Prizes for writing about writing: new media awards by Emirates Literature Foundation

The Emirates Literature Foundation probably has a rosy-tinted view of journalism – “who better to receive an award that is deeply rooted in literature than journalists? They work tirelessly to bring the news, good and bad, to everyone, employing their skilful use of the written word” – but optimism is a valuable trait and one that should always be applauded. Still, it will be instructive to see who wins of the newly announced Media Awards at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with the goals: the Emirates Literature Foundation want to “honour and reward” those journalists who help spread the vital message of reading for pleasure and who provide “the most informative and exciting coverage” of the Foundation’s flagship event, the Festival of Literature.

HH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chair of the Foundation, hopes the Media Award will also initiate a healthy dialogue about literature and its impact on society. “The media play an integral role in conveying the importance of reading in the UAE,” he said. “We have instituted the Media Awards to thank them for supporting the Foundation and its initiatives to encourage a culture of reading in the country.”

The Awards are open to Arabic and English print and online publications from the GCC, United Kingdom and India. The qualification is that they produce original content about the Festival with a special focus on encouraging reading.

Submissions should include three to five features produced between19 October 2016 and 10 April 2017 – the latter date is the deadline for entries.

There will be two winners, one ach for Arabic and English. Both winners will receive a four-day weekend trip for two to New York or London including flights and five-star accommodation.

We’re all for journalism awards, but they are fraught with problems that run the risk of devaluing the opportunities for commending individual writers. For a start, the self-selection favours the best-organised self-publicists – of whom there are many in the relatively constrained journalistic environment here. Hopefully the LitFest people will discreetly encourage the better writers to apply …

There’s also the danger of including online publications. The proliferation of bloggers and ‘native content’ providers has done nothing for standards of writing or presentation; the sheer volume of words produced online can down out the quality. Let’s hope the judges can fight their way through the forest of words to find some elegance and clarity.

They’ll certainly need frequent inoculation against sycophancy and lack of acuity, both of which characterise journalism (especially online) in the region. Professional success in journalism often means taking the safe option, and the safest of options here involves uncritical acceptance and parroting the press release. On which subject, it’s perhaps a tad worrying that the official word from LitFest director Isobel Abulhoul starts with “The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and the Emirates Literature Foundation have always enjoyed a convivial relationship with the media”.

Ok, writing about literature doesn’t need to involve gimlet-eyed investigation and acid-tipped reporting. The principles of the Festival are strong and unimpeachable; reading is good. Writing about reading ought to be similarly praiseworthy. But the obsession with celebrity, celluloid spinoffs and commercial success generally all mean that author interviews, for example, don’t always reflect those values.

Enough of the cynicism. Isobel Abulhoul says “the awards will highlight the skill and dedication that journalists take in the written and spoken word, and also the important role they play in helping to encourage reading across the UAE and beyond … Hopefully the Media Awards will encourage some innovative and interesting features based on the many sessions and workshops.”

We’re all for innovative and interesting writing. Details for submission are here.

The ninth LitFest runs from 3-11 March 2017, featuring more than 150 authors and around 250 sessions, panels, workshops and special events.

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