James F. English
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This is a book about one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life: the remarkable ascendancy of prizes in literature and the arts. James F. English documents the dramatic rise of the awards industry and its complex role within what he describes as an economy of cultural prestige.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03653-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  3. INTRODUCTION: Prizes and the Study of Culture
    (pp. 1-14)

    This is a book about prizes in literature and the arts, the stunning rise of which over the past hundred years is one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life. It is also a book about the collective ambivalence or uncertainty in which these prizes are embedded, and which perhaps accounts more than anything else for our failure to come to terms with their ascendancy. The custom of awarding prizes, medals, or trophies to artists—selecting outstanding individuals from various fields of cultural endeavor and presenting them with special tokens of esteem—is both an utterly familiar and...

  4. I. The Age of Awards
    • CHAPTER ONE Prize Frenzy
      (pp. 17-27)

      Why has no historian attempted a history of the modern cultural prize? Perhaps the most obvious reason is simply the daunting ubiquity, the unrelenting proliferation of prizes across all the many fields of culture, from poetry writing to pornographic filmmaking. Who can possibly keep up or keep track? The sense that the cultural universe has become supersaturated with prizes, that there are more cultural awards than our collective cultural achievements can possibly justify, is the great and recurring theme of prize punditry. In literary circles, it has become a sort of running joke: Gore Vidal says that the United States...

    • CHAPTER TWO Precursors of the Modern Cultural Prize
      (pp. 28-49)

      The modern ascendancy of cultural prizes may conveniently be said to have started in 1901 with the Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the oldest prize that strikes us as fully contemporary, as being less a historical artifact than a part of our own moment. Announced in more than a hundred newspapers worldwide,¹ the Nobel seized the collective imagination with sufficient force to impose with unprecedented intensity the curious logic of proliferation that has raised prizes from a rather incidental form of cultural activity a hundred years ago to an undeniably central form today. Within just three years of the first...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Logic of Proliferation
      (pp. 50-68)

      We could say, then, that at the advent of the cultural prize’s modern ascent, the moment in November 1895 when Alfred Nobel was signing his final will in his Paris house, pledging a “gift to mankind” in the form of perpetual prizes, the prize had established itself as an instrument (an economic instrument, in the full sense of that term) eminently well suited to achieving cultural objectives along three main axes: social, institutional, and ideological. Socially, the prize functions as a rallying point, a structural device, around which ambitious cultural events and festivities may be organized. It is a form...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Prizes as Entertainment
      (pp. 69-106)

      If the Nobel has served as model for many of today’s cultural prizes, especially those founded in the most legitimate fields of art by individual or corporate philanthropists seeking to effect a conversion of money into cultural prestige, the prize that has offered an alternative model, particularly for official societies, academies, and professional organizations in the less legitimate arts, the fields of “entertainment,” has clearly been the Oscar. The Oscars were not the earliest film awards—the Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor (later renamed the Gold Medal) was first awarded in 1920—but they were the first to be presented...

  5. II. Peculiarities of the Awards Industry
    • CHAPTER FIVE The Making of a Prize
      (pp. 109-120)

      In the past century, it has become increasingly common for surviving family, friends, or colleagues to commemorate the life of a beloved and respected person, especially a person whose life was devoted in some way to literature or the arts, by establishing a cultural prize in his or her honor. Wherever we find a sudden rise in the rate of death among the cultured classes, we are likely to find a cluster of new prizes. In England, a little flurry of memorial book and poetry prizes occurred after World War I, supported in part by funds from war widows. In...

    • CHAPTER SIX Taste Management
      (pp. 121-154)

      In observing that judges for cultural prizes are rarely paid even minimum wage for their labors, I may seem to be missing the point. It is obviously not money that motivates people to do this kind of work but (ideally) the love of art, or (more realistically) a sense of obligation to the individuals or organizations involved, or (more cynically) a desire for the social and symbolic rewards that accrue to judges. None of these motives need exclude the others, and in fact prizes could never have attained their current level of cultural efficacy if they did not foster the...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Trophies as Objects of Production and Trade
      (pp. 155-184)

      Little serious attention has been paid to the actual objects—the honorific medals or plaques, specially inscribed editions, silver cups, crystal sculptures, busts, bronzes, and statuettes—that are presented to the winners of cultural awards. They are generally thought of as cheesy, trivial things, obligatory tokens devoid of any real meaning or value in themselves, the cultural equivalent of bowling trophies. Yet these objects clearly constitute a basic and enduring feature of prizes, one without which the awards industry would not really know how to operate. A consideration of their form and function can help to bring more sharply into...

