Prize-fighters

It’s not often that local wine-hacks have a story about themselves, so no wonder there’s a lot of indignation about the abandonment of the award of this year’s Wine Writer’s Prize. In case you haven’t heard this earth-shattering news, an email went out yesterday to entrants announcing the decision, and carefully ascribing responsibility for it as widely as possible: the judging panel, the organisers of the Franschhoek Literary Festival and their sponsors. Together they “decided that an award will not be presented this year. The judges were in unanimous agreement that no one submission stood out from the others as being an award-winning piece of wine writing.”

It’s worth looking at the ambiguity of that last sentence. No piece stood out as better than the others? Or no piece was good enough? Why not say clearly what is intended? It could well mean that there were more than one that seemed worthy of an award, but not any one of them more than the others. And really, unless the standard was really low – isn’t that what judges are for, to make that sort of decision? Presumably, though, they mean that not a single one of them was worthy of an award. Why not say that? One of the more competent journalist entrants could have suggested a simpler, less ambiguous phrase.

A strange decision in many ways it certainly is – and a calculated insult to South African wine-writing. That insult might well be deserved in general or in particular, but I really don’t think that, if they managed not to fling up their hands in despair for the past four years, they couldn’t have found something sufficiently decent this year. I do know that the three previous winners all submitted work – though I confess that my own entry was a rather light-hearted, shortish piece, with much less weight (though with some other virtues, I’d hoped) than the two pieces which have won in the past. I didn’t expect to win, but thought it important to enter, and felt like offering something different.

The organisers’ conclusion is not the first strange thing about this year’s award, in fact. Some remarkable incompetence on the part of the organisers or their agents came first, and I can’t help but wonder if this, or what was behind it, somehow played a role in the denouement.

I can tell you, for example, that at least two of the previous winners (one of them being me) and at least one other well-known journalist were not even invited to enter this year. Until, it seems, one of the judges noticed that there were surprisingly few entries, discovered the reason, and people like me eventually got an invitation to enter according to an extended deadline. It would be quite nice to know if that incompetence (if mere incompetence it was) has been investigated.

Another strange bit of what must surely count as the incompetence of the organisers (or judges, I’m not sure) – or at least reckless, short-sighted stupidity – lies in the fact that one journalist was apparently given permission by them to submit a piece from the Classic Wine magazine published in late 2011 (dated December 2011-January 2012), despite the unmistakably clear stipulation that a submission had to be both written and published in 2012!

I also have reason to be pretty sure that there were (are?) forces within the Franschhoek Literary Festival – under whose auspices the Award is made – somewhat less than enthusiastic about the whole business.

So it’s all a bit murky, isn’t it? Personally, I don’t care all that much (but, as I say, I never expected the R25 000 to be FTPing its way to me anyhow), and I rather enjoy the froth of some of my colleagues. There’s an official suggestion that the organisers are looking into the way the whole thing is done, and with any luck a better competition (rather than none at all!) will result – one that doesn’t, for example, pit a pithy little blog against a serious, lengthy article. How can that judgement be made?

It would be nice if a rather more convincing, less off-hand explanation of this decision were given – and I believe that it is being sought by at least one journalist. But they’ve got the money, and we’re the underpaid, eager suitors.

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