The New York Times recently ran an article questioning whether literature was still relevant in the digital age when computer scientists and code are the new coda. It went on to conclude that the humanities are important; they give us a tool box to think seriously about ourselves and the world we live in. And while coding by day pays the bills, we need music, art and literature to awaken our souls and give us fresh perspectives. In the the francophone world such debates would be considered heresy. La rentree litteraire, the early autumn publishing period is all about the novel and 'la non-fiction' has limited currency.
But for many people reading fiction is a guilty pleasure best saved for when travelling or on holiday. Which takes us to Marrakech and the opulent splendor of La Mamounia hotel, sponsor for the fifth year of the eponymous Literary Award.
What persuades a grand hotel to host and sponsor a literary prize for francophone writers? It can't be to attract more writers to stay with them. Gone are the days when writers would scribble away in the seclusion of a grand hotel. Their average income is a pitiful £11,000 a year, which would buy them 3 nights in the grand Churchill suite.
For clues we have to examine the wider international luxury market. "Grey matter is the new black" was the conclusion of a recent article in Spears Wealth Report. And luxury brands, whether retailers or hotels and are embracing the arts as never before. Louis Vuitton is hosting art exhibitions on the upper floors of its shops. Grand hotels in literary cities are cultural icons in themselves and seek to remain relevant through exploiting their literary heritage. Some through naming their grandest suites after former writers in residence - the Agatha Christie suite in the Pera Palace Istanbul, ditto Somerset Maugham in the Oriental in Bangkok; others through writers in residence - Michael Morpurgo at the Savoy.
Following the success of previous years, the 2014 literary competition marks the legendary hotel’s continuing commitment to supporting francophone Moroccan literature and encouraging its awareness internationally. Offering a platform from which to showcase local talent, the annual award gives both the winning author and accompanying shortlisted nominees the opportunity for wider industry recognition.
This year’s Literary Award saw a francophone jury of seven literary personalities chaired by Christine Orban; including Congelese born French Writer, Alain Mabanckou – himself twice short-listed for the Independent Foreign Writers award; and international best-selling author Douglas Kennedy.
The award was won by Le Job written by Reda Dalil, a first time novelist who gave up a successful career in finance to become a full time writer. He received a prize of 200,000 MAD (approx. £14,266), but perhaps more valuable the opportunity for wider readership in the francophone world and perhaps translation and a global audience.
In one of life’s little ironies Douglas Kennedy also wrote a book called The Job. A fact not missed by one French journalist and card carrying member of the Academie Francais who questioned ‘why the Anglicized title?’.
And lest we should ponder the literary heritage of Marrakech, one should not forget that the pivotal landmark in the city, the 70m high Koutoubia minaret, is named the mosque of the booksellers.