This letter appeared in the 13 July 2014 Sunday Times, following the petition received by the newspaper the previous week, urging that the erstwhile Sunday Times Fiction Prize not be renamed for Barry Ronge.
A very distinguished list of literary people appended their names to a letter opining that naming the Sunday Times Fiction Award after Barry Ronge is inappropriate and “confusing”.
“Confusing”? Maybe novelists are easily confused! It could be regarded as “confusing”, then, that the non-fiction award is named for Alan Paton, a writer best known for his profound works of fiction. (Yes, he wrote essays and biographies, but had that been his sole output, I doubt he’d be remembered today. It is, let’s face it, the luminous NOVEL, Cry, The Beloved Country, on which his fame rests.) And on another tack: do novelists like Donna Tartt find it confusing to receive a prize for their literature that is named for a great reporter and publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, I wonder? Have women novelists spent years being confused about entering their works for an award (the Orange Prize) named for a telecoms company?
Inappropriate? Barry Ronge helped to found these awards. It is thanks, in great part, to him that they exist and flourish. Through his dedicated support, through his commitment to compering these awards over more than twenty years, he helped shape them, advance them, make them into the grand and important event on the literary calendar they now are. Had he never written a word himself, of any kind, that would make him a worthy recipient of this honour.
As for the suggestion that this award should be named after some South African writer … I believe that any of the choices mentioned could be seen as divisive – Bessie Head, acclaimed as a Botswana writer? Olive Schreiner, who was white? Zakes Mda and Nadine Gordimer, both still alive and therefore potential recipients themselves?
It is far better, in my view, to name the award for someone who worked to advance the cause of writing in this country, rather than a writer. So he was not a writer of fiction, nor a prolific critic of fiction: nor were the mentors who sent many writers on their way, like school teachers and university lecturers, librarians and bookish adults who encouraged small children to read, or story-tellers who fired their imaginations at bed-time. Barry Ronge, in helping to found and maintain and strengthen these awards, was a nurturer in this vein. I hope you stand firm in your decision to honour him.