All the Glittering Prizes

By Steven G. Kellman

 

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value

By James F. English

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

2005, 362 pp., $29.95

 

 

Mourning the early death of poet Edward King, young John Milton confronted the apparent futility of the literary calling. In "Lycidas," he asks:

 

                        "Alas! what boots it with uncessant care

                        To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade

                        And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?"

 

Why, when recompense for most is uncertain and slight, do poets write? "Writing," according to Georges Simenon, "is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness." Why, then, would any sane adult elect that vocation? Milton answers:

 

                        "Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise              

(That last infirmity of the noble mind)

                        To scorn delights, and live laborious days."

 

Milton managed to make himself the most famous English poet of his time, but he was operating blindly, without the elaborate edifice of stipends, prizes, and academies that today is used to create and conserve artistic reputations. If Milton were living at this hour, he would have received a MacArthur "genius" grant, won a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, and appeared on both the Charlie Rose and Oprah Winfrey shows. Paradise Lost would have been designated Denver's city-wide reading assignment for November. Poetry itself might be the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds, but writing in our culture is a gladiatorial occupation, and authors establish their credentials by besting rivals for all the glittering prizes. The contemporary poet's public identity resides as much in honors won as poems published. Future obituaries are likely to summarize the accomplishments of John Ashbery by listing a few of the forty-five awards he has already garnered. Oscar Hijuelos, the author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, will always be known as the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1991, Nadine Gordimer acquired a permanent new epithet: Nobel Laureate.

 

James F. English, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose Web site cites one award for teaching and one for his undergraduate senior thesis, estimates that 1,100 literary prizes are bestowed annually in the United States, 400 in the United Kingdom. Throughout the world, the number of film awards, 9,000, is about twice the annual output of feature-length films. Accomplishment in theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, and other arts is similarly defined through lavish laureling. Intent on grabbing all the bays, can artists pause to smell the roses? In The Economy of Prizes, English counts more than one hundred award shows broadcast in the United States each year, though he claims, incorrectly, that, amid all the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes, literary award ceremonies "have yet to find their way onto television"[p. 34] (The National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle presentations are regularly aired on C-SPAN). He even itemizes 240 separate honors conferred on Michael Jackson from 1970-2003, and he reports on the Lichfield Prize, 5,000 pounds sterling for the best unpublished novel set in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

 

The widespread rituals of bestowing cultural accolades merit more than just anthropological interest. The works that win the awards are the ones that get taught in schools, hung in museums, played on the radio, screened in theaters, and absorbed into our individual and collective psyches. Prizes determine not just which might be the greatest novels and statues but also who we are as persons and societies. English notes that, though they were a feature of festivals in ancient Attica, prizes have proliferated without precedent during the past century. He points to 1901, when the Nobel Prize was inaugurated, as the start of the present era of formalized, juried praise-singing. Since arts competitions have become homologous with sporting events, it is no random coincidence that the first modern Olympics were staged in 1896, the year in which Alfred Nobel left his bountiful bequest. Contending that "the stunning rise" of prizes in literature in particular and the arts in general over the last hundred years "is one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life,"[p. 1] English sets out to tell it. The result is not so much a single coherent story as a fascinating, irritating blend of information, anecdote, and theory.             


A reasonable reaction to contemporary society's surfeit of tribute--to the concoction of American Music Awards, American Comedy Awards, People's Choice Awards, Addys, MTV Movie Awards, Cable Ace Awards, ESPYs, Independent Spirit Awards, AVNS (Adult Video News Awards, for pornography), Golden Heart Awards (for romance writing), Mary Diamond Butts Awards (for work executed by means of threaded needle by an artist under forty who resides in Ontario), and others--is revulsion at the flatulence of ubiquitous congratulation. An award for everything and everyone maps out a Neverland of egalitarian excellence whose distinguished citizens are indistinguishable from those in Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, where "All the women are strong, the men good looking, and all the children are above average." The chorus of encomia is making us tone deaf.

