Monthly Archives: December 2016

On book prizes and literary patronage

This year’s National Book Prize was overshadowed by Alex Vella Gera’s protest against the government and the political establishment: the Labour and PN duopoly backed by big business and mired in corruption.

Under current political conditions, I wouldn’t expect anything different from Alex Vella Gera. By now, having become a literary voice capable of striking fear and anger into the hearts of those in power and those who wield it in other ways, Alex Vella Gera is held in high esteem by many. This for me also shows that our writers, especially those who write great literature, are even more respected than before and their word carries weight.

Having said that, I also feel that, as a government official, I need to give credit where credit is due. I have great respect for the Prime Minister because, although the National Book Prize has become increasingly marked with protests against the government, and although several books which have won the National Book Prize include narrations of the turbulent 1980s which read like pieces of criticism against the government of that time, financial support to the National Book Council by the current government has come and still comes with no strings attached.

In this respect, and due to the controversy that has erupted, I feel bound to say that I’m very happy to know that even though writers might be ferocious critics of the government, the government will still unconditionally support the National Book Council’s initiatives, the same initiatives whose immediate beneficiaries include dissenting writers. I am happy to be able to say this because this was not the case under the previous government administration, and, therefore, not something I am inclined to take for granted. I am also aware that my comments are also being made during a time when in many parts of the world we are witnessing the rapid growth of political movements which do not respect the basic values of democracy.

I’m also glad that Labour party media are doing the right thing in withholding all criticism of the same writers who are criticising the Prime Minister and the government. I will also try and make sure that this does not take place.

This was also not the case under the previous government administration. To give but one example, under Lawrence Gonzi’s administration I was accused by the Nationalist Party’s television station NET TV of promoting paedophilia by publishing Alex Vella Gera’s short story “Li Tkisser Sewwi”.

The Nationalist Party has until now never apologised for this gross and vile attack, and the fact that they now think and say openly to the public that their arrogance back then was simply a convoluted public perception shows that these people have not learned from their past mistakes.

I do not share Alex Vella Gera’s political stance, yet I’m glad that the National Book Prize has become so prestigious as to serve as an effective national platform for dissent. Bring it on, let the fire rage, burn the house down.

For my part, I will still stand by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for keeping his word and introducing legal reforms so as to reduce censorship in literature and widen the spectrum of what can be published legally and, furthermore, for allowing the National Book Prize to develop the way it has, free to acquire all its political connotations.

The government is also honouring its obligations to widen the possibilities of what can be published even further with a new press act which should be passed by parliament in the coming weeks and months.

If we did not hold the National Book Prize under the Prime Minister’s patronage, the funding and support to the National Book Council would not stop – it would keep increasing nonetheless.

And, in relation to the current Labour administration, the rationale for having the National Book Prize under the patronage of the Prime Minister is based on two considerations.

First of all, we get more visibility and national reach, not to mention the fact that an official recognition by the Prime Minister is in itself an institutional high honour, and secondly, because this government and the Prime Minister himself genuinely want to support the publishing and writing community even at the expense of the popularity of the government itself.

This relationship between the government and the writing and publishing community as mediated by the National Book Council provides an excellent balance. Of course, I cannot guarantee that things would remain the same under a Nationalist administration.



Diversity inside Language Council increases oversight

The rules of grammar and orthography of the Maltese language are dictated by the National Council for the Maltese Language, whose composition is determined by the Department of Maltese Language of the University of Malta and the Maltese Academy, the outfit which previously served the role of a national language council.

The new law reforming the Council for the Maltese Language still allows the Academy and the Department of Maltese to nominate its representatives but in addition, thanks to the new law, the Language Council will finally have a representative from the publishing industry and a representative from the National Book Council to represent authors and book writers.

As of now, from the 11 people sitting in the Language Council only five members out of 11 hold a PhD in the Maltese language. One of the bones of contention on the Council reform is on the issue of peer-reviewing and academic scrutiny but, ironically enough, it is members of the Language Council itself who have persistently resisted to have their work peer-reviewed by other academics of contrasting views. The lack of peer-reviewing in the Council’s work was blatantly evident when earlier this year the Council released a list of country names and proposed introducing into Maltese the word “Netherlandiż”. This issue is made even more problematic by the fact that until now the Language Council was monolithic in terms of its ideas and views.

So, no wonder that for many academics and authors the Language Council seemed to be taking decisions without even bothering to acknowledge their positions, let alone allow itself to be scrutinised by other academics in an independent peer-review process. When in 2008 the Council came out with a new list of prescriptive laws suggesting for example changing “skond” into “skont”, a great outcry followed. Many authors and academics seriously disagreed with the 2008 decisions, but there was unfortunately no means of redress. The current reform will help increase oversight by diversifying the member base of the Council.

Just recently during this year, the Language Council called a public meeting to announce its new directives regarding loan words and new diction borrowed from the English language. This time round, the Council changed its approach – instead of issuing a prescriptive directive, it declared a permissive position to the issues at hand and this was welcomed by many writers and academics present at the meeting.

Having a permissive position towards the development of a language defeats the purpose of having a Language Council in the first place, but this is the inevitable road our language seems to be taking. Ironically, it is the Language Council itself which came to the inevitable conclusion that when confronted with new controversial orthographic problems, writers and editors should have the possibility to choose their preferred option, and eventually the option most frequently used will prevail over the others naturally.

The reforms to the Language Council will ensure that the Council does not fall again under the influence of a single and monolithic academic group and furthermore, it will ensure that authors and publishers also have a say in the decision-making process. However, there is also the strategic direction of the language itself which should be taken in consideration. The Language Council could do with some help in its management and strategy.

Unfortunately, academics are often not the best managers and this shows in the failure of the Language Council to come up with a comprehensive administrative strategy to ensure and safeguard the use and the correct use of Maltese language in public institutions. For example, there has until now never been a comprehensive legal and administrative strategy drawn up by the Language Council to introduce wide-ranging reforms in the civil service and public bureaucracy when in fact such a strategy should have been one of the first things the Council had to attend to.

The Language Council thinks it’s doing a great job by single-handedly translating one by one the road signs into Maltese, however such a piecemeal approach smacks of managerial incompetence and a lack of strategic thinking. Legal, executive and administrative work must take place to address these matters.

The new reform will not actually solve all the problems of the Language Council, but it is surely a good step forward. We cannot have a Language Council which thinks monolithically and which restricts all diverging schools of thought. Furthermore, the Language Council should seek proper advice on strategy and management and should be open-minded enough to listen to those who might have different views. I am confident that through the new reforms we are going in the right direction and with a more diverse Language Council we will reap better results.