Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Prizes

Are you sure, she's never written about Gordie Howe?
My partner asked me what I thought about Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. I believe my thoughts were, in this order; “OK,” and “At least it wasn't Philip Roth.” It's not that I have anything against Alice Munro. She is, arguably, the finest practitioner of the contemporary mainstream literary short story around, but, readers of my blog will know at least one of those adjectives doesn't particularly interest me. I actually really like Alice Munro. The stories of hers that I've read are truly powerful. She has a way of finding the negligible moments in life that actually encapsulate wide swaths of human experience. And she has been doing it for decades, producing an admirable and, yes, Nobel caliber body of work. But how important will her work be in the short story form of the future? How influential is she to those exploring the potential of the short story? Assuming the world keeps getting weirder, will her stories provide more than just brilliantly executed nostalgia? I have my doubts about all of these, so, though I'm not disappointed with her selection, I can't say I'm excited about it either. (And she's got nothin' on Flannery, but that's a different essay.)

But the question got me thinking about literature prizes in general, especially with the changes, considered and executed, to the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize that generated so much controversy this fall. What should prizes do? What is the role of literature prizes in societ
I get it! It's a metaphor for curling!
y? Does extending the eligibility of the Man Book Prize really affect British Culture? After the Pulitzer Prize flap a couple of years ago, do literature prizes have any responsibility to the publishing and bookselling industry?

In general, I think it is more important for prizes to have clearly delineated goals, than for them to have any one goal in particular. I like the idea that there are prizes for particular kinds of books, written by authors with particular identities. I like that some prizes focus on individual works in a year and some prizes focus on the body of work over the course of a writing career. And I also like that there is a diversity in the selection process. I like that there is an Impact award that is open and there is a Nobel which is very closed. Which is not to say that prizes are perfect. Just like, well, everything, from time to time those responsible for administering them should reassess, should re-ask the big questions, should examine the process, and should make changes.

But even with my fairly flexible attitude towards prizes, I think there is one factor a prize should never, ever consider when determining its winner: popularity. There has been an increasing amount of chatter, especially about the National Book Award suggesting that, in order to more faithfully reflect the will of the reading public and to stay relevant to that reading public, prizes should consider a book's popularity when deciding on their award. That chatter is wrong. Overusing “literally” and “awesome” level wrong. Here are three reasons why.

Popularity has never, ever been an indicator of quality. Ultimately, prizes are about quality. Yes, quality is subjective and yes, determination of quality is influenced by the power structure of the times, and yes, personal biases, prejudices, and grudges can compromise selection, and yes, critics and judges can be completely out of touch with the culture over which they strive to preside, but quality still exists and, even though it lacks an absolute foundation, it is important for us to pursue it. A lot of different factors go in to determining whether a book is good or not, but perhaps the only factor we can definitively say does not indicate quality, one way or the other, is popularity. Many extremely popular books are also great works of literature. Many extremely popular books are an embarrassment to the alphabet. (Which does not mean I think people shouldn't buy and read them for entertainment. Also, this is not screed against popular books.) Many extremely popular books fall somewhere in between. The point is not that there is something wrong with popularity, but that it is not relevant in deciding which book in a particular category of books is the best. And this goes for rejecting a book because of its popularity; for assuming that simply because a lot of people bought it, it must be lowest-common-denominator product.

Canadian jokes make me sad. Tout comme la vie.
Second, popular books have already won a prize. That prize is SELLING A SHITTON OF BOOKS AND BEING READ AND ENJOYED BY THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF READERS. (And yes, this prize does come with a cash award, generally a fucking helluva lot larger than is given out by any of the juried awards.) Why, exactly, do popular books deserve extra awards because of their popularity. It's like giving the 100 meter dash gold medalist an automatic spot in the 200 meter final. This is one of things that completely baffles me about Jennifer Weiner's insistence on coverage of popular books in The New York Times Book Review. They're already popular. They don't need more exposure. Forget about all the gender and intellectual implications of the debate for a moment; why should the NYTBR spend limited space on books everybody already knows about and are already buying by the pallet load? To me, the same logic applies to prizes.

Finally, prizes are one of the great book discovery engines. They take authors known only to the literati and make them known to the public. They catch books that have slipped through the media cracks. They create a public discussion of a book that had not had a public discussion before. In some ways, this only really half a point, because it does argue that popularity can act as a disqualifier, but I have a slightly different take on it. As I mentioned above, one of the arguments for preferring popular books in an awards process is that it makes the book more relevant to the reading culture, but what is more relevant in culture; the leader or the follower? The coolest kid in high school is the one that starts the trend, not follows it. If prizes want to be “relevant” they need to be actors, not reactors, influencing new taste, rather than responding to existing taste. For example, Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer introduced the reading public to one of the most important American authors currently writing, and made a bestseller out of an innovative work at the edge of what might be next in fiction.

Judging quality in anything is a fraught and flawed process and too often, considerations outside quality determine the winner. But just because -isms can between between the award and the quality does not mean quality should no longer be the target. Sometimes the best book in whatever the prize looks to award is already extremely popular, sometimes it's not. Sometimes a prize will turn a book into a bestseller and sometimes it won't. Sometimes a prize will be the first step in the canonization of a work or an author and sometimes it will be a product of its time and reflect a fad or trend that will baffle future generations. Prizes have their problems, but they also have their purposes. And rewarding popularity shouldn't be one of them.

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