Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Charles Ives: "Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity."

The Telegraph has published an interesting article about Nobel Prize winners. You may read the entire article here, but I've included some more interesting bits below.

But there is something perverse about a literature prize that bestowed the laurel crown on the brows of John Galsworthy and Pearl Buck, leaving many more illustrious writers unacknowledged.

In our own day, no doubt Toni Morrison and Seamus Heaney have their fans, but I would be extremely surprised if, in 100 years' time, anyone rated their work.

Then there are the figures such as Churchill and Bertrand Russell who, however worthy of commemoration for excellence of one kind or another, would not, from an all-English panel of judges, have been given a prize for literature.

And how do you account for Elias Canetti getting the prize? A fascinating writer by any standards, but his one novel, The Blinding (or Auto da Fe) is a failure; his reputation stands on three or four volumes of memoirs which, though completely brilliant, hardly place him in the league of Rousseau or St Augustine.

What puts us off the Nobel laureates, perhaps, is the sense that the panel, at any one juncture, has been swayed by non-literary criteria.

I do agree with the author (A. N. Wilson), to a certain extent. Obviously singling out one person a year for excellence in literature leaves a lot of talent ignored. But, like many awards (the Oscar for Best Actor comes to mind), a recipient is recognized for a myriad of factors, not solely for one specific work. In the case of the Nobel Prize, an entire career is honored. A quick check on Wikipedia informs us that Arthur Nobel stated the literature prize should be awarded to one who demonstrates "most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency" although more recently the award is given to one who demonstrates lasting literary merit.

Literary merit, then, is quite subjective and says nothing about nixing a writer (like Churchill, say) whose laurels rest on nonfiction. At any rate, Wiki reports that Churchill won due to "his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values." Perhaps the latter part of that statement is not so literary-based, but the former is.

I'll leave it up to you; I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Here is a list of Nobel Laureates, and while I agree with the author on a few of them, the majority seem to deserve the prize. Who could argue with (in addition to the author's choice of Yeats and Eliot) Hesse, Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Beckett, Bellow, Marquez, and Szymborska? Surely they do have lasting literary merit beyond whatever social concerns were pressing at the time of their win.

But maybe you disagree. Which authors have been basely ignored (I'd say Nabokov right off the bat) and which have been undeservedly praised? What do you think about the merits of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Is it a grand institution, or is any award, as Charles Ives suggests, a "badge of mediocrity"? (For the record, I disagree with Ives, but I sure do love making him the title of this post.)


John said...

Hmmm an interesting post. Personally, I've gotta agree with Ives. As I see it, a person who is truly good at what they do, shouldn't need a shiny piece of metal to tell the whole world that somebody believes them to be the best at what they do. It should go without saying. It should be seen clearly in every aspect of his or her life. Badges of honor are, medals of merit, certificates of achievement, etc. serve only one purpose; to stroke the fir of the mediocre, and the conceited. But, that's just my opinion.



linda-sands.com said...

Interesting and intriguing subject. My opinion is based on experience.

The whole award thing is rigged.

Think about it. We pick dead people to honor them. Old people to make them feel better before they die. We choose people who never won anything, so we can make a change and people who are undeserving but didn't cause a fuss anywhere so we can soothe ruffled feathers.

There are SOOOOOOOO many awards out there that anyone can claim to be the recipient of, that it lessens the value across the board. I think everyone should be able to lay claim to at least one title in the world before their earthly demise and have it etched on their gravestone. Me, I'd take the Award for Whining, or the Most Prolonged Grudge.
But honestly in my heart of hearts, I'd wish it was the Man Booker Prize.

Imani said...

I disagree with the previous commenters. With John because it is human nature to want recognition; and there has to be other mechanisms in place to disperse and make well-known, or at least better known an author's work, to have it read, beyond a "well it's self-evidently good so it will succeed!".

I disagree with Linda because if there is any award that can be said to have the most prestige it would be the Nobel. That's pretty much all it has going for it at this point because it does not oil the PR machine as well as an IMPAC or a Man Booker these days. There may be a million but how many does the public pay attention to, really?

To me it would be more apt to describe awards as being inevitably biased, with certain institutions predisposed to consider certain candidates, but "rigged" implies fraudulence and other things worse and does not fall within the specifics she mentioned, IMO.

I don't mind awards. They bring books to my attention and typically provide some cash so that an author may continue to work in a world that seems to care less and less for fiction. In comparison to most prizes (most Western ones) the list of Nobel prize recipients is pretty good considering the inevitable problems involved in prize committees. Wilson's argument is tired and over-done. (It's one of those newspaper literary regulars along with, "Orange Prize: Should there still be an award for the wimmen?", "Look we submitted this classic author's work under a pseudonym to today's publishers and it was summarily rejected!", "The Novel/Reading is Dead" etc.