Note to the Capture: Nobel Prize Ceremony takes place at Stockholm Concert Hall
And the winner is?
Michael Jackson has won 240 of them. Frank Gehry has bagged 130. The culture of prize-giving has gone mad. It has replaced the art of criticism in determining cultural value and shaping public taste. We enjoy the glamour of a Booker or an Oscar night, but we lose something too in this orgy of awards, says Jason Cowley
Sunday October 22, 2006
One of the most fascinating books I have read recently is David Lodge's The Year of Henry James, his account of the consequences of discovering that both he and Colm Toibin were simultaneously publishing novels about the life of James. The year was 2004, the same year Alan Hollinghurst won the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, the central character of which just happened to be writing a thesis about, yep, James. The fascination of Lodge's book lies less in its literary distinction than in what it reveals about the psychology of the career literary novelist at a time when, in this country at least, to be a literary novelist is, on the whole, a pretty lonely and miserable existence. Unless, that is, you have the luck to win a major prize, and then everything can change: you find a readership, your book is translated into many languages, your advances rise exponentially, Hollywood gets in touch.
Lodge won no prizes for his novel about James, Author, Author; he did not even make the Booker longlist. By contrast, Toibin's The Master won the £68,000 Impac prize, the world's richest award for a single work of fiction, and was shortlisted for the Booker. Lodge writes candidly, self-laceratingly, of how Toibin's recognition by the Booker judges caused him to suffer 'pangs of professional envy and jealousy', of the relief he felt when, watching coverage of the Booker ceremony at home on television, Toibin did not win, and of how even now he cannot bring himself to read The Master, so tormented is he by its wider success.
Reading Lodge's strange, self-revealing memoir, I began to understand how much the psychology of the artist - as well as the entire culture - is being changed by the rise and proliferation of cultural prizes and by what the American academic James English calls our economy of cultural production and prestige. As long ago as 1928 Ezra Pound could write that '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.'
He would have been even more indignant today. For ours is truly the age of awards. Prizes are becoming the ultimate measure of cultural success and value. One prize inevitably spawns another, in imitation or reaction, as the perceived male dominance of the Booker spawned the Orange Prize for women's fiction. There are now so many, in so many different fields, that it can be difficult to find a professional artist, writer or journalist who has not been shortlisted for a prize.
The proliferation of prizes is perhaps greatest in the movie industry, where there are now twice as many cinema prizes (about 9,000) as there are feature films produced each year. The troubled pop star Michael Jackson has won more than 240 awards. The architect Frank Gehry has won 130. The novelist John Updike has won 39. Where will it end? Can it end?
According to English, author of the enthralling The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard University Press), we are reaching 'the point of a kind of cultural frenzy, with scarcely a day passing without the announcement of yet another newly founded prize'. Any number of large corporations, wealthy institutions and patrons are lining up to partake of the frenzy as sponsors and paymasters, though one wonders how much of this is to do with tax-avoidance issues and how much with the need to be seen as socially and culturally relevant and cool.
There was a time when, as Wordsworth wrote, 'Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.'
The culture is no longer so patient. In a time of information overload - of cultural excess and superabundance - our taste is being increasingly created for us by prize juries and award ceremonies. Art is beginning to resemble sport, with its roster of winners and losers and its spectacles of competition: the Oscars, the Baftas, the Brits. Indeed, the larger cultural festivals and prizes, such as the Venice Biennale, the Oscars and the Nobels, are consciously imitative of international sporting competitions like the Olympics.
The format for most major prizes conforms to the model of the Oscars. 'It's very much a case,' says English, 'of maintain perfect secrecy regarding the decision, assemble all the nominees, and roll the cameras in hope of catching bad behaviour, poor sportsmanship or just plain unhappiness.'
In the book world, prizes have long since supplanted reviews as our primary means of literary transmission, and now they are taking on the task, from the professional critics, of judgment as well. This of course is not just a literary phenomenon: the success of the Booker Prize, which was established in 1968, led in this country to a kind of Booker envy. Every arts bureaucrat, it seemed, wanted his or her own equivalent of the Booker, which led, in time, to the creation of the Turner Prize (1984), for the visual arts; the Mercury Prize (1992), for music; and the Stirling Prize (1996), for architecture, which was won this month for the first time by Richard Rogers, as if this global plutocrat, creator of the spectacular public building and connoisseur of fine Italian cooking needed the recognition.
