Does a literature prize change in some ways in a year when a pandemic is raging? India’s literary prizes have already faced this question in 2020—when several prizes decided to go on a hiatus. Now it has come up again with the second wave in 2021, arguably in a more overwhelming way. While most of the other literary prizes appear to be waiting things out this year as well, the JCB Prize for Literature is going ahead, as it did last year.

How do jury members view the literature that is written during a pandemic? Should literary prizes be laid aside in view of the times that literature finds itself in? What is the future of a literary prize in a post-covid world, if there is such a thing? The five members of the jury of the JCB Prize for Literature 2021, which, as before, offers a prize of Rs 25 lakh to the winner – and an additional Rs 10 lakh to the translator if the book is a translated one – answered questions on these subjecs from Excerpts:

How different is the lens you wear to judge books during a global pandemic? What do you take into consideration when you judge literature that has been published in an atmosphere of all kinds of personal and professional pressure?

Amit Varma (AV): My lens remains the same. The best literature is timeless and universal, regardless of its setting and theme, and that is what I am looking for. Franz Kafka once said that a book must be “an axe for the frozen sea within us.” I’m looking forward to books that crack my frozen sea.

Annapurna Garimella (AG): I have not put on a different lens during the pandemic to judge the submissions. Whatever their theme, I am looking for a well-crafted, literary narrative.

Prem Panicker (PP): I read a book for its content, for what is between the pages. The circumstances in which a book has been written have no bearing on the quality of the narrative, or lack thereof.

Sara Rai (SR): The lens that one uses to judge a literary prize is the lens of one’s own sensibility. Literature has been written through the ages under pressures of different kinds. My sensibility over the years has been formed and influenced by many factors, both external and internal. It is this sensibility that comes into play when I judge books for a prize, and in doing this it is the intrinsic quality of a piece of writing that I consider. The writing under review will of course have its own challenges and influences.

Shahnaz Habib (SB): My lens is not different, but I am certainly more aware of what a refuge reading can be during such times. I am grateful to the writers and translators and editors and proof-readers and illustrators – the entire literary ecosystem – who worked hard to make it possible for us readers to continue doing what we love to do. And I feel lucky to have my fellow jury members to meet with and talk books during this relentlessly grim time.

We saw a national lockdown come into effect last year. Are there any new themes that you’re hoping to see during this year’s JCB Prize? And what do you feel might feel somewhat hackneyed or clichéd now?
AV: I’m sure there will be new themes, but I don’t judge a book by its themes but by its qualities.

AG: There is a shelf in airport bookstores for up-to-the-moment books that narrativise a current catastrophe. In theory there could be great fiction and maybe good literature, but as yet, I have not seen anything like that. Anything that is written to summarise an ongoing catastrophe meant to mark and change all of us can only be superficial.

PP: I hope fiction writers don’t see the pandemic as an “opportunity” to ride a viral bandwagon. It takes time for major events to crystallise in our minds, and even longer to produce thoughtful, meaningful work around it. To the second part of the question, fiction has to stand on its own merit. External circumstances don’t influence my choice of what I read, as far as fiction is considered – unlike with non-fiction, where the pandemic cues me into exploring in depth questions of science, politics, policy, governance, etc.

SR: Actually it’s quite early to say anything about new themes. Most of these books have been published only very recently. It takes a while for a disaster of this magnitude to sink into the literary imagination.

SH: It is unrealistic to expect literature to have a speedy and efficient response to contemporary events. So I am definitely not expecting the nominated books to speak to the pandemic or the lockdown. Fiction takes a long time to ferment and I will gladly wait.

What are your thoughts on pandemic literature? How do you think such “Covid literature” will be seen in the future – will they become classics, represent a specific segment of the world’s history, or do they mark a temporary phase?
AV: It’s too early to say, and this is too soon for any such literature to emerge – I think most of us are still processing what is happening. But the events of the last few months would have caused many of us to look inwards. So many of us have dealt with sudden loss and intense loneliness. We’ve re-examined our relationships with others and the world around us. This is a powerful moment, and there will surely be powerful, lasting art that emerges out of this. But it will take time. All of the books in this year’s competition were written or at least conceived before the pandemic, so maybe next year’s jury will see the first stirrings of such pandemic literature.

PP: A deeply felt, well-written book can and will endure. Like, for example, Steinbeck’s fiction with the Great Depression as his canvas endures. (Or Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction narrative on the mass migration from the Jim Crow South, another classic that in structure and style resembles the best of fiction). Neither of those books – and others based on seminal events – were rushed into print; each was the product of much research, thought, and skill, and all of that takes time. So again, I’m hoping authors know better than to see the pandemic as a short-cut to the bestseller charts.

SR: Again, it is too early to say. “Covid literature” has still to come into existence. And whether such books become classics or fall by the wayside is something only time will tell. For the moment the question is rather hypothetical.

