From across the bookstore, it flashes at me like the plumage of a wild bird seeking a mate: one of those small gold circles indicative of acclaim. And, frankly, I’m a little turned on. I already know I like shiny gold things; could this be a PEN finalist? A Pulitzer Prize winner? Up close, it turns out to be The Omnivore’s Dilemma – one of The New York Times‘ “Best Books of the Year.” To this honor, the inside flap appends the following:
- Gold Medal in Nonfiction for the California Book Award
- Winner of the 2007 Bay Area Book Award for Nonfiction
- Winner of the 2007 James Beard Book Award/Writing on Food Category
- Finalist for the 2007 Orion Book Award
- Finalist for the 2007 NBCC Award
What does this list tell me? It depends, perhaps, on the speed at which I’m reading. At a quick glance, each accolade works like a word-of-mouth recommendation; together, they suggest that this book is worth my time. Closer inspection also helps refine my generic expectations: clearly, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a work of nonfiction about food, written by a Northern Californian whom book critics like (and possibly containing an element of science fiction? I suppose I could look up the “Orion Book Award,” but I prefer to imagine that it portends space aliens or time travel.)
However, were I to take the list in the spirit in which the publisher has proffered it – to embrace the assumption that these awards have some settled empirical meaning – The Omnivore’s Dilemma might, paradoxically, start to look second-rate. Sure, it was the best book in California, in 2007 (a weak vintage for Californian nonfiction, if memory serves), but there are 49 other states, and at the national level, it was merely a “finalist.” What I want to know is, Who won the NBCC that year? Maybe I should go read that book instead.
Of course no one is this literal-minded, and thank goodness for that – The Omnivore’s Dilemma turns out to be one of the best books I’ve read in months. But what its flap copy tells me about prizes is mainly that there are an awful lot of them. The NBCC. The NBA. The Newberry. The Nobel. The proliferating PENs: /Faulkner, /Hemingway, /Nabokov… The Governor General’s and The Giller. Commonwealth and Orange and Costa (née Whitbread, not to be confused with Whiting). The Pushcart, The O. Henry, The Paris Review/Aga Khan, The Story Prize. There are so many prizes, in fact, that we at The Millions started a series to keep track of them. (Our “Prizewinners: International Edition” suggests that the mania for awards is not confined to Anglo-American letters; Spaniards, for example, have a whole host of regional honors).
It may be worth bearing in mind, though, that many of these seemingly venerable prizes are no older than the mobile phone. Thirty-five years ago, fewer than half of the above awards existed. It’s also interesting that hand-wringing about the health of book culture was at that time less pronounced. While correlation is not evidence of causation, it would appear that the spread of those little gold circles – which project, in the wilds of the bookstore, an aura of critical consensus – is in reality a response to a crisis of authority. These days, everyone’s got an opinion. Should everyone, then, get an award? Or, to put it bluntly: are there too many prizes?
The answer to this question depends on how we perceive the function, or functions, of literary prizes. I would argue that they do several valuable things. First, in an era when column-inches for book coverage are disappearing from our major newspapers, they offer publishers free promotion for books that deserve it. (Or nearly free; I’m sure they pay a couple cents per gross to the little gold sticker factory.) And we Americans respond to prizes. In the best cases, as when the Nobel alerts us to a Herta Müeller or an Imre Kertész, a worthy author immediately finds a broader audience. In other cases – the Pulitzer, most years – an author of whom people were already aware gets a dispensation to stop worrying about whether her next book will sell. It will.
Literary prizes may also offer writers in whose lives rejection, penury, and doubt are the rule (which is to say, almost all writers) a financial and psychological vote of confidence. Conferred on an author who has yet to find a sustaining audience, a prize purse may act as a kind of fellowship, subsidizing another three or six months of work – $10,000 here to Ron Currie, Jr.; $10,000 there to Jessie Ball. Even the ubiquitous Pushcart Prize nomination – though there must be a thousand of them every year – lets the writer know that someone out there is paying attention. (In this light, Alice Munro‘s decision to recuse herself from the Giller competition last summer looks honorable. She’s already won it twice. Give that money and recognition to someone who can use it.)
