It’s been a great year for readers, one that has paid tribute to that most infuriating but accurate phrase that is sagely presented in the face of impatience—good things, at least in the world of books, do seem to come to those who wait.
While we’re still recovering from the publication in September of The Testaments, one of the most eagerly awaited novels in recent times that came 34 years after its genre-defining predecessor, there have been plenty of announcements to whet literary appetites. Hillary Mantel’s final book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy—the first two books both won the Booker Prize—will be published in March 2020; Susanna Clarke, author of the much loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, will have a new book out after 16 years in September 2020. Hell, we might even finally get Vikram Seth’s long-awaited A Suitable Girl and the new George RR Martin (although you’d be forgiven for not staking your wintry kingdoms on this one).
But even as 2019 nears an end, there’s still plenty on offer for readers as we hit the peak of literary prize season. Some of the biggest literary awards, both Indian and international, will be announcing their winners (and in some cases, shortlists) in the weeks to come, offering up a slew of reading lists in the process. It’s a literary smorgasboard—prizes big and small, new and old, with debut authors and seasoned past winners all in the running—that can get hard to keep track of, so here’s our handy guide to the major literary prizes to watch out for.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Booker Prize is the most influential book award in English fiction publishing, especially after it changed its rules in 2014 to make books by authors outside the Commonwealth and Ireland eligible for the prize (the source of a lot of criticism). The Booker clearly matters. Last year, Anna Burns’s Milkman was dismissed by many as too ‘challenging’ after it was announced as the winner but readers felt otherwise. It jumped in sales from 5,000 copies before its win to over half a million as of earlier this year. The shortlist of six titles this year might hold hope of similar success for a largely unknown author but the presence of two books by past winners of the prize seems to have reduced those odds significantly – The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, who won for The Blind Assassin in 2000 and Quichotte by Samlan Rushdie, who is a Booker fixture, having won for Midnight’s Children in 1981, and again for the Best of Bookers prizes for the award’s 25th and 40th anniversaries. With his newest novel receiving fairly mixed reviews, a win isn’t guaranteed for the writer, leaving room for one of the other shortlisted titles, the most striking and talked about of which is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,040-page long novel mostly comprised of a single sentence.
Announcement of the winner: October 14
The world’s most prestigious literary award is back this year after its cancellation for the first time in nearly 70 years in 2018, following allegations of corruption and sexual assault that shook the Swedish Academy, the organisation that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian author Peter Handke were awarded prizes for 2018 and 2019, respectively. The near unprecedented cancellation in 2018 led to the establishment of an alternate prize that hoped to not only fill in the gap but also address the undeniable blind spots of the Nobel Prize, which is awarded by a homogenous cultural body that has a poor track record in representation—only 14 of its 114 laureates, for example, have been women—and famously opaque judging process. With its return, all eyes were on the prize with a sharper focus on these inequities. The Swedish Academy awarded two laureates this year, one for 2018 and another for 2019, and with the absence of any form of shortlist or idea of the judging process, a time-honoured practise provided us the only clue—good old fashioned gambling. Bookies have placed odds on potential winners for years and once again, the numbers for this year were in. Canadian poet and essayist Anne Carson had been touted as the likeliest to win with the highest odds, followed by Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé, who was awarded the Alternate Nobel last year. The venerable Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was also on the list of likely awardees as he has been for years, but it is for fans of Haruki Murakami—infamously dubbed the “Nobel bridesmaid”—that the doubled odds meant the most. Of course, the last winner, English author Kazuo Ishiguro wasn’t anywhere in the list with the highest odds, and we won’t even talk about Bob Dylan.
Announcement of winner: October 10
See all the past winners of the prize HERE
Only in its second year, the JCB Prize has already become one of India’s most talked about literary awards, in no small part, due to its Rs 25-lakh cash prize, making it the country’s richest. Founded to recognise a “distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author”, the prize, modeled after the Booker, only takes full-length novels into consideration but also has a specific focus on books translated from any Indian languages to English—in case the winning book is a translation, the translator gets a Rs 10-lakh prize. Last year, Malayalam writer Benyamin’s acclaimed Jasmine Days, translated by Shahnaz Habib, took home the inaugural edition of the prize.
