Sometime tomorrow, one lucky novelist will get the most famous literary prize that no one’s ever heard of.
That’s an exaggeration, but it’s safe to say that many Americans are completely unaware of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, even though it hands out more money than any other annual fiction prize in the world. Tomorrow’s winner will get 100,000 Euros, or roughly $157,000.
There are natural reasons why the IMPAC award is less visible than such major American literary awards as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award or the British Man Booker Prize.
For one thing, the IMPAC is centered in Dublin, which is not a major publishing center. For another, it is only 13 years old, so it’s still building its track record.
Americans may be particularly ignorant of the IMPAC because only one U.S. author has won it — Edward P. Jones in 2005 for his slavery saga, “The Known World,” which also took the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
While most American awards are limited to U.S. authors and the Booker prize deals with writers from the British commonwealth nations and Ireland, the IMPAC encompasses works from anywhere in the world, as long as they’ve been translated into English.
In this year’s short list of eight novels, for instance, the authors are from Algeria, Australia, France, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Spain and Sri Lanka.
And unlike other major literary competitions, the nominations for the IMPAC come from libraries all over the world. Cathy McKenna, senior librarian at the Dublin City Library and IMPAC award administrator, said 122 libraries from around the globe, including 24 in the United States, made nominations this year.
The process generates an intriguing mix of well-known novels and lesser-known local favorites, she said. And in many cases, the winning books are nominated by libraries from outside the author’s nation.
When Irish novelist Colm Toibin won the IMPAC in 2006 for “The Master,” his fictional treatment of the life of Henry James, one of the nominating libraries was the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Joan Luebering, the manager of the Loveland Branch Library in that system, was the person who passionately pushed for “The Master” and remembers how thrilled she was when it was chosen for the award.
“I think it’s hard for people to find things that are out of the mainstream,” Ms. Luebering said, “especially since there’s so much information out there, so I think the role of librarians of the future will be to help people find the information they need from the flood.”
After the library nominations flow in during the autumn before the prize year, an international panel of authors and academics chooses the short list of up to 10 books the following spring and then selects the winner in June.
One of this year’s judges, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, said the IMPAC sometimes offers the chance to lift up lesser-known novelists who write just as well as their more famous counterparts. This year, for instance, several libraries had nominated Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, “The Road,” which already had won the Pulitzer Prize in America. (A portion of the movie adaptation was filmed in the Pittsburgh region this year.)
“One of the thoughts in my mind,” Mr. Habila said, “was that he might not need this award as much as a younger writer. It won’t have as big an impact on his career.”
The IMPAC award is named for an international company based in Florida, and therein lies part of its history.
In 1992, Dublin Lord Mayor Gay Mitchell wanted to start an international fiction prize that would call attention to the rich literary history of the city that spawned James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats.
Coincidentally, James Irwin, an Irish-American who is chairman of IMPAC, a productivity improvement firm whose European headquarters is in Dublin, “had in his mind that he wanted to do something about books, but he wasn’t sure what,” said his personal assistant, Christopher Houghton.
The son of a New York City fire battalion chief, Mr. Irwin says in his official biography that both his parents were avid readers and encouraged him to do the same. They told him “the sky was my limit, and if there was such a thing as a limit, books were the friendly doorways to the sky.”
When he found out about Mr. Mitchell’s campaign, Mr. Irwin decided to endow the contest with enough money so that it could award 100,000 Euros each year, easily making it the most lucrative fiction award in the world.
Big prize money, however, has not sparked higher visibility for the award. One factor could be that Americans are simply not reading novels and short stories as much as they used to.
A poll done last year by The Associated Press and Ipsos showed that 1 in 4 Americans had not read a single book in the previous year. In 2004, a study titled “Reading at Risk,” by the National Endowment for the Arts, showed that fewer than half of Americans said they ever read literature.
If it is daunting to get people to read literary fiction by American authors, it can be all the tougher to persuade them to pick up a book by a foreign writer.
And that is a shame, said Mr. Habila, the Nigerian novelist who teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., because “nothing introduces you to a people’s culture and sensibilities better than literature does.
“The news can give you a kind of one-sided view of people in the world,” he said “but literature offers a deeper view.”
Although it flies under the radar of many Americans, the IMPAC is well known by now in the publishing industry, and winning the prize can provide a significant boost to an author’s fortunes, industry experts say.
Last year’s victor, Norwegian author Per Petterson, who won for his father-son novel, “Out Stealing Horses,” experienced an immediate surge in requests from foreign publishers, said his agent, Froydis Kristiansen Jorve. The book has now been published in more than 30 languages, she said.
Beyond its benefit to authors, supporters of the IMPAC prize say they hope it will help convince people of the power of fiction to promote understanding and closer bonds among people throughout the world.
“A lot of the big publishing houses feel there’s not a readership for literature in translation, and people are intimidated by it,” said Jill Schoolman, a founder of Archipelago Books, a small press in Brooklyn, N.Y., that specializes in translating foreign fiction.
“But if you talk to most good readers, I don’t think they’re afraid of translations at all. They just want to read a good book.”