 

The pathology of cultural prizes is nowhere more apparent than in the one that takes the cake for hype, the Oscar. Its annual--widely imitated--ceremony is attended electronically by an immense global audience, and what viewers see is a tacky exercise in self-promotion. Not only have choices by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often demonstrated egregious taste: The Great Ziegfeld not Modern Times (1936), How Green Was My Valley not Citizen Kane (1941), The Greatest Show on Earth not Singin' in the Rain (1952), Around the World in Eighty Days not The Searchers (1956), Gigi not Vertigo (1958), Oliver! not 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But, more effectively than nitrate stock, the entire enterprise has corroded the art of cinema. Fixation on histrionic performances by potential best actors and best actresses promotes a star system that undercuts collaborative creativity. The bundles spent by studios on campaigns to acquire an Oscar could finance dozens of finer films. Furthermore, since the advent of Oscar in 1928, it has become customary for audiences to stagger out of a theater buzzing not about a movie's themes or style but about its odds of earning that famous piece of sculptured kitsch. Because of Oscar, going to the movies has come to resemble a day at the races; we are there not to savor equine speed and grace but to handicap performances. It coarsens and cripples the experience if our primary focus is on assigning trophies.

 

In no field more than film have prizes so distorted the timetable of releases. It is not true that American movies repeat their opening credits at the end in order to accommodate the meager memory spans of Oscar voters, but a feature that is screened in the spring is usually out of sight, out of mind, and out of luck the following winter, when nominations are made. So studios reinforce amnesia by flooding the market with their best products between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Has any geneticist postponed publishing research into the DNA code because the Nobel Prize for Medicine is announced in the fall? To a moviegoer, Oscar has redesigned the calendar more than anyone else since Pope Gregory XIII. Because of the familiar statuette, the cinematic year now consists of two months: January-October, and November-December. We could call this chronological unit, technically, a loony year, and during most of it audiences, especially outside New York and Los Angeles, can count on motion pictures that merely take the prize for froth. Then suddenly, when frost forms on the windshield and turkeys are at risk, distributors glut the market with worthy releases, just in time to qualify for an Oscar nomination. The Academy Awards make the movie year seem like most basketball games; miss everything but the final two minutes, and you can still catch anything worth seeing.

 

But to complain about prizes is to participate in a conventional ritual of derision that, according to English, strengthens the very system of rewards that it assails. He documents how the most reputable prizes were born in scandal and how disparagement has been the bass obbligato accompanying them throughout their history. Composing in honorable obscurity for most of his career, Charles Ives insisted that: "Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity." Yet he accepted a Pulitzer seven years before his death. Choosing René Sully-Prudhomme over Leo Tolstoy in 1901 ensured that bile not champagne would launch the Nobel Prize for Literature. Controversy has been revived periodically not only with the consecration of dubious masters such as Henrik Pontoppidan, Pearl Buck, and Dario Fo but also the omission of canonical figures such as Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Osip Mandelstam, James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fernando Pessoa, Jorge Luis Borges, Léopold Senghor, and Vladimir Nabokov. The first Bollingen Prize, awarded in 1949 to Fascist collaborator Ezra Pound, provoked such outrage that Congress withdrew official sponsorship. But, like other tarnished awards, the Bollingen battened on the battering it took from outraged critics.

 

Though not founded until 1969, the upstart Booker succeeded in becoming Britain's premier literary prize largely through a series of attention-grabbing scandals. In 1971, Malcolm Muggeridge resigned in disgust from the Booker jury, citing the dreadful quality of the works he was asked to judge. During the following year's award ceremony, John Berger condemned Booker Brothers, the agribusiness that sponsored the prize he was accepting, for exploiting black plantation workers in Guyana. And in 1973, J. G. Farrell used his acceptance speech to berate the dirty hands that were feeding him a dinner and a prize for The Siege of Krishnapur. However, public furor delighted administrators of the Booker Prize, whose private correspondence had been expressing despair that their ambitions might wither in oblivion. The Booker has thrived not despite but because of hostility to it. "Far from posing a threat to the prize's efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy," writes English, "scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning."[p. 208]

 

