Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Short Stories

The Value of Prizes

It’s been interesting times for literary prizes of late, what with the debate about the Nobel winner, and then the lack of a Pulitzer for fiction.

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury,” made an awkward apology for the fiction fumble produced by this year’s Pulitzer committee, but did little to assuage bemusement.

Cunningham waxes eloquent on the philosophy of giving prizes in genera, as well.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

The three books put forward by his committee were given consideration by the Pulitzer judges, but “none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” explained Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prize. “This is the 11th time this has happened in the fiction category; the last time was 1977. It’s unusual, but it does occur.”

Maureen Corrigan, another member of the selection committee, wrote an excellent and outraged response piece, “I’m angry on behalf of those novels,” arguing that to not award a prize is basically to dismiss the novels.  And the point of a prize isn’t to diss the finalists, but to praise them.

More recently, the Guardian UK aired a complaint about a claim by the chair of the BBC International Short Story Award that all short stories need to have a twist.  Of course they don’t and the complaint is valid, but even more interesting is the fact that the complaint’s author used it as a jumping off for a larger point:

Once again, the pronouncement that comes from the chair of this year’s distinguished panel of judges – writers and critics both, who have made a life out of thinking about fiction and what makes it valuable – is privileged over those other, more informed voices, to have the soundbite that carries.

There is tremendous tension surrounding all of these literary debates, and as author Elizabeth Baines put it in her Fiction Bitch blog, “A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.”

What’s more, it strikes me that the only winners in these scuffles are people who think awards are pointless, such as this New Yorker online commenter posting under the name PETNARD:

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop even giving prizes like this. Sure it’s helpful for the unknown author, but, like the Oscars, college rankings, or any other award system, what’s the purpose of picking out “one best”? It’s an arbitrary and subjective process that artificially crowns just one best. What’s more useful, perhaps, is at the end of each year, list the best books published, regardless of how many (4, 10, 13, whatever). Pitting books of different genres, stories, styles against one another is as useless as pitting one actor against another who performed in very different stories and styles.

I find this a backwards perspective.  Awards are like pro-wrestling.  They’re not really real, but just because its phoney doesn’t diminish its value.  Plenty of people love pro-wrestling. And the acrobatics can’t be faked.  It’s not about determining a championship.  It’s about the spectacle of it all, and the attendant attention.

What awards do is add value to artists and their expression. The Oscars would never not give an award, because they know this.

Pulitzer medal

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