Money plunges modern literature into chaos

The prestige of the writer fell dramatically when Russia embarked on the road to the free market. Membership in the Union of Writers in the former Soviet Union meant you were part of a privileged community. Indeed, union members were entitled to medical services at a privileged clinic and high quality food. They had a range of resort centres known as art centres at their disposal, which only charged a token sum. Soviet-time authors' earnings were not contingent on book sales, and they could even have a fur hat made at a special workshop for next to nothing. This caricature of a Politburo member's lifestyle was attractive for many. Therefore, at the dusk of socialism there were as many as 3,000 professional writers in Moscow alone, the majority of who were devoid of any talent.

Members of the modern Union of Writers live from hand to mouth on their miserly fees fixed by publishers. Authors get a maximum of $300 for a book not intended for the general reader.

Utter confusion in terms of moral guidelines is yet another result of the literati's plummeting prestige. Publishers have introduced a scale of values of their own, which is the sales rate. This means they are totally reliant on advertising. The media tacitly approved of these tactics, thereby leaving the authors of trash fiction in the strongest positions. Money, the sole criterion of success, has plunged modern literature into chaos.

The literary community is trying to regain the right to determine own terms of reference unrelated to filthy monetary returns for serious writers and critics. There are dozens of literary awards in Russia today. They are designed to ensure a high artistic level for books, particularly those that will not sell briskly from stalls near underground stations.

The Triumph, Booker, National Best-seller, and the Andrei Bely Prize are the most acclaimed of the serious literary prizes in modern Russia. Triumph laureates are awarded $50,000, while the winners of the Andrei Bely Prize are only entitled to a bottle of dry white wine, which does not make the latter a less prestigious award. The writer Vladimir Voinovich, poetess Bella Akhmadulina and poet Alexander Kushner are among those who have won both prizes.

The Debut is a rather new prestige award that is given to authors under 25 who write prose and poetry in Russian. This is a long-overdue event, particularly for poets. Publishers have stopped publishing verses by poets other than Pushkin, Pasternak, Goethe or Byron. Paying the publishing costs is the only way for poets to have their collections issued, which few of them can afford.

Chingiz Aitmatov, the patriarch of Russia literature, chairs the Debut jury this year. (He recently suffered a heart attack, but doctors say his condition is thankfully stable.)

"The new generation achieves a real breakthrough when one of a thousand of beginning authors stands out," said the writer "The idea behind the Debut prize is to pick the one who will ensure a breakthrough from the current chaos".

This year, Debut prizes will be awarded in five categories: Major Prose, Minor Prose, Poetry, Drama, and Literary Criticism and Essay Writing. The contest's results will be decided at a seminar near Moscow in autumn. The best participants in the Debut literary marathon are expected to attend the seminar.

Anatoly Korolyov, RIA Novosti political commentator

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