In well-paid activities such as pop music and architecture, the prize fund often seems to be of incidental value to the winner; it has become something of a minor tradition for the winner of the Mercury Prize, before making a rambling, drink-slurred speech, to toss away the winning cheque, worth £20,000, as if it were a mere flyer picked up outside a Tube station. For most novelists, that £20,000 would be worth having. For the pop star, it is so much ticker-tape.
Clearly, then, something more than money is at stake here: recognition, symbolic capital, prestige. Prizes create cultural hierarchies and canons of value. They alert us to what we should be taking seriously: reading, watching, looking at, and listening to. We like to think that value simply blooms out of a novel or album or artwork - the romantic Wordsworthian ideal. We would like to separate aesthetics from economics, creation from production.
In reality, value has to be socially produced. 'The process involves power, money, politics,' English told me. 'Prizes create symbolic value astonishingly quickly and easily, because they bring together economic power, social connections, academic expertise and celebrity and enable rather complex transactions to take place.'
The modern era of prizes began with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901, funded by the estate of Alfred Nobel, the dynamite and munitions manufacturer. Its effect was immediate. If in Britain we have Booker envy, the rest of the world once had Nobel envy. In 1903, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina were set up in France, with the Pulitzers soon to follow in the US. The first film awards, the Oscars, began in 1929; the Emmys were up and running in 1949. Today we often speak of prizes in terms of other prizes. The Caine Prize for African Writing is the 'African Booker'; the Pulitzers are the 'Oscars of journalism'; the $250,000 Lillian Gish is 'the Nobel of architecture'. Amusingly, the Prix Goncourt is known even to some in France as the 'French Booker', though it was set up many decades earlier.
In December 1997, the year I was a Booker judge, I travelled to Moscow as a guest of the Russian Booker Prize, which was set up by the late Sir Michael Caine, a former chairman of Booker plc. Moscow was then a city of terrifying extremes: anarchic, astoundingly expensive, and often brutal. The gangster capitalists were in control. An indigenous publishing industry was emerging unsteadily from the darkness and oppression of Soviet totalitarianism; most novels were being published in cultural magazines such as Novy Mir and Znamya - the so-called thick journals. Yet the Booker had succeeded in inspiring a new generation of Russian writers, as well as bringing hope and attention to those older ones who had laboured for so long in secret and without any expectation of reaching a wider public. The prize had created an entire culture of controversy around itself: it was, as in Britain, as much a journalistic as a literary event. Already it had imitators: the Little Booker Prize, for non-fiction; the Anti-Booker Prize, funded by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who now lives in disaffected exile in London; and the Solzhenitsyn Prize, supported by the great Russia-returned writer himself. Here was a culture being transformed and energised by prizes.
Most writers understand the cultural importance of prizes, even those such as Martin Amis and Philip Roth who purport to disdain them. For Amis, the Booker, which he has never won, is a 'kind of literary Big Brother' and the award dinner an occasion when writers 'sweat with greed and egocentricity'. Yet Amis, for all his elevated disapproval, is preoccupied perhaps more than any other writer of his generation by the larger literary game, by who is winning and losing.
In 1995 he wrote a novel, The Information, that was in large part about literary competition. Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry, both writers, are perpetual rivals. Richard beats Gwyn at chess, at snooker, at tennis. None of this matters to him because, when it comes to the literary high stakes, Gwyn is winning. He has everything that Richard wants: wealth, a readership, Hollywood interest in his work and a beautiful young aristocratic wife. As if this weren't enough, as the novel begins, Gwyn is shortlisted for a prize, the nicely named Profundity Requital - which, if he wins, will provide him with a lavish income for the rest of his life.
In some way, all artists of ambition, literary or otherwise, must be longing to win their version of the Profundity Requital. Even Philip Roth is not immune from the prize game, though in a recent BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson he made a point of saying that prizes were childish and of little concern, even if he has never been known to reject one. This, I thought, was disingenuous. Roth is thought to take a special interest in his book jackets, how they are presented and what is written on them. He has a chief sub-editor's eye for quality control. It is interesting then, considering what he told Lawson, to read the author blurb on the jacket of his most recent novel, Everyman: 'In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction... He has twice won the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award...'
And so it goes on, his capsule biography reduced merely to a list of prizes won, to an exercise in self-aggrandisement. It is as if we have no other language for praising an author or no other vocabulary of evaluation; and it is as if whoever writes these blurbs (the writers themselves, perhaps?) believe that readers are no longer curious to know about a writer's biography. There is also a sense of presumption in not noting where or when the writer was born: as if to say, 'You know exactly who the famous and excellent Philip Roth is, he needs no introduction.' Instead, we are told only what he won, as if past achievement validates the present offering.
