[Paleopsych] WSJ: Joe Epstein: You're a Winner!
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Mon Nov 28 22:52:21 UTC 2005
Joe Epstein: You're a Winner!
Prizes are nice, but they don't say anything about the quality of your
Monday, November 7, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
I am all for literary and cultural prizes, and, uncomplicated truth to
tell, I only wish that more of them came to me. Thus far too few have.
I don't see many more in my future either, unless, like Robert Frost,
Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright, I acquire a fair amount of
flowing white hair and live well into my 80s, at which point, I
gather, what are considered reactionary and even stupid opinions are
no longer held against you.
Such prizes as I have won have brought me little monetary improvement
and no social prestige whatsoever. I have a single honorary degree, as
opposed to the more than 200 possessed by John Hope Franklin. I was
presented with a National Medal for the Humanities, but lots of people
I know took the occasion to say that it was a shame that I had to be
given it by George W. Bush. I responded by saying that I myself would
have preferred that it had been presented by Abraham Lincoln, but then
one can't have everything.
I once won a fiction prize of $250 that required me to write a speech
and spend a weekend in Hartford, Conn., to collect it. I turned it
down, which earned me the lifelong enmity of the Jewish couple who
bestow the prize. In the realm of honors, mine has been a varied if
not a rich career.
Some--by now perhaps all--cultural prizes have had the shine rubbed
off them by having been given to undeserving people, an ample number
of serious jackasses among them. Everyone knows that the list of
writers who did not win the Nobel Prize--Tolstoy, Proust, Henry James,
James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, W.H. Auden--is much more impressive
than the list of those who have. Moreover, there is something about
winning the Nobel Prize in literature that makes one posthumous no
matter how much longer one goes on to live. Since he won his Nobel
Prize, for example, I no longer feel the need to read V.S. Naipaul.
A sociology of cultural prize-giving has now been written by James F.
English, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and it
contains a great deal of useful information. Mr. English knows
everything there is to know about the mechanics of prize-giving, from
the appointing of judges to the globalizing of cultural prizes to the
exploiting of prizes for further self-aggrandizement. As "The Economy
of Prestige" makes clear, Mr. English has mastered the subject in
little and large, and it is one full of interest about the way
cultural life operates in our day.
Pity that Mr. English is an almost entirely arrhythmical writer who
indites endlessly lengthy sentences in long shapeless paragraphs that
make reading his book considerably less than a déjeuner sur l'herbe.
If Harvard University Press gives an award for the best-written book
it has published in 2005, Mr. English's probably shouldn't be in the
In a characteristically barbed-wire sentence, he writes: "What has
transformed society since the 1970s is not the rise of a new class per
se but the rise of a formidable institutional system of credentialing
and consecrating which has increasingly monopolized the production and
distribution of symbolic capital, especially but not exclusively of
educational honors and degrees, while at the same time making the
accumulation of control of such capital more and more necessary to any
exercise of power." Translation: Prizes, however superfluous and
foolish, can still be made to pay off for those who win them and those
who award them.
Mr. English understands that the phenomenon of prizes for cultural
attainment--from the Nobel Prize and the Oscars on down--is ultimately
one of those jokes available to insiders, even as prizes continue to
work their magic on the large majority of people not in the know.
("Gee, Dad, it's a Pulitzer!") And everyone connected with such
prizes, as he shows, has a more or less obvious agenda. Their point,
and the larger point of Mr. English's book, is that the awarding, the
judging and the accepting of prizes for cultural achievement is, at
bottom, about one form or another of self-promotion.
Still, prizes and honors multiply for all sorts of reasons. Setting up
a poetry or local theatrical award can be a way to memorialize a dead
relative on the cheap; prizes are also useful to corporations hoping
to make white sheep of themselves by appearing simultaneously
culture-minded and philanthropic.
In an appendix, Mr. English lists the awards and honors currently
given in the various fields of cultural achievement, and it is
extensive. In the category of prizes not given, I have long thought
that there ought to be a Nobel Prize for marriage. This would be
awarded to long-suffering mates in famously difficult pairs. In the
past, some of the winners might have been Countess Sophia Tolstoy,
Mrs. Dostoyevsky, Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia), Lionel
Trilling, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, though which of the two
Clintons is more deserving isn't all that easy to determine.
Meanwhile every ethnic group has its hall of fame, and so does every
craft and sport. I went to high school with a man who is currently
president of the Ping-Pong Hall of Fame; in his prime he was said to
be able to beat quite good players using his shoe instead of a paddle.
Search hard enough and you may be able to find an award for an
unpublished non-Jewish lesbian poet under five feet tall. All this
prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those
progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most
hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his
Mr. English touches upon but does not give quite enough room in his
book to the political impulses behind prize-giving. The Nobel Prize in
literature is often--and fairly persuasively--accused of being awarded
on the basis of a writer's politics. This year's award to Harold
Pinter, who is quite out of control in his hatred of America, is a
vivid example; since Mr. Pinter has done little of note in recent
years, his Nobel seems aimed less at honoring him than at attacking
the U.S. for being in Iraq. But politics plays a role domestically
too. Because so many of the important American prizes are controlled
by liberals, which means that they are given only to people with the
correct politics, conservative institutions have begun to award their
own prizes, given to people with correctly conservative politics.
But in the end, it doesn't matter. Winning is everything, whatever the
agenda. In the economy of prestige, awards are good for publicity, for
getting better jobs and for shutting up one's wary relatives. As for
the prizes themselves, I was once told that if anyone tells you that
you are the best at anything you do, ask that person who is the
second-best. Learning who it is should take most of the air out of the
Very nice to win prizes, I'd say, so long as you understand that they
don't mean anything serious about the true quality of your
achievement. Take the money, wisdom suggests, and walk all the way to
the bank, suppressing as best you are able the silly smile that
threatens to break out at the thought that you have really gotten away
with it yet again.
Mr. Epstein is the author of "Ambition" and "Envy," among many other
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