This year, six novels are in the running for the top prize – Perumal Murugan’s twin sequels to One Part Woman messing with what is supposed to be a list of five – whittled down from a longlist of 11 by a jury chaired by environmentalist and filmmaker Pradip Kishen. Besides Murugan (who was on last year’s shortlist as well), Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder In The Air is the other translation to make the cut, alongside two debut novels – Ib’s Endless Search For Satisfaction and The Far Field – and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden.
Announcement of winner: November 2
India’s first literary prize exclusively for non-fiction books, the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize comes with a purse of Rs 15 lakh for winners. Set up last year, the prize is awarded to the best “non-fiction book on modern/contemporary India”, irrespective of genre—history, biography, memoir, travel, political commentary are all eligible. In its inaugural edition, Milan Vaishnav took home the prize for When Crime Pays, an in-depth study of the co-existence of crime and democratic processes in Indian politics. This year, six books are on the shortlist, ranging from Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic, a rigorously researched and fascinating history of how universal adult franchise was rolled out across India, to Manoranjan Byapari’s searing memoir, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit. The two heavyweight titles in the running, however, are anthropologist Alpa Shah’s accomplished Nightmarch: Among India’s Guerrilla Revolutionaries, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize for Political Writing, and journalist Snigdha Poonam’s highly acclaimed Dreamers, which combines reporting and commentary to ask what drives young Indians today.
Announcement of winner: November 9-10
One year short of completing a decade, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature still holds a fair share of prestige (and a $25,000 prize) even as it’s been unseated from its position as the richest literary award in India. The DSC Prize is distinct in its vision, however—awarding fiction about South Asia, irrespective of the nationality of its authors. The 2019 longlist of 15 books, announced in September, features several prominent literary names—Perumal Murugan for A Lonely Harvest, Mirza Waheed for Tell Her Everything and Fatima Bhutto for The Runaways, among others—but the year seems to belong to debut authors – Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, Akil Kumarasamy’s Half Gods and Nadeem Zaman’s In The Time of Others are in the running alongside four other first-time novelists. With the shortlist being announced in London in November, and the final winner in Nepal in December, it’s a bit of a wait to see which book will join past winners—including Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, HM Naqvi’s Home Boy and last year’s No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana—but the meaty longlist will make for rewarding reading in the meantime.
Shortlist announcement: November 6
Announcement of winner: December 16
See all the longlisted titles HERE
Currently in its 12th year, the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize has firmly established itself as one of the most prestigious awards for debut authors in the South Asian subcontinent. The prize, which comes with a purse of Rs 2 lakh, counts Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, Bilan Tanweer’s The Scatter Is Too Great Here and Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble among past winners. This year, the shortlist of five titles comprises two books of non-fiction and three novels, including late Bangaldeshi author Numair Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh! and Roshan Ali’s Ib’s Endless Search For Satisfaction, which also found a spot on the JCB Prize shortlist. Tony Joseph’s much-talked about book, Early Indians, on the ancestry of Indians, sits alongside journalist Priyanka Dubey’s work of reportage on violence against women in India as the two non-fiction titles.
Announcement of winner: November
Although they’re a US-based set of literary prizes, celebrating the “best writing in America”, the National Book Awards deserve attention, particularly this year, because of their daring and exciting choices of nominations—and a wide array of reading lists in the process—especially in a year that the Booker Prize longlist pretty much paid no attention to American writers. Awarded in five categories—fiction, non-fiction, translated literature, poetry, and ‘young people’s literature’—this year’s nominees include heavyweight names like past winner Colson Whitehead for The Nickel Boys and Booker winner Marlon James for Black Leopard, Red Wolf but a number of accomplished debut authors also find pride of place, including Ocean Voung for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Shortlist announcement: October 8
Announcement of winners: November 20