Also: Prizes are fun. The most interesting of them seem to make a virtue of subjectivity, or to dismiss, by transparency of design, any pretenses to Olympian objectivity. I’ve always been partial to the International IMPAC Dublin’s huge and heterodox longlist of librarian-nominated titles from around the world. And on the Internet, conferring an honor is a matter of keystrokes. Among the most enjoyable of the recent spate of prizes is The Morning News‘ Tournament of Books. With its parodic structure, its color commentary, and its Zombie Round, the TOB simultaneously serves the functions mentioned above and punctures the premises of, say, the Pulitzer. Laying bare its mechanisms, it is the most postmodern of prizes.
In my view, however, all this award-granting gets silly whenever prize-granting bodies short-circuit the practical virtues of prizes – promotion, encouragement, and pleasure. They do this in two opposed but mutually reinforcing ways: first, by contriving prizes so commonplace or parochial as to carry hardly any cultural weight. Second, by attaching to a single prize more significance than any award should rightly carry… by eliding the plurality of critical judgments in favor of some settled, authoritative Best. This sounds like a fuzzy distinction, even to me, but a couple of recently minted prizes may help to clarify what I mean.
The first is the St. Francis College Literary Prize for a fourth book of fiction. “What’s the best fourth book of fiction?” would have been a great parlor game or blog debate. But with no sign of the college trustees’ tongues being in their cheeks, the design of this prize was so narrow – its proxy for “midcareer” so arbitrary – that it seemed to me to verge on parody. In theory, the prize was to offer “significant…support” to a writer at a crucial juncture. In practice, it was an occasion to give $50,000 to Aleksandar Hemon (who had just won half a million from the MacArthur Foundation)… and to get him to come lecture at St. Francis College. Then again, Hemon is a terrific writer, and we can take these things with a grain of salt, can’t we?
A more egregious offender, in my view, is the Man Booker International Prize, new as of 2005. With its widely publicized betting odds, the Booker once seemed to acknowledge that literary prizes are as much sporting event as science. Over time, however, the prize grew popular enough to attract the sponsorship of The Man Group plc, and with it a ceaseless pursuit of the best of the best. There’s the longlist; the shortlist; the Booker where all the Bookers of the given time period are Bookered against each other (The Best of the Booker, The Booker of Bookers)… and now: The International Booker:
The Man Booker International Prize is significantly different from the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction in that it highlights one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. In seeking out literary excellence the judges consider a writer’s body of work rather than a single novel…. The Man Booker International Prize is unique in the world of literature in that it can be won by an author of any nationality, providing that his or her work is available in the English language.
Well, yes, because the Nobel can be won by an author of any nationality, period. But more broadly: whom does this prize serve? What would it mean for Jane Smiley et al to have declared E.L. Doctorow superior to V.S. Naipaul in 2009, or vice versa? Do these writers need the 60,000 pounds? Notoriety? The good opinion of Jane Smiley? Was this award even fun to talk about? I may be missing something – feel free to correct me in the comments – but does anyone even remember who won?
Together, The St. Francis College Prize and The International Booker delimit the double-action that characterizes literary culture in the digital age. On the one hand, pronouncements proliferate democratically, even as their prestige diminishes; on the other hand, institutions that have amassed authority under the old dispensation scramble to capitalize on what remains of it. We may look forward, on the one hand, to the Nobel of Nobels, and on the other, to the Award for Best Third Collection of Short Short Fiction by a Southpaw. Lucky for readers, though, I have a modest proposal, a compromise that might save us from all that. I believe it fulfills the core functions of literary prizes and encourages cooperation among competing prize-mongers, while nakedly retaining the flavor of arbitrary silliness. With apologies to The Morning News, ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the Prize Championship Series.
Now all I need is for the heads of the various prize-granting bodies to agree to participate, or perhaps for President Obama to weigh in. That shouldn’t be hard. In the meantime, I can offer only a stopgap solution to the problem of prizes: Perhaps we should decide how seriously to take any one of them based on whether it seeks to start a conversation or to end one.