessional. As well as a new condition for the translation of excerpts from the work of potential applicants and their discussion in an international jury–nominating one winner from the submissions of more than ten countries.

“The new EUPL model in fact means supporting large and stable book markets and ignoring the problems of small book markets.

“Literature in small countries is already struggling to break into the book markets in large countries. Almost the only option is small-project publishers supported by various funds. Unfortunately, they’re not able to do almost anything to promote their products. This model will only make it worse.

“It is very unfortunate that the situation is as it is.”

Publishing Perspectives is inviting the publishers’ and booksellers’ federations to offer a comment on the situation, in case they’d like to be heard on the matter.

The 14 winners of the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature appear to be the last national winners of the honor. The new structure calls for a single winner each year, with five honorable mentions. Image: EUPL

More from Publishing Perspectives on world publishing and book awards is here, more on the European Union Prize for Literature is here, more on the European Writers’ Council is here, more on the Federation of European Publishers is here, more on the European and International Booksellers Federation is here, and more on Europe and publishing is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.