Prizes are a vital part of the modern market for serious literature, but they're also increasingly flawed and compromised. At their best, however, they can still be an important mechanism for ensuring literature's future as a public artby Tom Chatfield / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is a central paradox of writing that true greatness only becomes apparent over time, and yet that the judgements of the future are substantially dependent on what the present chooses to publish, publicise and preserve. Viewed from the pinnacles of hindsight, literary history looks like a stately procession of great texts. A snapshot taken at any particular moment, however, reveals a far messier business; one clogged with readers, writers, commercial obligations, prejudices and misconceptions. Everything we might call the canon of literature—those enduring works that collectively form a standard we judge others by—is busily being forged or maintained within that snapshot. And somewhere close to the heart of this business lies one of the most ancient and contentious of all artistic institutions: the literary prize. Prizes are an attempt to mould, and to pre-empt, posterity. Their answers rarely satisfy; they seem, sometimes, to possess an astonishing capacity for ignoring talent. Yet they occupy an increasingly crucial, and volatile, position amid those imperfect processes by which writing is turned into literature.
The ancient Greeks founded the idea of the literary prize. In fact, the Greek calendar was stuffed full of formal contests, most of which were either poetical, athletic or some combination of the two; the competitive singing of dithyrambs—choruses of praise to Dionysus—was a kind of literary team sport, with groups of up to 50 men or boys dancing in circles and declaiming verse. It may have looked like an out-take from Monty Python, but this was art of the most serious kind: a vital component of honouring the gods, and an equally vital focus for national pride. Rivalry was intense and winners’ prestige was huge. Just as sporting spectacles offered citizens the vicarious thrill of watching the human body pushed toward its limits, so the quest for supremacy in words turned the deepest concerns of the mind—birth, death, politics, love, inheritance, loss—into a transcendent game.
After the classical era, prizes continued to be contested in various forms in all the arts, but their wider importance diminished. Patrons, guilds and learned societies singled out the most talented and commissioned and rewarded them; although writing, guarded by the priesthood, flowed down narrow channels. Even the convulsions of the Renaissance did not herald a return to Greek levels of passion for public contest. Instead, the birth of increasingly individual artistic forms—the new, secular drama and, later, the novel—went hand-in-hand with the prospect of artists selling their work directly to a paying public. Here was a quite different route to those most tangible measures of acclaim—wealth and renown—than commissions or awards. By the 19th century, publishers of books, pamphlets and papers had access to a swelling reading public whose heterogeneous tastes outweighed even the most august academies.