‘Pretentious waffle’... Malta book awards jury shocks as they hold back top prize

Malta book prize jury says long-list submitted for national book awards’ top novel prize ‘below par’

L-R: Lou Drofenik, Clare Azzopardi, and John P. Portelli
L-R: Lou Drofenik, Clare Azzopardi, and John P. Portelli

This article was amended on 2 February, 2020 to state that the jury report refers to a long-list of some 40 books, and not specifically to the three short-listed books for the top prize.

Pretentious waffle, formulaic, and grizzled texts... strong words indeed from the three-man jury who this year staged a silent coup on the Maltese literary world by not awarding the top prize for the best novel in Maltese and English. 

It was akin to the Oscars not awarding its best film award for the National Book Awards, the annual celebration of Malta’s best literature, poetry and other works of non-fiction.

But the report by jurists Kevin Saliba, David Hudson, and Dr Slavomir Ceplo was merciless in its appreciation of a long-list of some 40 books, from which they had to select three to pass into a final short-list.

The three short-listed novels, Clare Azzopardi’s Castillo from Merlin, widely tipped to take the prize, and emigrés Lou Drofenik’s The Reluctant Healer and John P. Portelli’s Kulħadd Barra Fajża, both published by Horizons, however still failed to make the cut for the jury to award the top book a €4,000 prize.

“The standard of Maltese novels that were submitted for the National Book Prize this year was below par,” they said of the long-list submitted for the 2019 awards.

“Most of the works revealed that whoever was behind the pen had a very limited reading experience, most works were routine and indifferent to the context in which they were written and the context in which they would be read; all the works offered nothing new.” 

But their cutting critique did not stop there: 

“Not a single fictional character was poised and independent of its author. The works ranged from pretentious waffle to dispassionate and formulaic texts that are all too repetitive and grizzled.”

The jury said that a strong novel does not just tell a story: “it doesn’t contrive characters as plot devices and it does not follow its predecessors with an anxiety of influence; it is new, which means that it is not yet told and it is consistent from the first to last page, and it ultimately should startle the reader.”

The jury said that while the novels that made the shortlist were better than the rest, none of them “leapt out as far from the rest so as to be singularly exceptional even when not in a competitive context.” 

“We feel that there is room this year not to reward a novel for being simply ‘better’ than its competitors. As adjudicators, we believe that a novel should earn the National Book Prize when it is distinct not just from its shortlisted peers but from what the Maltese context has come to expect from a novel. 

“It would certainly be a grim situation if the novels submitted to the prize this year are to taken as representative of the Maltese literary potential. We refuse to give out the prize to the least disappointing novel... 

“It is simply the case that none of the books on this list has done so effectively.” 

The decision surprised many: authors like Immanuel Mifsud spoke out on Facebook saying he was “disappointed” at the decision not to award the prize. “I’m surprised because I think there was material there that deserved the prize. Good thing I’m not a gambling man,” Mifsud said, suggesting that he would have placed his money on Clare Azzopardi’s Castillo

The conversation on Facebook saw one member of the jury, the translator Kevin Saliba, taking full responsibility for the decision. 

“I will fully defend our decision not to award the prize in this category... get over it. I don’t want to be apologetic... not one novel satisfied our criteria. Not even Castillo... this is no national scandal.” 

Saliba then added that he had been blocked by “sore losers” on Facebook. “These people expect to win with whatever they write, thinking their literary genius will shine just by writing something superior to Emilio Lombardi,” Saliba said, referring to the dime-a-dozen romances churned out by the film director.

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