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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

Virginija Cibarauskeby
Virginija Cibarauskė

 

 

Lithuanian literature awards can be characterized by seasonality. Spring and autumn are a time for poetry, while winter is the season for picking the best books of the year. Of course, seasonality is not the only aspect that allows the classification of literary awards. More importantly, prizes differ in both their function and their meaning. The main function of some is setting the internal hierarchy of the field; others aim to inform the widest possible audience about valuable books, promote reading, and create opportunities for readers and authors to meet.

Poetry Springs and Autumns

An international poetry festival known as Poetry Spring has taken place every spring since 1965. The event is organized by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union and the Writers’ Club. The festival is meant both to promote poetry by giving poets the opportunity to meet their readers (including those living outside of Vilnius), and to establish specific hierarchies in the field of poetry. A variety of different poetry prizes are awarded during the festival, the most important being the Maironis Prize. Its winner is also recognized as the Poetry Spring laureate.

Another equally important international poetry festival takes place in the autumn, namely Druskininkai Poetic Fall. Started by the Lithuanian P.E.N. Centre in 1990, the festival was taken over by the Druskininkai Poetic Fall public organization in 2001. During this festival, the winners of the Jotvingis and the Young Jotvingis Prizes are announced.

The laureates of the Poetry Spring and Druskininkai Poetic Fall are elected by juries consisting of the previous winners. Thus, these awards symbolize, above all, the recognition of the poet community itself. The 2019 Maironis Prize was awarded to poet and translator Marius Burokas for his collection of minimalist, laconic poems Of Clean Being (published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House). The Jotvingis Prize was given to Ramūnas Kasparavičius for his collection of poems Poetry (published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House), while Ernestas Noreika was awarded the Young Jotvingis Prize for his collection of poems saturated with a catastrophic mood and surreal imagery, Apollo (published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House).

Both Poetry Spring and the Druskininkai Poetic Fall have the same tendencies. First, the same person can only win the prize once, so both awards are basically meant to glorify personalities, that is, individual poets rather than specific books. In the recent decades, the winners of both awards have mostly been books published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House. The absolute majority of these awards’ winners have been male poets. For example, the Jotvingis Prize, awarded annually since 1985, has so far been received by three female poets only.

This trend received special attention in the 2017 Druskininkai Poetic Fall Conference. Every year, the festival organizes a discussion on a topic relevant to the poetry community. That year, the subject was “Women and Men in Poetry: The Limits of Imagination.” It is unlikely that the festival’s organizers were hoping for the discussion to be limited to the specifics of male and female representation in poetry. The female participants of the conference suggested discussing why there are almost no women among the winners of the poetry prizes. The discussion was willingly joined by the festival’s guests—poets, both men and women, from abroad. Meanwhile, the male community of Lithuanian poets reacted defensively—the participants who had brought up the problem were accused of pouring out personal grievances.

Interestingly, it was this specific discussion that prompted the biggest Lithuanian news outlets to write about the Druskininkai Poetry Festival that year. The articles, however, as is typical of journalism in recent years, did not seek to analyze the situation, but simply created another scandal with some shocking headlines, such as “The Jotvingis Prize Committee Accused of Sexism.”

In general, poetry prizes in Lithuania receive little attention: their relevance is basically limited to the field of poetry and the changes in the hierarchy of its community members. And this is not surprising: the circulation of poetry books is small, they’re hardly advertised,  and they are usually reviewed only by professional critics in low-circulation cultural publications; poetry is hardly of any interest to public influencers, popular bloggers, or bookstagrammers.

Lithuanian Writers’ Union (LWU) Awards

The Lithuanian Writers’ Union is an influential structure of the literary field that seeks to shape it. One way of doing this is establishing hierarchies. And the most opportune means for such establishment are prizes marking out noteworthy authors. Awarded writers are honored with more than just a one-time cash prize and public appraisal; becoming a winner of a prestigious literary prize increases the chances of receiving a creative scholarship from the Cultural Council and funding for publishing a book.

