Monday, October 23, 2006

Prizes and Literary Criticism

I’ve noticed a few articles recently suggesting that literary criticism has been replaced by a culture of prize-giving, that our tastes and purchasing habits are shaped less by critical analysis of works than by how many awards they have won.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!


George S said...

Sully Prudhomme. He, not she. See here (, Rob. But you could do that yourself.

Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Not totally forgotten, perhaps.

George Szirtes said...

Sully Prudhomme. He, not she. See here (, Rob. But you could do that yourself.

Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Not totally forgotten, perhaps.

Rob Mackenzie said...

George, I had a look at your link and at various others and they have made me re-think matters with regard to Prudhomme.

The Guardian journalist argues that prizes are no guide to quality and, as an example, points to Prudhomme coming ahead of Tolstoy. However it now occurs to me that one could see things differently.

Prudhomme, it seems, isn't read much in France or further afield these days. I could find no English translation of any of his poems online. Perhaps, this is fully justified. However, the descriptions of his writing sound very interesting. It's just possible that the fact of the prize being awarded to him should alert us to how some writers are badly treated by posterity. Perhaps the prize might suggest Prudhomme is worth investigating, translating, re-discovering.

I also discovered that he gave away all his Nobel winnings to establish a foundation so that poets could publish their first collections.

I have two other (possibly quite obvious) observations on prizes.

Firstly, prizes are particularly useful for poets - it's a chance to win money and a little acclaim, both of which are in short supply for most poets.
Secondly, the idea of prizes can often seem bad and unfair until you win one, when they quickly become the best invention ever.

I'm unsure whether there really is a connection between prize-giving and the marginalisation of criticism. There may be the connection the article describes. But it's also true that critics can get it as wrong as prize-judges, and the hostile reaction of many critics to T.S.Eliot is a reminder (as if we need reminding) of how humanly fallible critics can be.

Cailleach said...

Almost missed this post -funnily enough this subject exercised the second half of the 20thc lit course I was doing earlier this year.

The last two assignments were a matter of judging literature, using criteria which had been built up across the year.

But the other point that you raise here relates the prize-giving to the actual use of literature - What use is it for and why should we reward it, and using what criteria?

When you say that critics can get it wrong, it seems that it all depends on the criteria that you are choosing by which to judge a winner.

The other thing that I learned is how subjective critical analysis can be, and how it can be subject to the vagaries of fashion - I am thinking in particular of the Man Booker prize, and all the publicity generated, which in turn generates extra sales for the novels shortlisted.

Oscar Wilde once said, that the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about... and I guess he has it right. A prize will generate some interest, but if your writing is genuinely well crafted, people will come back to it long after fashions have changed.