Eyes on the prize

One aspect of literary history that has been studied very little is awards and prizes. There are many discrete studies of a certain writer’s winning the Pulitzer, say, and why, but very little about the notion of prizes and competition among writers in general.  (I note the exception of my colleague Leon Jackson, at University of South Carolina, whose Cornell book on the American literary marketplace, has a very good chapter in it on Poe in this context.)

We have talked a good bit both about the sales and marketing of books and about the vagaries of literary reputations — how they go up and down depending on various circumstances (including market forces) but also on honors.

Here’s a post from Newsweek on the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

Posted Thursday, October 08, 2009 7:30 AM

Why the Nobel Prize in Literature Doesn’t Really Matter

Newsweekherta-muller

by Malcolm Jones

What exactly does it mean for Herta Müller, the Romanian-born novelist, to take home a Nobel Prize in Literature? Most concretely, it means collecting roughly $1.4 million.

That’s not chump change, but after that, the benefits become more nebulous. If you’ve languished in semi-obscurity before winning the prize, it means a brief period of instant celebrity, a period in which critics play catch-up with your work and publishers lucky enough to have bought the rights to your work in leaner times now rush to get your books into print, if they’re not there already.

If you’re a writer, such as the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who’s been at odds with your government, it may buy you some protection. Nobel Prize winners don’t get locked up too often. In the long run, it probably means that you’re not going to have a lot of trouble getting your books published for the rest of your life. But if you think the prize guarantees you legions of new fans, think again. It may, but, then again, you may wind up like last year’s winner, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and then fell off the radar.

Every now and then, the Nobel can resuscitate a career. When William Faulkner won in 1949, none of his books were in print in his home country. The Nobel turned his life around, and the resulting acclaim translated into sales that gave him the financial security that had eluded him all his life. And while most of his best work was behind him when he won, the prize allowed him to stop buying time by script-doctoring in Hollywood. He could stay home, where he became intensely prolific in the last decade of his life, completing the Snopes trilogy and capping his output with the uncharacteristically cheerful novel The Reivers, which, while minor compared with some of his most towering books, looks better and better with the passage of time.

Faulkner escaped the notorious Nobel curse, which, so the legend goes, condemns a writer to either silence or insignificance once he or she has won. The curse, though, is something of a joke, since most writers who win a Nobel are already near the end of their career, and therefore not too likely to produce major work whether they win or not.

Publishers and booksellers agree that any prize helps a writer, and the bigger the prize, the more it boosts sales, at least for a little while. But in the long run, the prize doesn’t seem to have much effect either way on a writer’s reputation. Nobel winners Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck are no longer in the front ranks of American writers, and even Sinclair Lewis isn’t read much anymore. And then there are all the authors whose greatness actually diminishes the value of the Nobel. How, we have to ask, could the jurors have erred so badly as to neglect James Joyce, Eugene Ionesco, Eudora Welty, and Vladimir Nabokov? It’s enough to make you think that the decisions aren’t made for strictly literary reasons. That can only diminish the cache of the prize. It doesn’t mean we don’t care who wins, just that we don’t care as much. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Writing is hard enough without turning it into a contest.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Eyes on the prize

  1. Adam Johnson

    To anyone who may still be reading: A little late, but nevertheless an interesting perspective from Junot Diaz on his aspiration to win a Pulitzer Prize Novel (he won last year for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”) It might provide good inspiration for everyone as you finish your end-of-semester paper(s), and I personally think it provides an interesting insight into the writer’s psyche:

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/worklife/12/04/o.junot.diaz.becoming.writer/index.html

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