The Lithuanian Writers’ Union is the founder of as many as four different literary awards. One of them is the aforementioned Poetry Spring Maironis Award given to poetry books. The most prestigious is the Lithuanian Writers’ Union (LWU) Prize, awarded to one high-value literary work published in the previous two years. The Writers’ Union Prize has been awarded annually since 1992 on Three Kings Day (January 6). The jury is appointed by the Writers’ Union Board and is usually made up of previous award winners— members of the union. In 2020, the award was given to Mindaugas Nastaravičius for his collection of confessional poetry, Infinitive (published by Tyto alba).

In 2019, Nastaravičius’s Infinitive was also awarded the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize. Few know that this award, established by the Center for the Creative Heritage of Jurga Ivanauskaitė and the publishing house Tyto alba in 2008, has been organized by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union and the aforementioned publishing house (which has published most of Ivanauskaitė’s works) since 2014. The prize is awarded to an author not older than 45 for the best work of Lithuanian literature corresponding to the wording “for free, open, and bold creative expression.” The winner is awarded during the Vilnius Book Fair, giving the ceremony more attention than the Lithuanian Writers’ Union prize, awarded in a rather intimate environment.

Ivanauskaitė’s position in the Lithuanian literary field is a peculiar one: her works were very popular with readers and sold in enormous print runs, yet serious critics always avoided reviewing her books. One of the main reasons for this is the specific nature of Ivanauskaitė’s work, which combines elements of the detective and thriller genres as well as eroticism and mysticism. And the reception of popular literature in Lithuania continues to be complicated. Due to the lack of autonomy in the literary field during the Soviet period (which lasted until the 1990s), the tradition of popular literature in Lithuania had no opportunities to develop. At the same time, the low-quality translations of detective, thriller, and fantasy novels that flooded the literary market after Lithuania regained independence resulted in all popular literature being considered as essentially inferior.

Therefore, the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize is, in part, intended to draw attention to popular yet high-quality literary works. In 2018, the award was given to Gabija Grušaitė for her novel Cold East (published by Lapas), a book about a blogger of Lithuanian origin, Stanley, who travels the world in search of himself. Some readers baptized the novel the “Hipster Bible.” The 2017 award went to Rimantas Kmita for his pop novel Southside Chronicle (published by Tyto alba), which tells the story of a young man maturing during the wild capitalism period in Lithuania in the 1990s. This year’s Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize was awarded to Jurga Tumasonytė and her collection of short stories Mermaids (published by LWU Publishing House), which is distinguished by a harmony between domestic and magical realism, also characteristic of Ivanauskaitė’s work.

Another LWU award is named after Liudas Dovydėnas. Intended to commemorate this Lithuanian writer (1906-2000), the prize is awarded “for the best new Lithuanian novel published during the previous calendar year.” The patron of the award is Dovydėnas’s son, Jonas Dovydėnas. The award ceremony takes place at the Rokiškis Regional Museum in Rokiškis rather than in Vilnius, which is one of the reasons why the award and its winners receive less attention compared to other LWU awards. The vast majority of the prize winners are writers of venerable age. One exception is Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, author of immensely popular historical novels. Sabaliauskaitė was given the Liudas Dovydėnas Award in 2015 for her trilogy Silva Rerum (published by Baltos lankos, 2008, 2011, 2014). In 2019, the prize was not awarded at all. Apparently, the jury decided no good Lithuanian novels were published that year.

The most important question when considering LWU awards is the following: does their symbolic capital operate outside the field of literature, that is, does the message about valuable literary pieces that the prizes aim to convey determine readers’ choices? I would say not, primarily due to lack of publicity. All those prizes, except perhaps the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize, are awarded in an intimate environment. Ceremonies are usually attended only by representatives of the literary field and the usual visitors of all LWU events. News about award-winning works and their authors does not reach the remaining public as the publicity is usually limited to brief coverage in the cultural press. More attention is paid to authors who had already been well-known to a wider audience before having received the awards. In other words, the LWU prizes, in addition to the symbolic capital and the cash prize and diploma given, barely increase the popularity and notability of the awarded authors. On the other hand, the purpose of these awards is not to increase the popularity of authors, but to establish hierarchies in the literary field. To put it short, they are prizes for writers awarded by writers.

