GOODBYE BOOKS, HELLO STORIES

The Golden Egg, a new Asian writing award, subverts the idea of the book, writes APWT Chairman Nury Vittachi.

It’s war. Luckily the weapons are just pens, and the combatants mild-mannered authors and screenwriters—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. Recent growth projections for the world book industry between 2013 and 2017 by PricewaterhouseCoopers saw Asian countries taking three of the top five slots.

And of course the book industry feeds the rest of the creative entertainment industry, including movies, TV shows and games—where again Asia is the dominant market.

Enter a new writing prize: the World Readers’ Award, recipients of which will receive the Golden Egg prize.
Do we need another writing prize? Yes. The Man Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize are widely assumed to identify the best books in the world—but have you ever seen a news report which includes the information that they specifically exclude writers in most of the countries in the world?

But instead of just feeling marginalized by traditional prizes, some people in the creative industries in Asia 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.

There are several writers’ awards around, but the Golden Egg may be the first to genuinely deserve the word “revolutionary”. It calls not for books, but for written stories, which organizers define as “text-based entertainments based on sustained acts of creative imagination”. We expect most books to still exist in physical formats, and to still be produced by traditional publishers. But creative professionals need to be open to what is happening in the real world in terms of new formats and new readers.

To emphasize the “next generation” ethos of the new prize, just look at the sponsor: the Hong Kong Science Park, one of Asia’s largest technology hubs.

The Park is known for its clusters of science labs, but also houses many innovators from the creative industries, including game-makers, e-book publishers and social media companies.

But more to the point—its iconic feature is a gigantic Golden Egg, the Charles K Kao Auditorium. More than 200 people can be housed in the large, raised egg-shaped building on the waterfront of the complex in Hong Kong.

The golden egg is one of the oldest symbols of achieving fulfillment in literature, both Eastern and Western. To hand out the Golden Egg award at a huge physical golden egg associated with modern creativity and innovation is just perfect.
There’s plenty of proof that the concept of delivering stories in multiple formats 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.

The Ghost Blows Out the Candle attracted six million readers in China as computer-delivered text episodes in 2006. (Just for your information, the Kindle was just a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye until the end of 2007.)

And Asians spend twice as many hours reading as Westerners.

Everyone is eligible to enter works for the World Readers’ Award, which sidesteps the thorny issues of nationality that have bedevilled the Man Booker and the Pulitzer prizes.

But the prize aims to gently move the planet’s authors away from stock characters and stock locations, to social and physical settings where the majority of the world’s consumers live. Full details will be announced in November, but the over-riding concept is that the books should focus on “the world as it is”—that is, on a world which is larger than just the US and the UK. This should broaden the mind—and deepen the coffers of smart publishers.

But perhaps the most daring move of all is the venture’s openness to genre narratives. At the APWT’s annual general meeting a couple of years ago, some members complained 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’.
In contrast, the Golden Egg prize is offered simply for ‘the best read of the year’, and stubbornly refuses to even draw a distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The prize is being organized by an arm of PPP Co. Ltd, a successful Hong Kong publishing company which has many years experience in organizing book prizes for younger readers in Asia.

Because it is open to a much wider range of material than most prizes, judging will be complex, and full details of the rules and the judging processes will be announced at the launch in November. But the organizers are determined to avoid the elitism of traditional prizes, which see hoary professors of literature choosing books that are sometimes unreadable to anyone but themselves. Organizers also plan to include respected judges, plus an online system, in which any reader can send in votes or comments that will be taken into consideration.

Each year, the prize will have two winners: one writer who has produced a new text, whose prize will include a publishing contract. There will also be a prize for the best published book of the year.

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

The Creativity and Design Education Lab at Hong Kong Polytechnic is gathering statistics and studies to give solid research backing to the new prize.

Former literary editor of the UK Observer, Robert McCrum, 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.’

A number of writers in Asia are enthusiastic. Mariko Nagai, a writer based in Tokyo, says: ‘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.’

Menka Shivdasani, a writer from Mumbai, says: ‘An award such as this one will act as a catalyst to give literature from this region the attention it deserves.’

And Chris Song Zijiang, a Hong Kong poet and literary translator adds: ‘An international book prize which allows Asians to enter has been long awaited.’