[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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