  6. III. The Game and Its Players
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Scandalous Currency
      (pp. 187-196)

      As we’ve already noted, the discourse surrounding cultural prizes has long been predominantly negative in tone.¹ Historically, it is difficult to find anyone of any stature in the world of arts and letters who speaks with unalloyed respect for prizes, and still more difficult to find books or articles (other than those underwritten by the prize sponsors themselves) that do not strike the familiar chords of amused indifference, jocular condescension, or outright disgust. It seems moreover to be the case that the most prestigious awards draw the most intensely critical sniping. It is not the little start-up prizes, or the...

    • CHAPTER NINE The New Rhetoric of Prize Commentary
      (pp. 197-216)

      In describing what I see as an important shift in the commentary on prizes, I will focus initially on Britain’s Booker Prize for Fiction, by far the most successful of all the hundreds of literary prizes founded since the mid-twentieth century. This is, after all, theliteraryprize whose annual dinner and award ceremony, which has been held at a succession of prestigious banquet halls (the Café Royal, Claridge’s, the Stationers’ Hall, two decades at the Guildhall, and most recently the British Museum), is televised live in prime time, to an audience of some half a million, by the BBC....

    • CHAPTER TEN Strategies of Condescension, Styles of Play
      (pp. 217-246)

      While the Booker is among the most talked-about of high-cultural prizes, its relationships to criticism, scandal, and the field of journalism are largely unexceptional. Even in fields of culture to which the press pays far less attention than it does to literature, when a prize makes the news it is generally due to some “scandal” which takes the same basic form—the increasingly (though never perfectly) parodic orinsincereform—that it does in connection with the Booker. Indeed, we find other prizes more and more often being compared to the Booker, usually in statements alluding to the “Bookerization” of...

  7. IV. The Global Economy of Cultural Prestige
    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The Arts as International Sport
      (pp. 249-263)

      It is possible to think of art or literature in any historical period as a “game” in the broad sense of that term: a competition among various cultural players or agents for better, more advantageous or “monopolistic” positions on the field of artistic production. But one of the arguments of this book has been that certain developments in theinstitutionalframework of literature and culture, in particular those relating to prizes and awards, have shaped thespecificforms and valences of cultural competition over the past century, differentiating it from what came before, and then, in recent decades, subjecting it...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE The New Geography of Prestige
      (pp. 264-296)

      For roughly the first two thirds of the twentieth century, the tensions between local and global aspects of cultural prestige tended, in their ideological dimensions, to conform with a narrowly (inter)nationalist paradigm—that is, with a view of cultural competition as taking place between and among nation-states (or other nationalist entities) through nationally representative artists. Cultural value was exchanged and circulated in what Goethe, in the early nineteenth century, had already perceived as an emergent “world market of exchange” where “all the nations offered their goods.”¹ This was no less true of the still-emergent nations of the Third World than...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Prizes and the Politics of World Culture
      (pp. 297-320)

      The symbolic capital of prizes has taken on a special importance in the context of the increasing globalization of the media and culture industries, since it is seen as a potentially powerful counter-currency even while it is attacked in some quarters as a mere shadow form of money itself. As British, European, American, and multinational cultural and philanthropic institutions have turned, however belatedly, to the task of identifying artists from the postcolonial nations for inclusion in their purportedly global pantheons—either by creating new, parallel prizes especially for “indigenous” or “thirdworld” or simply “world” artists (a World Music award category...

  8. APPENDIX A. The Rise of the Prize
    (pp. 323-328)
  9. APPENDIX B. Prizes and Commerce
    (pp. 329-333)
  10. APPENDIX C. Winner Take All: Six Lists
    (pp. 334-345)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 346-390)
  12. Index
    (pp. 391-409)