The best, most creative and scandalous books of the year

A shortlist of the top twelve Most Creative Books announced annually by scholars of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore (ILLF) functionally occupies an intermediate position between hierarchizing the literary field and promoting reading. The list has been drawn up since 2003. The laureate is chosen from twelve candidates during a secret ballot of the institute’s jury of literary scholars, approved by the director of the institute. The winner is announced during the Vilnius Book Fair. Unlike the LWU elections, in which the juries are composed of the writers themselves—whose competence to objectively evaluate the works of other authors can often be questioned—the qualification of the institute’s scholars is impeccable. The selection criterion is both clear and fairly abstract—creativity. This competition is a necessary counterweight to writers who seek to shape the field and establish their own hierarchies.

The election of the top twelve Most Creative Books is also characterized by a good publicity strategy. The list, along with comments by the institute’s scholars, is published in the press and via popular news outlets. The mystery of the work to be deemed the Most Creative Book of the Year is kept until the Book Fair. At least a few of the fair’s events are dedicated to the twelve Most Creative Books, creating a forum to discuss the recent-year literary trends. The Most Creative Book of 2019 was Vidas Morkūnas’s collection of short stories The Wayfarers’ Stations (published by Odilė), which stood out for its attention to detail, hyperrealism, and a dark atmosphere reminiscent of Gothic literature.

The mission of promoting reading was also taken on by popular Lithuanian news website 15min.lt, which has been organizing the 15min Book Elections for a couple of years now. What is special about this competition is that it is not limited to Lithuanian authors. At the initiative of the outlet’s editor-in-chief, an expert panel consisting of literary scholars and book reviewers offers readers a list of publications from which the latter choose four sets of five: Lithuanian fiction books, Lithuanian non-fiction books, translated fiction books, and translated non-fiction books. The members of the jury and the readers then vote separately, the winner later being chosen by all of the votes being added up. The 2019 winner of the 15min Award was Kristina Sabaliauskaitė and her historical novel Peter’s Empress (published by Baltos lankos).

Peter’s Empress could also be considered the most scandalous book of the year, as due to its (under)estimation, the ability of professional critics to evaluate literary works was broadly questioned. Sabaliauskaitė is the last decade’s best-selling Lithuanian fiction author. The whole print run of her widely advertised new novel Peter’s Empress was bought up before the book even appeared in bookstores—the writer’s fans ordered the publication online in droves. Despite that, the book made it neither to the top twelve Most Creative Books nor to the top five Books of the Year for adult fiction This caused lots of irritation from the author’s fans, bloggers who had very enthusiastically written about the novel, and the publishing house that published the book, who claimed that professional critics were ignoring Sabaliauskaitė.

The Books of Year competition jury was scolded the most. The aim of these elections, which have taken place since 2005, is to promote reading. The competition is organized by the Association Cultural Literacy in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuanian National Radio and Television, and the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania. The idea of the campaign is to present readers with the best works of Lithuanian literature published in the previous year in the categories of children’s, young-adult, adult, and poetry books. In 2018, a fifth category, that of non-fiction, including essay collections and book-length works. The selected works and authors receive significant publicity: book presentations take place in both the capital and elsewhere in the country, the top-five lists are reviewed on a special website, authors present their works on cultural national TV shows, and the selected books are donated to public libraries.

The election of the Books of the Year takes place in two stages. A panel of experts made up of writers, translators, and literary critics selects the top five books for each category. These shortlists are then published on the Books of the Year website, where readers can vote and choose the winners. The latter are announced at a solemn ceremony during the Book Fair.

Interestingly enough, the winners of the Books the Year quite rarely coincide with the Most Creative Book of the Year selected by the institute, although most of the works included in the top-five shortlist also appear among the twelve Most Creative Books. For example, in this year’s Books of the Year competition the best fiction book was chosen to be Marijus Gailius’s ecological dystopia Of Air (published by Odilė), while Vytautas Kazielas’s collection of existential poems Olive Trees (published by Kauko laiptai) won in the category of poetry; neither of these books made it to the twelve Most Creative Books. And the same thing happened last year. This reaffirms that readers, literary critics, and writers have different tastes and evaluation criteria. And yet this is not a bad thing— on the contrary: it confirms that the field of literature is heterogeneous, while literary life is free, unpredictable and full of vitality.

 

 

 Translated by Alexandra Bondarev

 

 

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