Similarly, refusals by George C. Scott and Marlon Brando to accept an Oscar and by Jean-Paul Sartre to accept a Nobel Prize merely reaffirmed the authority of the institutions they were attempting to reject. The same dynamic applies to mock-prizes. Just as parody is paying tribute with rolls of pennies instead of a check (acknowledged by Bill Clinton when he invited Gary Trudeau to a White House dinner), the Golden Raspberries, Golden Turkeys, Ig-Nobels, and other attempts at travesty are the drollest form of flattery. By inverting criteria for the established prizes, they reaffirm their values, boost their stock by making them a laughingstock. Presuming to single out the worst performers and worst movies of each year, the Razzies have taken special aim at actors with working-class backgrounds such as Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, and Burt Reynolds. English thus observes that: "For all their self-proclaimed 'tackiness,' the Razzies are more committed to the policing of good taste than are the Oscars, as well as being more elitist in their effects."[p. 103] 

 

English recounts how in 1974 Thomas Pynchon dispatched comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey to accept a National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow on his behalf by delivering "an incomprehensible amalgam of awards-banquet platitudes, academic jargon, political rant, and pure nonsense."[p. 223] But he neglects the case of Stephen King, whose apotheosis in 2003 with a lifetime achievement award by the same institution provoked widespread disdain among many already skeptical about the artistic legitimacy of the NBA. Nor does he discuss foetry.com, the Web site whose mission has been to expose the conflicts of interest and fee scams rampant among poetry contests. Yet the organized practice of dispensing kudos is so resilient that it absorbs and exploits ridicule and obloquy. In fact, the culture of cultural awards is steeped in self-irony; it does not do to appear too earnest or avid about the business of dispensing and receiving honors. Prize judges and their defendants are expected to maintain a delicate balance of reverence and disparagement.

 

Nevertheless, the vulgar breach of etiquette committed by Toni Morrison and her allies when they openly lobbied for a Pulitzer did not prevent Beloved from winning the prize in 1988. "The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses," wrote William Gass, who has been both juror and recipient of numerous awards, in an acerbic essay that takes dead aim at the entire institution of literary accolades. In 1993, when the K Foundation, shadowing the Turner Prize, known as "the Booker Prize for Art," awarded sculptor Rachel Whiteread £40,000 for having produced "the worst body of work in the preceding twelve months,"[p. 229] it doubled the £20,000 bestowed minutes earlier by the Turner jury on the "best" artist: Rachel Whiteread. In a culture that confounds fair and foul, publicity and renown, the Turner Prize endures and thrives.   

 

Much of the discussion in The Economy of Prestige is based on a financial metaphor. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's theory of symbolic capital, it treats prizes as the currency of artistic celebrity--"the most ubiquitous and awkwardly indispensable instrument of cultural transaction."[p. 106] English does not ignore the business of culture, the economics of producing, distributing, and consuming works of art. He notes the intricate infrastructure of fundraisers, judges, publicists, and other functionaries necessary to sustain a prize year after year. And he provides pointed information about the cash stipends for awards, the origins of the fortunes that endow awards, and the commercial operations of the awards industry. However, he is more interested in culture as a parallel economy, in the symbolic rather than monetary value of prizes. And he has much of interest to say about the globalization of the cultural economy, how in recent decades international awards have superseded national authority in a radical deterritorialization of prestige. He explains that the musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo achieved its eminence, despite opposition from the South African apartheid régime, because Grammys, Golden Lions, and other symbolic currency effected the "conversion of local into global capital."[p. 280] An earlier example might be what happened in 1951, when the Venice Film Festival bestowed its Golden Lion on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. A prophet without honors in his native Japan, Kurosawa became a plutocrat in the global economy of prestige.

 

An accounting of esteem rather than financial assets provides the truest measure of an artist's estate. Richard Otway and Edgar Allan Poe died destitute, and Zora Neale Hurston was buried in a pauper's grave. But their worldly insolvency has no bearing on their standing in the literary stock market. Despite enormous debts, Richard Sheridan received a spectacular funeral and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Yet, though the correlation between winning respect and selling books, films, or recordings is weak (English reports that it is strongest for porn awards), the symbolic capital of cultural homage sometimes does take the form of fungible commodities. The medal comprising the Nobel Prize traditionally contained seven ounces of pure gold, which meant that melting it down might have fetched more than $10,000, depending on the fluctuating price of gold. However, the economy of prestige has grown so bullish that it would now be far more profitable to sell a Nobel Prize in the secondary medals market than in the market for melted precious metal. In a graph tracking the price of the Nobel Prize as a bar of gold versus a symbolic collectible,[p. 159] English identifies 1985 as the point of parity; since that time the collectible value has soared above $60,000, and the commodity value has fallen below $1,000. However, because the secondary market in cultural trophies is directly affected by symbolic significance, Ernest Hemingway's Nobel medal would presumably bring in more on Ebay than Rudolf Eucken's. Yet, as the Book of Proverbs (22:1) declares: "A good name is more desirable than great riches, a good reputation than silver and gold." Prizes--whether the £100,000 IMPAC Literary Prize or the National Book Critics Circle Award, which nets the winner nothing but a certificate and a handshake--are one way for artists to acquire a good name.

