5 jun. 2011

The Problem with Prize Inflation

In Spain, and in the US as well, one of the main mechanisms by which poetry is published is the prize. People enter their manuscripts and a winner is chosen. In the US, each poet spends 25 bucks to enter. In Spain, most prizes are sponsored by local or regional governments, banks, publishers, or foundations. The pay-to-enter scheme is not as common there. In the US, there is usually a celebrity poet judge, but manuscripts are screened by MFAs. In Spain, there is typically a jury composed of Luis García Montero and a few other poets. LGM has probably judged a few hundred contests, a half dozen or more a year for almost 30 years.

The prize itself, then, is publication itself, and the increasing dominance of that system means that any given published book is more likely than not to be a prize-winner. So winning a prize becomes a much less impressive feat. There are hundreds of prizes to win, and tons of award-winning poetry. In fact, virtually all published poetry could be prize-worthy. In such an environment wouldn't it be advisable to search out books that did not win any prize? If a book did not win a prize, and still was published, then it might be a book of a poet so well-known that s/he can bypass the prize lottery altogether. I don't think you could pick up a typical book of prize-winning verse and conclude that it is better, on average, than a book that won no prize at all.

(So even if there are no ethical problems, such as surfaced a few years ago when a famous poet gave a prize to her husband; even if the process is fair, it seems less than ideal to make it one of the main ways in which poetry gets published in book form. I cannot claim the process is unethical per se, in in all or most cases; my point here is a different one.)

Maybe I am jealous because I've never won anything, but I am not impressed by a long list of prizes that someone has won. That's just a lazy way to recount a poet's biography. The more the number of prizes, the less any prize counts.

Of course the system developed over time because of the lack of demand for books of poetry, and the oversupply of poetry manuscripts in relation to this demand. Pool the money of the poets with unpublished manuscripts (in the US case) and use those funds to publish books. An elegant solution indeed! The problem, once again, is that if this system is the norm then it no longer makes sense to talk of it in the language of awards or prizes.

As to the other ethical question, of whether the financial burden should be borne by the aspiring poets, I think that is fine. Who else should pay? I see people at the bingo hall shell out 20 bucks for a pack of pulltabs with no hesitation.

6 comentarios:

Judy dijo...

You go to the bingo hall?

Jonathan dijo...

That's my part-time, unpaid job. It's just once a month for a good cause, or at least a half-way decent one. It also takes me out of my "element' which is a good thing.

Andrew Shields dijo...

If such publications should not be called "prizes," what should they be called?

Jordan dijo...

I disagree that a larger group of prizes necessarily dilutes the value of every individual prize on the same principle by which I reject the idea that the greater the quantity of poems produced in a society the less likely it is there will be a poem worth reading.

What does follow, I think, is that a larger field makes it more difficult for any individual book or poem to receive attention.

It's unclear to me what effect attention has on a poet, and it's certain that in itself attention awards no value. As the East Dillon alumni said at dinner at Coach Taylor's house, "You want to lose in front of everybody?"

My hunch, more and more, and Joshua/Jane has been saying something like this for years, is that the difficulties, the inefficiencies, the cruelties of the society of poets are in no way separate from those of the culture at large.

When you talk about prizes in poetryland, that is, you are also talking about a general theory of tournament that has taken over the culture, at least insofar as we tell ourselves a story about how society works. I have no idea whether this became a more egalitarian country during the New Deal and especially after the end of World War II, but that's the story I've heard over and over.

The resignation or indifference I read into the last paragraph of this post gives me pause.

Jonathan dijo...

Andrew: I think they should be called books of poetry.

Jordan: I too reject the idea that the more poems there are, the fewer good poems there will be. What I wanted to say was that every poem doesn't deserve a prize. A reader ought to be able to expect that a prize winning book is better, on average, than just a plain old book.

You're right that it makes publication into a kind of reality tv show tournament. Anyone can enter, but some are there just to be humiliated in the early rounds.

Jordan dijo...

The Wall Street Journal used to have (maybe it still does?) a running feature in which the portfolios of professional stockpickers were compared with a group of stocks chosen by a monkey with a dartboard. As I recall, the monkey did fine.