Get in line, please – there’s enough prizes for everyone!

A New Yorker review of The Economy of Prestige, a book by James English where he argues that “the threat of scandal” is essential to the viabilty of a literary award, and that it is “at least as important that the prize go to the wrong person as that it go to the right one.” That explains Banville. (sorry Lavanya).

When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf.

English says that for prizes to “matter” they need to be thought of as “fundamentally scandalous” by the public – scandalous in the sense that art should really have nothing to do with winning or losing.

In English’s view, therefore, [Toni] Morrison’s friends and admirers violated the protocols of prize-bashing not because they publicly criticized the choice of the National Book Award judges but because they acknowledged that the award really matters, that it is (in their words) a “keystone honor” that helps to validate a book and establish its author. Their statement pointed out, in the frankest terms, that there is a literary marketplace, and that power and authority–“cultural capital,” to use the term that English borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu–accrue to those who succeed in it. Art does not receive its reward in Heaven; it is one of the things that belong to Caesar.

English speculates that this willingness to speak without embarrassment about the significance of prizes and awards, and about the whole economy of cultural production and consumption, may, paradoxically, signal the demise of the prize system.

The book also sounds a hopeful note for wannabe creators:

There are now more movie awards given out every year–about nine thousand–than there are new movies, and the number of literary prizes is climbing much faster than the number of books published.

Nice. I’ll remember that for the next time I run into an award winning writer.