Today, Dublin City Council will announce the winner of one of the most generous English-language literary prizes in the world. The award of €100,000 for a top novel is supposed to spotlight Dublin as a literary capital. But – given that it’s now fully funded by taxpayers – is it worth it?
Just to recap: the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award was set up 20 years ago and was long sponsored by management-productivity company IMPAC. Last year, Dublin City Council covered a large chunk of the costs.
This year, it’s all public money and the bill – when you tot up the prize costs and the fees to run it – comes to around €180,000. That’s enough to put 49 homeless people in €10 hostel beds for 365 days.
For comparison, winners of the arguably higher-profile Man Booker Prize pocket £50,000 (around €70,000) plus a few extras. The Prix Goncourt is a modest €10, the expectation being that the boost in book sales and public nod to fictional genius are reward enough.
But despite the cost, most councillors seem to support keeping Dublin’s literary prize going.
“It has done a lot for the city of Dublin, it has done a lot to establish the city as a literary city,” says Labour Councillor Mary Freehill, chair of the arts committee. It helped make Dublin a UNESCO City of Literature, and to build links with libraries around the world, she said. “I’m around long enough to know the difference and to see the difference.”
They have been trying to find a sponsor, says Freehill. “It’s not every sponsor that city council can accept.”
While Dublin City Council has been searching for a sponsor to replace IMPAC, the Bord Gáis Energy Book Awards website shows a whole slew of them, starting with Bord Gáis, and including Avonmore, the Sunday Independent, RTE Radio 1 , Eason, Ireland AM, Spec Savers, National Book Tokens, and Writing.ie.
Can’t Dublin City Council put its prize on hold for a year while it tries to bag a new sponsor? “You can’t do that. You have to start from zero if you let it go,” Freehill said. “Continuity in anything is very important.”
Independent Councillor Vincent Jackson, another member on the arts committee, agrees. “If we were to do everything on the basis of just cost, we would do nothing. And there’s always more pressing things,” he says. “But the arts animate people’s lives.”
For the sliver it takes from the council’s budget, it’s worth it, he says. He thinks that if the prize was lowered, the interest wouldn’t be as great. Why not make it a big amount? he asks. “My question would be, why not? If it was a million euros, this conversation would be very different.”
At the council’sarts committee meeting in May, Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn was a lone voice, calling for another look at how the award’s being handled. Why is it still called the IMPAC award? Why is it so much money? What’s the plan going forward?
It should be called just the City Council Award or the Dublin City Award, Flynn said. “It’s inappropriate that we should be calling this award after a sponsor who has vanished.”
The cost is also “grandiose” and needs to be scaled down, he argued, especially when there are so many smaller arts organisations that are struggling. “I think we should restructure the whole situation.”
Dublin City Librarian Margaret Hayes came back with a few responses. They might transition to a new brand, she said, but they didn’t want to lose their name recognition. “People in common parlance refer to it as the IMPAC.”
Hayes says the idea is for the prize to be large, and of such significance that it alters the life and well-being of a writer, and gives them the freedom to write and follow their art.
The past winners haven’t been unknowns and newbies, though. Many are already long-standing authors with big publishers: Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, British writer Jon McGregor, and French novelist Michel Houellebecq, to name a few.
Flynn didn’t buy it. “They are for books that are written” he said, and most winners seem to be really well off.
Dublin was a literary city before this award, Flynn said. What about Joyce? “I don’t believe that this single award or process has actually enhanced in any way, greater than the way Ulysses has enhanced the literary reputation of Dublin. Preposterous.”
At the meeting, Freehill said that people didn’t know that Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw were Irish when she first joined the council.
“Just for the record, I always knew who Oscar Wilde was,” Flynn said. “And I always knew he was a Dublin person.”