SH: This is like predicting that a tall stranger will enter your life one of these days! Any or all of this could happen. We come to literature with different needs. We want stories that witness and stories that explain and stories that make meaning. So there will be different books to meet these different hungers.

Do you feel that a pandemic can cut through linguistic barriers? What do you think the impact of the pandemic might be on vernacular literature and translated work?
AV: Regardless of the language we speak, we’ve all lived through the same nightmare. But I don’t know how the pandemic per se would cut through linguistic barriers. Maybe we’ll become more empathetic towards our fellow humans, and thus more curious?

SR: Human suffering cuts through linguistic barriers in the sense that it is universal and happens to everyone. Hopefully, literature – literatures – will emerge from the pandemic, for no language group is unaffected by the pandemic. But the linguistic barriers for accessing literature in other languages remain the same, and that is where the role of translation becomes increasingly urgent.

SH: I am very curious about this too, though I don’t have any answers. It will be interesting to see all the local and regional pandemic stories that emerge in the different Indian languages and from communities beyond the mainstream. On the other hand, vernacular and independent publishing will also have to contend with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The JCB Prize is a prestigious and well-endowed one. Moreover, since the advent of the pandemic, several literary prizes for literary works from India and the subcontinent have either been discontinued or postponed indefinitely. In such a scenario, what are the (added) responsibilities and pressures that come with judging such a prize?
AV: It’s my first time on the jury of a prize like this, and I don’t think there’s any added pressure. We just have to get the work done, like any jury would in any year. We read the books carefully, and try to do justice to each one. Yes, these are trying times for everyone, but we’re getting on with our lives, and we’re getting on with this as well.

AG: It’s hard to see a literary prize as social welfare. In this instance, I would like to keep my focus on writers working hard to write well.

PP: None, really. If you are on a jury, you read the submissions and make the most informed call you are capable of. That doesn’t change because there are fewer literary festivals and fewer prizes on offer. You are judging what is between the covers – everything else is extraneous.

SR: The pressures of judging a prize arise from the pleasures and stresses of reading carefully all the books that are under review. The process remains the same whether there are other prizes also being judged or whether they have been temporarily suspended. Those are extraneous things and do not change the way you judge the prize.

The numerous restrictions on everyday life and lockdowns have ironically led to more communication and interaction between people, thanks to the internet. Could the pandemic give birth to a more collaborative and intersectional literary experience? How will this affect publishing and prize jury decisions?
AV: I suspect you may be overthinking it.

PP: We are, all of us, relying increasingly on ways to get around our inability to indulge in the kind of social interaction that was possible even a year and a half earlier. Technology appears to be cognisant of this – see, for example, the emergence of new platforms such as Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, designed to encourage new ways to interact, to communicate. And thanks to these emerging technologies and our ability to adapt existing technologies to new use cases, we are learning to share, in ways that we never had before – and I am fairly certain that will extend to the world of books.

Collaborative reading clubs, live readings – so many interesting possibilities exist, or are emerging. How it affects publishing is a question for the future. For a jury member though, the only role I see, now and in future, is to read a book for what it is – for the story, for the craft, for the skill with which it has been told. That, and nothing else.

SR: It’s true that the pandemic and its restriction on physical meetings has led people to communicate much more on the internet. This will certainly give rise to new experiences and their literary expression. The form of such expression is not influenced by the demands of the medium alone. Over the past year we have increasingly found ourselves in our own company, often forced to introspect and pause to consider things to which we had not previously given a thought. With external lives put on hold, our inner lives have gained more traction. My surmise is that we may see in the coming time literature that reflects these inner states.

SH: It’s difficult to predict since the ground is shifting underneath as we speak. I do love how literary events have become more accessible online. I certainly hope this kind of decentring will become more of a norm. At the same time, it means people without free access to the internet, for whatever reason – from State-sanctioned blackouts to oppressive households to remote locations – are even more left out than usual.

What are your views on the future of literary prizes in a post-Covid world, if there is such a thing?

AV: Literature is not a horse race. But literary prizes play the useful role of being a filter for the general public, and can be a useful platform for writers who might otherwise be lost in the crowd. I don’t see why that role should change.

AG: I have no view on world events that are so big and need time to process in thinking about future literary prizes. The difference of scale between the world and the prize is vast and needs a great deal of wisdom and patience to imagine a future for the particular in the face of such a horrendous general.

PP: Literary prizes came into existence as a means of recognising good work and, through such recognition, to encourage more people to do good work. That rationale was true then; it is true through the times we are living in, and I see no reason for it to not be true if, and when, this pandemic subsides.

SR: The value of literary prizes lies in their recognition of the artistic merit of the work chosen for the award. It gives a writer validation for her work and may lead to further writing of significance. This has always been true of literary prizes and I don’t see it changing in a post-covid world (and may it come soon!).

SH: I am sure literary prizes will continue to annoy and delight and puzzle and outrage people as long as prizes and people exist.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.