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The Irish Love for Writers 
Goes Beyond a Pint and a Peat Fire

The New York Times
June 26, 2004

DUBLIN, June 25 — Mayor Gay Mitchell of Dublin was unhappy back in 1992 with his city's association with the poverty-stricken 1980's and the shadow of violence in Northern Ireland. So he turned to its most famous export — after Guinness, perhaps — and decided to set up a literature prize.

He was on the lookout for someone to bankroll it when he had a meeting with James B. Irwin Sr., a Bronx-born businessman who had recently decided to place the European headquarters of his management consultancy company in Dublin. Mr. Irwin, who holds Irish citizenship thanks to his grandparents, agreed. The result was the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, the largest prize in the world for a single literary work.

Mr. Irwin, whose company is Improved Management Productivity and Control, has said that he agreed to finance an award because his employees listed reading as their preferred leisure activity. The substantial prize money — 100,000 euros this year ($121,700) — is intended to allow winning authors to focus on their next work.

But he is also mindful of how the award can change the lives of previously unknown literary figures by singling out writers who may be working in difficult circumstances and by recognizing the work of a translator — who receives one-quarter of the prize money if the book has been translated into English from another language.

"Around the world there is a pattern of trying to suppress writers," he said. "For people to be free they must have the ability to express themselves through writing."

Since it was first awarded in 1996 with a prize of 100,000 Irish pounds ($160,000), the Impac prize has distinguished itself from other literary competitions, like the Booker and Whitbread awards in Britain, or the Prix Goncourt in France, in a few ways, most notably that it lives up to the "international" part of its name.

This year's winner, Tahar Ben Jelloun, is a Moroccan exile living in France. He won for his novel "This Blinding Absence of Light," published by the New Press, a nonprofit house in New York, in a translation by Linda Coverdale.

Of the nine winners so far, five have been translated into English, and none have been American.

While other literary prizes are usually described as prestigious, the foremost adjective used to describe Impac is "rich." It eclipses the purse attached to any other award for a single work.

"I don't know why everybody mentions it," Mr. Irwin said in an interview here week after the Impac prize dinner last week. "It doesn't matter."

But he added: "We may have put a bit of reality into prizes in the literary world. Artists can't survive on a $10 prize."

The Booker prize has recently been increased to £50,000 ($91,200) while the winner of the overall Whitbread award receives £30,000 ($54,700), and the winner in each individual category each gets £5,000 ($9,121).

While most awards are judged from submissions by publishers, the Impac prize takes nominations from large public libraries around the world. That results in a long, unwieldy list of about 125 titles a year, but gives some prestige to libraries, which are often overlooked in the glitzy world of fiction marketing.

"When publishers and literary people meet, libraries tend to be forgotten," said Liv Sateren, director of Deichmanske Bibliotek, the main public library in Oslo, which was the only library to nominate Mr. Ben Jelloun's book.

Most years the winning book is a popular one and is nominated by several libraries.

Ms. Sateren said she hoped her library's role would raise its profile.

"It doesn't give us money, but it will give some esteem and recognition in literary society," she said in a telephone interview.

It helps that her team of four who select a nominee have been remarkably successful in proposing books that match the taste of the five judges. Oslo has nominated four of the nine winners, and was the only library to nominate the winner in 2000, the British author Nicola Barker, for her novel "Wide Open."

Mr. Ben Jelloun's book is a fictionalized account of a prisoner who was held in the desert dungeons of King Hassan II of Morocco. In an interview he said he was reviled in his homeland because the real-life prisoner he interviewed had asserted that the published content was false despite, Mr. Ben Jelloun said, his having approved a manuscript.

"I suffered a lot for this book," Mr. Ben Jelloun said. "It was horrible. I seemed to be someone who had stolen a victim of Hassan II."

André Schiffrin, director of the New Press, said that it would have been impossible to find a British publishing house to carry "This Blinding Absence of Light" if the book had not won the award, and that he was hopeful that it would now be picked up by one in paperback.

The Impac prize has "carved out an interesting niche," he said. "They've really done something useful."

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