Thursday 19 January 2017

Irish authors get their just deserts

Published 13/11/2011 | 06:00

Ireland is renowned for its wealth of literary talent and our finest authors have won the most prestigious awards in the world. Colum McCann has won America's National Book Award, Roddy Doyle and John Banville have scooped the popular Man Booker, and Seamus Heaney has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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It seems incredible, then, that our own Irish Book Awards have only been running for six years. Then again, maybe that's just in keeping with the old tradition of Irish writers being more appreciated abroad than at home.

The Irish Book Awards started off modestly in 2003 as the Hughes & Hughes Novel of the Year Award before Bord Gáis came on board along with a lot of other booksellers and media partners.

The awards are voted for by members of the public (between 10,000 and 15,000 vote each year) and there is no cash element to the prize.

Derek Landy, author of the Skulduggery Pleasant series, is nominated in the best children's fiction category again this year (he has won the previous two years in a row) and is hoping for a hat-trick.

For someone who spends most of his working life isolated in a room, Landy says awards ceremonies are useful indicators of how you're doing professionally. "You tend to get a sense of your own place. If you walk into a room and the majority of the people know who you are that's a good sign."

Would Landy not rather receive a cash prize of €10,000 than the glory of 10,000 votes?

"Writers are not in this for the money. Any prize voted for by the public is a lovely prize to get and it feels a lot more democratic than a prize that has been deliberated over by a panel of experts."

Despite the lack of a cash prize, the online nature of the voting (you have until tomorrow to cast yours on www.irishbookawards.ie) has caused some consternation over the years.

"The problem with this (and the real reason I've been on such a winning streak)," says Landy, "is that online voting doesn't always pick the best book, but the one that has the most readers. My readers practically live online so I'm pretty much guaranteed a good showing.

"I have a blog and there are multiple fan-led websites and they have built up their own community, so it's a bit like having an army to mobilise, which means that if I'm up against a new author, or a first-time-nominated book, because I would have the stronger online presence no matter if his book is better than mine, I will probably get more votes. It's most definitely a sign that your readers are behind you so in that sense it's absolutely wonderful."

Landy is up against Darren Shan this year so he's not sure whether it will be the hoped-for three in a row. "He has a massive following online, in the same way my votes could trample a new reader I'm sure Darren's votes could trample me. It's not a foolproof method, but it's better than a panel of experts."

Bert Wright runs the awards and says: "In the early stages, when we started doing this, it was about who had the most Facebook friends, so we balanced the popular vote with an academy vote, which is a body of 200 people. Some people are under the impression that if they scare up enough votes they'll get the prize but it's equally weighted between the academy and the popular vote."

The Irish artistic scene is generally well-rewarded: in music, there is the €10,000 Choice Prize for the best Irish album of the year, while film and television has the IFTAs, but for a country of scribes, books have been comparatively overlooked.

"A few people like to take potshots at us," says Wright about the Irish Book Awards, "but, at a time when the trade is struggling with Amazon and e-readers, we're doing something positive.

"Seamus Heaney is getting the lifetime achievement award this year and the previous winners are Maeve Binchey, Edna O'Brien and William Trevor. If those four writers feel it's incumbent on them to come along, who is anyone to argue with that?"

The Irish Book Awards winners will be announced on November 17. To vote go to www.irishbookawards.ie; voting closes tomorrow

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