I’ve noticed a few articles recently suggesting that literary criticism has been replaced by a culture of prize-giving, that our tastes and purchasing habits are shaped less by critical analysis of works than by how many awards they have won. This article in The Guardian makes the case pretty well.
Interesting quotation from Ezra Pound, back in 1928 – The whole system of prize-giving... belongs to an uncritical epoch; it is the act of people who, having learned the alphabet, refuse to learn how to spell.
On the other hand, prizes can help to launch (or save) the careers of writers who have been unjustly ignored by the critics and whose books have not sold well through lack of publicity. The Guardian’s case-in-point is Lionel Shriver, who wrote seven novels (the seventh of which didn’t find a publisher) and sold her eighth to a small publisher for a £2,500 advance. This novel won the Orange Prize. Shriver now has all her books back in print and a lucrative contract with HarperCollins. She deserves it for her perseverance alone. Without the prize, it might never have happened.
You could argue that there are hundreds of other artists equally as deserving and just as talented, which is probably true, but without the prize, they would still be in the difficulties they are currently in. The only difference is that one other writer would still be with them.
But the point about prize-giving replacing criticism as a symbol of cultural value is a real one. Could the fault lie with the quality of much current criticism as much as with the culture of prize-giving? Or are there wider issues that lead people to dismiss what a critic says as “just one person’s opinion”?
I like the final paragraph of the Guardian article. The first Nobel Prize for Literature was won in 1901 by Sully Prudhomme. Who? What did she (he?) write? Exactly… And one of the losers on the shortlist that year was a certain Leo Tolstoy – with War and Peace!