This letter appeared in the 6 July 2014 edition of the Sunday Times, following the announcement that the newspaper’s 14-year-old Fiction Prize would be renamed in honour of its long-time entertainment correspondent, Barry Ronge.
Dear Ms Oppelt,
The purpose of this letter is to bring to the attention of the Sunday Times, and all others involved in South Africa’s literary landscape, the displeasure and confusion that has arisen with the renaming of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize after Mr Barry Ronge.
We realise that the Sunday Times reserves the right to name its literary awards after any individual it deems fit. This letter does not seek to infringe on this right, or meddle in the private business of the paper. But we wish to advise that, to the undersigned, the renaming seems a miscalculation that should be rectified.
It is known across the country that Mr Ronge has, over a lengthy period of time, meticulously performed the art of criticism with honesty, passion, and humour, particularly with regards to film. His involvement in establishing and running the Sunday Times Literary Awards is also well-known, and we applaud the Sunday Times that on his retirement, he was honoured with a richly deserved Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of this.
We believe, however – as do many others, beyond those who have signed this petition – that Mr Ronge’s relatively small contribution to fiction, as a writer or book reviewer, precludes his becoming the ambassador of the biggest fiction prize there is in South Africa.
In his keynote address at this year’s awards ceremony, Christopher Hope spoke eloquently and fittingly about Alan Paton, after whom the non-fiction prize is named. He said, “Tonight we celebrate the Alan Paton whose name has adorned these Sunday Times book awards for non-fiction for 25 years. For 25 years, the prize has been given to contemporary writers who … demonstrate ‘compassion, elegance of writing and illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it which are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power.’ Well … that pretty much sums up what I admired about Paton.”
The fiction prize, on the other hand, is awarded for works of “rare imagination and style, evocative, textured”; to tales “so compelling as to become an enduring landmark in contemporary fiction”.
Whereas Alan Paton embodied the criteria of the prize named after him, Mr Ronge does not likewise embody the criteria of the Fiction Prize. His “lifelong dedication to his craft, his love of language and ability to write with refinement and dignity” notwithstanding, his is an inappropriate name to associate with the prize.
The current situation at best confuses the followers of this award as to its purpose, and at worst diminishes the moral integrity it has had during the past 14 years.
What we would like to see happen is for the Sunday Times to reverse its decision and revise the criteria for renaming the Fiction Prize. If indeed the prize must be renamed from its original Sunday Times Fiction Prize, it would be ideal if it recognises the contribution of an author who not only embodies its principles, but has published extensively in the fiction genre, such that his or her influence is recognised by all involved – including readers, other writers, literary critics, publishers and scholars.
South Africa is blessed with a litany of such doyens of fiction, venerated the world over, whose names may be available for this role. They include: Bessie Head, Olive Schreiner, SEK Mqhayi, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Zakes Mda and many, many others who made the kind of impact that no doubt Mr Ronge would have made if he actually wrote and published fiction.
We hope that you will take into consideration this request and deliberately examine the benefits of renaming the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, by initiating a fresh process that takes into account submissions from those, like us, who have cherished it, but who have been left confused by the inappropriate change.
The Sunday Times has done many wonderful things for the cause of fiction, but we fear this record may be tarnished by the current development. We thank you for your time and consideration.
Malaika wa Azania