One summer afternoon in 1999 I visited Jim Crace at home in Birmingham. It was a warm day and we sat eating lunch in his garden, overlooked by the tall houses of his neighbours. We were to talk about his new novel, Being Dead, but first he wanted to know what my hopes were for the novel that I was soon to publish. To win one of the smaller first-novel prizes would be fine, I told him.
'Don't you see?' he said, his voice quickening. 'Don't you see what you're letting yourself in for? If you're shortlisted for a small first novel prize, you'll want to win it. If you won it, you'll want to win something bigger. Don't you see that you'll never be satisfied? This is what it's like being a writer.'
Crace talked about the Booker and who would be in contention for the prize later that year. He seemed surprisingly interested in what I had to say and it was clear that his unarticulated desire - unarticulated to me, at least - was to win the prize. Later in the year, I thought of Crace with sadness when the shortlist was announced and Being Dead wasn't on it. He knew, as I did, that for a writer like him being shortlisted for the Booker is the difference between winning and losing, between finding a readership or merely remaining in the literary ghetto, respected and admired but not much known or read.
It is hard to think of another artist whose life has been more changed by winning a cultural prize than the American-born, London-resident Lionel Shriver, whose challenging epistolary novel We Need To Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005 and has since sold more than 400,000 copies. Before Kevin, which is about a mother's attempts to understand a wicked and murderous son, Shriver was struggling to earn a living from scraps of journalism tossed to her from the high table of remote commissioning editors. Kevin is reported to be her seventh novel. In fact, it was her eighth - her seventh novel remains unpublished; no one wanted it. No one seemed to want Kevin either, until Serpent's Tail bought it for £2,500. The expectations were low. 'It's said that Kevin was rejected by more than 30 publishers before it came to me,' says Pete Ayrton, who runs the vibrant independent Serpent's Tail. 'Lionel's career was in the doldrums. Her track record wasn't good.'
And yet she continued to write, even as each new book quickly disappeared into the oblivion of the remainder bin and pulping pit. 'Cultural prizes are often given safely to someone who doesn't need one,' Shriver told me recently. 'In my case, the Orange Prize did what prizes are supposed to do - that is, to draw cultural attention to someone hitherto unknown and working very hard, which is why in my acceptance speech for the prize I said that there were a large population of such people.'
Since Kevin won the Orange, Shriver has become not only a bestselling author, with a backlist back in print and a lucrative new book deal from HarperCollins, but also a widely published commentator and columnist. Being a prize-winner has given her reach and authority; people listen to her. 'You do become resentful when you are working, as I did for 12 years, without being noticed,' she says now. 'It was becoming increasingly difficult to get my work into print. There is such a difference between having won one prize and none. You've got the cultural imprimatur. You feel anointed. But you shouldn't trust this thing. My agent keeps encouraging me to consolidate my gains by going on reading tours and so on. I guess it's all about building and keeping an audience. You keep doing it for now because, as a former nobody, you fear that your coach will turn into a pumpkin. I do feel lucky. And I do have a sense of a parallel future which could have been so different if I hadn't won the Orange. But if you ask me if I'd prefer to have had early success or what happened to me, I'd choose my story; I like my story. I like mine a lot.'
Shriver is indeed one of the lucky ones - and I like her story as well. But for every winner like her, there are tens of thousands of anonymous artists competing for recognition, their cultural capital undervalued, their currency depreciating with each new artwork that passes unacknowledged in our economy of prestige.
Are there too many prizes? Is this convergence of art and commerce a sign of a deeper cultural decadence, as Ezra Pound would have had it? These, I think, are the wrong questions. Of course the whole prize-giving culture is bound up with celebrity and commerce and globalisation and our omnipresent media landscape. It is also essentially part of a game, a jamboree. It is fun to go to or watch the awards ceremonies, fun to argue about who has been excluded, and even more fun to be on the inside as a judge and, above all, to win.
But it shouldn't be taken too seriously, especially when one recalls that the very first Nobel for Literature, in 1901, the award that set the modern prize train in motion, was won by, er, Sully Prudhomme. Yes, that's right, Sully Prudhomme. One of the unlucky losers that year was Leo Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina never won the prize. Sully Prudhomme, the author of... (well, you tell me!) did. Life is short, but art can be long indeed, with or without prizes.
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