More negative thinking about honors, awards, and prizes

Yesterday, I briefly questioned the purpose of awards along the way to praising a particular nominee for a particular acting laurel. I didn’t have the time, and still don’t, to go into the overall issue, but Christopher Hitchens did some of the work in a December 1992 column for Vanity Fair. A few illustrative extracts from his commentary, which is mainly concerned with awards for books but which applies more broadly:

  • “The constantly burgeoning awards racket…is the importation of show-biz values as the ruling values everywhere.”
  • The proliferation of prizes is “a kind of extended essay in the cultivation of self-esteem and positive reinforcement, as envisaged by Lewis Carroll in the ‘Caucus-race’ of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Dodo roundly declares that ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”
  • “The unstoppably inflating awards business exists to reward sponsors, to pacify egos, to generate sales, and to puff reputations.”
  • “In the atmosphere created by the prize cult, it is forgotten that a canon of literature is made up of works and books, not of ribbons and awards.”

In the light of these remarks, it’s peculiarly ironic that earlier this year a prize named after Hitchens was established. The announcement that this new prize was being launched stirred up some discussion. Was it actually bestowed upon someone? I never heard. If I were writing in the guise of a responsible journalist, I would find out and report, but that would only defuse my point. One of the presumed intentions of an award is to cut through the clutter, yet the awards racket has generated its own clutter, and it joins the very thing it hopes to hold itself apart from, namely, the profusion of consumable artifacts that some early-modern critics termed the culture industry.

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One thought on “More negative thinking about honors, awards, and prizes

  1. “The unstoppably inflating awards business exists to reward sponsors, to pacify egos, to generate sales, and to puff reputations.”

    I can’t argue with Hitchens here. My publisher is remarkably stingy when it comes to promotion. They send out ARCs to a handful of reviewers and expect authors to do everything else, but they will submit copies to awards committees and in some cases even pay the fee. Must pay off if any of their titles are nominated, or they wouldn’t bother.

    Like

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