Saltire Literary Awards: How Scottish publishing snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – Brian Ferguson

The concept of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a one more usually associated with Scotland’s footballers and rugby players in modern times.

Shuggie Bain by Glasgow author Douglas Stuart was crowned winner of the Booker Prize last week - only the second Scottish book in the history to win in the history of the award. Picture: John Devlin

But that seemed to be the over-riding feeling within the Scottish publishing world at the news, revealed in this newspaper on Monday, that the country’s annual literary awards had been left on the shelf for a year.

Less than a week after authors and publishers celebrated the Booker Prize-winning success of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain, which had coincided with Scotland’s annual week-long celebration of all things literary, confirmation of the absence of the Saltire Literary Awards this year was the equivalent of a wet blanket being thrown over the festivities.

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For the Saltire Society, the decision was a purely pragmatic, financial one, after its annual application for funding to Creative Scotland, which had backed the event since 2014, was turned down in the summer. The society delayed opening this year’s awards for submissions in the hope of attracting an alternative backer but, unsurprisingly given the current climate, drew a blank.

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Creative Scotland’s decision not to spend £40,000 on the awards – one of the main events in the social calendar of writers, publishers, agents and publicists – makes some sense given that the prospect of an actual event being able to take place was highly unlikely.

Yet an actual awards ceremony is way more than a boozy soiree. That’s why the organisers of the Scottish Album of the Year Awards, the Scots Trad Music Awards and the Bafta Scotland Awards have pulled out all the stops to ensure they went ahead.

Not only are they absolutely vital in recognising the best new work created over the previous 12 months, they are all vital to help promote new work. One only has to look at the kind of publicity secured by Nova Scotia, the Leith rapper who won the Scottish Album of the Year title.

One of the more exasperating elements of the loss of the Saltire Literary Awards is that it appears to have been something of a vintage year, despite bookshops being closed down for months and the impact of the restrictions on live events and festivals.

Apart from the success of Shuggie Bain, this year has also seen two Edinburgh-based authors, Lucy Ellman and Maggie O’Farrell, secure two of the UK’s biggest literary awards, the James Tait Black Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Francine Toon and Kirstin Innes have been hailed as two of Scotland’s most exciting new writers, while Ian Rankin, Ali Smith and Val McDermid have all published new novels recently.

When the publishing industry has been as agile as any Scottish cultural sector in staging online festivals, talks and book launches, and other awards have been able to stage judging processes over the last few months, it does seem bizarre for the Saltire Literary Awards to have no presence at all this year.

Somewhat belatedly, the Saltire Society has issued a plea for sponsors to come forward to help ensure the awards can bounce back. It might also be an idea to galvanise the publishing industry behind a drive to persuade the Scottish government and Creative Scotland that it is not left looking like the poor relation of the arts world this time next year.

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