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

Nobel Prize for Literature

Overblown and Utterly Essential

This year the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to Tomas Tranströmer, a relatively obscure poet from Sweden.  The Prize committee explained that the selection was made because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  Response from the media has been mostly positive, although the committee was prepared to defend itself against accusations of bias because they had chosen a Swede.

“We have been quite thoughtful about this, not being rash in choosing a Swede,” [the academy’s permanent secretary, Peter] Englund said, noting that Transtromer’s works have been translated into about 60 languages. “He is well known among people who read poetry.”

Still, the New York Review of Books blog called out the prize for its “essential silliness” by describing the impossible amount of material that the prize’s 18-member jury has to review in order to narrow down to a single recipient.

Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book. But this is a prize that goes to the whole oeuvre of a writer, so let’s suppose that as they hone down the number of candidates they now read two books of those who remain, then three, then four. It’s not unlikely that each year they are faced with reading two hundred books (this on top of their ordinary workloads).

Across the pond, the book blogger at the Guardian UK called the Prize’s recipients in general “a curious club” and delineated their many failings as role models alongside the selection committee’s failure as judges of cultural merit.  It’s a pretty harsh survey of the 108 years of the Prize.

Ironically, the best description of the parameters used to select these luminaries may come from an unlikely source, gambling.  This year, according to an article at the Huffington Post, the in-house literary analyst for Ladbrokes gave Tranströmer’s victory 9-2 odds, the second best of any author on his short list.

That one well-read oddsmaker has to take into account far more than just a writer’s fame and body of work. He must consider a writer’s age (the Academy prefers to honor older writers), gender (the Academy has made statements acknowledging that is hasn’t honored enough women), as well as whether the writer’s name has been floated previously for the award. He also has to consider where a writer is from, as the Academy has made a point in recent years to think more globally. Last year’s winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, was the first South American to win the award since 1982.

Such a formula can be worked out for the simple reason that there is an obvious skew to the selection process.  The question that none of the critics address is, however, how much does that really matter?  I would suggest that those seeking to dismiss the prize due to its lack of objectivity are missing the point entirely.

There will always be a slant to any prize selection process in literature, because literature is by design subjective.

The importance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, overblown as it may be, is not so much who actually wins, but rather the attention their victory brings to literature in general.  The patina of the Nobel Prize is extended to everyone toiling over words, whether they win any of the money or not.

We should have more literary prizes like this, not less.  More attention to writers of all kinds, and to words.  People need to be encouraged to seek out that “fresh access to reality.”