Monday, November 7, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
I am all for literary and cultural prizes, and, uncomplicated truth to tell, I only wish that more of them came to me. Thus far too few have. I don’t see many more in my future either, unless, like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright, I acquire a fair amount of flowing white hair and live well into my 80s, at which point, I gather, what are considered reactionary and even stupid opinions are no longer held against you.
Such prizes as I have won have brought me little monetary improvement and no social prestige whatsoever. I have a single honorary degree, as opposed to the more than 200 possessed by John Hope Franklin. I was presented with a National Medal for the Humanities, but lots of people I know took the occasion to say that it was a shame that I had to be given it by George W. Bush. I responded by saying that I myself would have preferred that it had been presented by Abraham Lincoln, but then one can’t have everything.
I once won a fiction prize of $250 that required me to write a speech and spend a weekend in Hartford, Conn., to collect it. I turned it down, which earned me the lifelong enmity of the Jewish couple who bestow the prize. In the realm of honors, mine has been a varied if not a rich career.
Some–by now perhaps all–cultural prizes have had the shine rubbed off them by having been given to undeserving people, an ample number of serious jackasses among them. Everyone knows that the list of writers who did not win the Nobel Prize–Tolstoy, Proust, Henry James, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, W.H. Auden–is much more impressive than the list of those who have. Moreover, there is something about winning the Nobel Prize in literature that makes one posthumous no matter how much longer one goes on to live. Since he won his Nobel Prize, for example, I no longer feel the need to read V.S. Naipaul.
A sociology of cultural prize-giving has now been written by James F. English, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and it contains a great deal of useful information. Mr. English knows everything there is to know about the mechanics of prize-giving, from the appointing of judges to the globalizing of cultural prizes to the exploiting of prizes for further self-aggrandizement. As “The Economy of Prestige” makes clear, Mr. English has mastered the subject in little and large, and it is one full of interest about the way cultural life operates in our day.
Pity that Mr. English is an almost entirely arrhythmical writer who indites endlessly lengthy sentences in long shapeless paragraphs that make reading his book considerably less than a déjeuner sur l’herbe. If Harvard University Press gives an award for the best-written book it has published in 2005, Mr. English’s probably shouldn’t be in the running.
In a characteristically barbed-wire sentence, he writes: “What has transformed society since the 1970s is not the rise of a new class per se but the rise of a formidable institutional system of credentialing and consecrating which has increasingly monopolized the production and distribution of symbolic capital, especially but not exclusively of educational honors and degrees, while at the same time making the accumulation of control of such capital more and more necessary to any exercise of power.” Translation: Prizes, however superfluous and foolish, can still be made to pay off for those who win them and those who award them.
Mr. English understands that the phenomenon of prizes for cultural attainment–from the Nobel Prize and the Oscars on down–is ultimately one of those jokes available to insiders, even as prizes continue to work their magic on the large majority of people not in the know. (“Gee, Dad, it’s a Pulitzer!”) And everyone connected with such prizes, as he shows, has a more or less obvious agenda. Their point, and the larger point of Mr. English’s book, is that the awarding, the judging and the accepting of prizes for cultural achievement is, at bottom, about one form or another of self-promotion.
Still, prizes and honors multiply for all sorts of reasons. Setting up a poetry or local theatrical award can be a way to memorialize a dead relative on the cheap; prizes are also useful to corporations hoping to make white sheep of themselves by appearing simultaneously culture-minded and philanthropic.
In an appendix, Mr. English lists the awards and honors currently given in the various fields of cultural achievement, and it is extensive. In the category of prizes not given, I have long thought that there ought to be a Nobel Prize for marriage. This would be awarded to long-suffering mates in famously difficult pairs. In the past, some of the winners might have been Countess Sophia Tolstoy, Mrs. Dostoyevsky, Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia), Lionel Trilling, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, though which of the two Clintons is more deserving isn’t all that easy to determine.
Meanwhile every ethnic group has its hall of fame, and so does every craft and sport. I went to high school with a man who is currently president of the Ping-Pong Hall of Fame; in his prime he was said to be able to beat quite good players using his shoe instead of a paddle. Search hard enough and you may be able to find an award for an unpublished non-Jewish lesbian poet under five feet tall. All this prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his classmates.
Mr. English touches upon but does not give quite enough room in his book to the political impulses behind prize-giving. The Nobel Prize in literature is often–and fairly persuasively–accused of being awarded on the basis of a writer’s politics. This year’s award to Harold Pinter, who is quite out of control in his hatred of America, is a vivid example; since Mr. Pinter has done little of note in recent years, his Nobel seems aimed less at honoring him than at attacking the U.S. for being in Iraq. But politics plays a role domestically too. Because so many of the important American prizes are controlled by liberals, which means that they are given only to people with the correct politics, conservative institutions have begun to award their own prizes, given to people with correctly conservative politics.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Winning is everything, whatever the agenda. In the economy of prestige, awards are good for publicity, for getting better jobs and for shutting up one’s wary relatives. As for the prizes themselves, I was once told that if anyone tells you that you are the best at anything you do, ask that person who is the second-best. Learning who it is should take most of the air out of the accolade.
Very nice to win prizes, I’d say, so long as you understand that they don’t mean anything serious about the true quality of your achievement. Take the money, wisdom suggests, and walk all the way to the bank, suppressing as best you are able the silly smile that threatens to break out at the thought that you have really gotten away with it yet again.
Mr. Epstein is the author of “Ambition” and “Envy,” among many other books.