           

His eyes on the prizes, English does not look at other forms of symbolic cultural capital, including honorary degrees, halls of fame, and presidential appointments. In 1976, Gore Vidal declined an invitation to be inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, explaining: "I already belonged to the Diners Club."  Yet membership in exclusive societies can count as much as prizes in the final reckoning of an author's rank. A Pulitzer Prize did not guarantee immortality to poet Margaret Widdemer (1919), playwright Hatcher Hughes (1924), or novelist Margaret Ayer Barnes (1931). And John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer (1981) came posthumously, after the author of A Confederacy of Dunces died sans honors and sans contract, by his own hand. Publication within a Norton anthology is as effective as any prize in ensuring that an author's work gets read and revered. His selection as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts has done more to enhance Dana Gioia's standing as a poet than his  2002 American Book Award. In the calculus of renown, publication of Philip Roth's complete fiction within the canonical Library of America counts for more than his two NBA's, two NBCC's, and solitary Pulitzer.

 

More than one hundred cultural prizes--including not only the Nobel and the architectural Pritzker but the more recently established $200,00 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the $200,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the £100,00 IMPAC Literary Prize, and the $100,00 Polar Music Prize--dispense more than $100,000 each to their recipients. The profusion of more modestly endowed awards defies the efforts of Awards, Honors, and Prizes, a two-volume, two-thousand-page reference work published by Gale, to keep pace. Even for a single honoree, Frank Gehry, time spent accepting more than 130 awards--including the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the Praemium Imperiale, American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, Dorothy and Lillian Gish Award, Wolf Prize, Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, and Friedrich Kiesler Prize--must have required frequent diversions from his work designing buildings.

 

English traces the history of French book prizes--Goncourt, Renaudot, Femina, Médicis, Décembre--to reveal the Hegelian process by which prizes continually beget their antitheses. But he also notes a dynamic of moderation, "the tendency of awards to soften their strategies of differentiation over time, to begin to merge with the very prizes that had served as their originary antagonists."[p. 88] It is not uncommon for an award founded in fierce opposition to another to end up duplicating the choices of its older rival. In 1981, the Booker, the Whitbread, and the James Tait Black all went to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. But despite the monstrous duplication, triplication, and suffocation in an overgrowth more reminiscent of kudzu than laurel and bay, English heralds a world of honors heaped on honors heaped on honors: "What we are looking at, even today, is a system ripe for further expansion."[p. 67]

 

However, by the logic of his own financial metaphor, the economy of prestige is overheated. A surplus of symbolic capital is producing a spiral of hyperinflation that devalues the currency of any single prize. The tens of thousands of awards constitute an economic bubble, if not a Ponzi scheme. "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes," Andy Warhol, who was inducted posthumously into the Art Directors Hall of Fame, famously said. One way to accomplish this is to give everyone in the world an award, reduce renown to mere celebrity, and venerate the laureate of the Bulwer Lytton Grand Prize of Bad Writing as we would a Nobel poet.

 

It is not uncommon to find supermarkets, factories, and real estate firms recognizing an "employee of the month." The Boy Scout merit badge is an emblem of achievement, as well as of an individual self that is prized. In a culture of self-reliance that honors personal accomplishment over either nature or nurture, many--particularly academics, artists, and military--measure out their lives in gold stars. Yet it is all about extinction. Even as the mortal poet faced oblivion, the sonnet was a gesture toward eternity. Prizes for sonnets are an even more desperate device to try to defy the grave. But it takes more than a Grammy to dupe Mr. Death. Like a plethora of prizes, death, it is said, is the eminent leveller.

 

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska) and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton). He served two terms on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.