AWARDS AND PRIZES: NO GOOD FOR LITERATURE

I am writing this post as songwriter Bob Dylan keeps the whole world in tenterhooks about whether he’ll finally accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him days ago amidst much controversy. His silence is so loud that an irritated member of the Swedish committee has publicly called him “impolite and arrogant” (I agree). Dylan has not even bothered to pick up the phone to acknowledge the receipt of the Swedes’ insistent messages. I do not wish, however, to discuss the merits and demerits of Dylan as a Nobel prize recipient, nor whether song lyrics are Literature (of course they are, particularly in the best cases). I don’t particularly relish Dylan’s atonal nasal whine, which disqualifies me to consider his songwriting. I’d rather discuss the increasingly harmful effect that awards and prizes are having on Literature.

I have just learned that an award is a distinction granted without competition whereas a prize is given to the winner of a competition, despite the interesting exceptions to this rule presented by the Nobel Prize and the Oscar Award. No matter, my argument is the same. Actually, I was groping in the dark to understand what exactly my objection is when my niece came to my rescue without knowing it. Her school has organized a competition to find a slogan which helps fruit and vegetable sellers to sell product past its prime but still perfectly edible. Kids had been told that the winner will see his or her slogan actually used in local shops and markets–also, that the other reward will be a tablet. My niece was absolutely indignant that rather than care about the possible impact of their slogans in actual consumers’ behaviour, her classmates started asking what brand the tablet was as soon as the contest was announced. That’s my point: writers are also too focused on the prize, not on their impact on society through Literature. If my niece wins the school competition she’s very likely to reject the tablet and even complain about its pernicious effect. My guess is that Dylan has the same feelings about the Nobel… tablet.

I know that I’m being flippant but what exactly is the point of awards and prizes? Shakespeare never got one, nor did Dickens or Cervantes and this is no obstacle to their being still admired today. The opposite also holds: receiving an award or prize is, I’m sure, a great occasion in the life of the lucky writer but it is no guarantee whatsoever of lasting fame. Nobody in Spain ever recalls, much less reads, playwright José Echegaray, Nobel prize winner in 1904. It seems, in contrast, a bit superfluous that colossal figures like Thomas Mann, W.B. Yeats or Gabriel García Márquez have a Nobel Prize–they’re much bigger than that. I don’t want, however, to castigate in particular the Nobel Prize, which is, despite its good intentions, a constant source of disagreements (much like the Oscars). My point is, rather, that literary awards and prizes in general are of very dubious interest. Beyond publicizing some authors. Beyond boosting their egos.

I often read résumés of some authors’ careers and they are peppered with awards I have never heard of. So-and-so, often a relatively unknown author, is the winner of so-and-so and this-and-that; then you read their quite average work and wonder: how did this person win so many awards? This seems even to be counterproductive. It is very often the case that a novel hyped after winning a major award disappoints many readers, whether this is a Man Booker Prize, or a Dagger Award, it’s the same case. This generates ill-will against the corresponding jury and the corresponding distinction, which, little by little loses importance.

In my Department we often comment on how the Booker Prize used to be an extremely reliable indicator of where to find new, exciting writing whereas now it offers the same kind of blind lottery as reading whatever you wish to pick up. I acknowledge that, contradicting my own argument here, I have used prizes to navigate my way into some genres (or aspects thereof): I certainly relied on the Hugo and the Nebula to help me choose the science-fiction short stories which my students read last year. This does not mean, however, that the results of my choice were more solid than if I had acted on each author’s reputation. How reputation is measured, however, seems to be today conditioned by the awards received, which quite complicates my argumentation. Fish bites tail. Or Moebius strip.

Let me now mention the case of another recent prize, the Planeta, won by Dolores Redondo, a well-known crime fiction writer. The Premio Planeta, Wikipedia informs, awarded yearly since 1952 and founded by José Manuel Lara Hernández, is today the highest rewarded literary prize on Earth, only second to the Nobel for Literature, and the highest in the world for a single book. The winner gets an astonishing €601,000 (actually, an advance for the expected massive sales). No wonder, then, that a grateful Redondo was in tears when she gave her acceptance speech. What surprised me was her declaration that she had always dreamed of winning the Planeta, for this is not really a prestige award like the Nadal, the Nacional or the Cervantes. The Planeta Prize is always tainted by a suspicion that it is a well-orchestrated publicity stunt, with the winner and the finalist pre-selected in advance of the jury’s meeting. If this is a blatant lie, then at least it must be stressed that the Planeta has this knack of always rewarding writers who are already selling well.

For me, the 2016 Planeta is a far more interesting affair than the Dylan debacle because it marks the entrance of genre fiction in the general literary competitions devoted to mainstream fiction. If I am correct, the main award for detective fiction in Spain is the RBA, recently won by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Redondo doesn’t seem to have received any previous awards which, in the current context, is beginning to be unusual but her fame depends on the very popular detective fiction trilogy of Baztán (El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos and Ofrenda a la tormenta). It is, then, very good news for detective fiction in general to have broken into the mainstream with the Planeta, an achievement which might signal the end of the crisis of legitimation for this genre in Spain. In this sense, I grant, prizes and awards do matter. My problem, however, is that I could not even finish the first, bungling novel in her trilogy, and I wonder to what extent many mainstream readers who approach the genre through Redondo will have the same problem, and be alienated rather than won for the cause of detective fiction.

This brings me back to Dylan and the Nobel Prize. I’m here arguing (very confusingly!!) that awards and prizes are no indicator of a writer’s quality, and that they are generally harmful for the ambition to impact society that should characterize great Literature. At the same time I’m arguing that literary distinctions may be useful to solve the crisis of legitimation still affecting so-called minor genres, such as detective fiction. Um–they’re compatible positions, I believe. What I felt when the Nobel committee announced that Dylan had won the prize was that, well, if we are finally accepting that Literature happens beyond the printed page of highbrow books, then the Nobel should be open to all literary genres, including not only so-called genre fiction but even other genres such as journalism or screen writing. Let’s reward multimedia writers like Aaron Sorkin, or writers who have won all one can win in a specific category, like fantasy and SF icon Ursula K. Le Guin.

Or nobody. If Literature were truly valued, awards and prizes would be redundant. What is failing in our system of valuing Literature, then, is that it requires all the external props that non-profit institutions like the Nobel committee or rabidly commercial companies like Grupo Planeta are offering. If writers were sufficiently, and honestly, publicized in the media, if they had more visibility, then the literary distinctions would be unnecessary. We would never agree on who is best, and why certain works are valuable (you only needs to see how fiercely readers disagree on GoodReads and Amazon). At least, we would be free of clutter. Perhaps Bob Dylan is mortally afraid, after all, that if he accepts the Nobel Prize he will be just a badly remembered name in a list of half-known literary authors, rather the unique figure he is.

Of course, I have never won a literary award… and all this ranting may just be a case of very sour grapes and of wanting very much to be Dolores Redondo to see how it feels to be on the spotlight for those fifteen minutes of glory. And get the €601,000.

Dylan: reject the tablet, please!!!

PS: Dylan finally accepted the Nobel Prize two weeks after it was awarded to him with no explanation about the delay, except that he was left ‘speechless’. Oh….!!!

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