The glittering prizes

 

The first time I missed out on promotion (a type of prize, I guess), a wise old academic said to me that it was always tempting to reject a system that had rejected you. It’s a fair point. Any committee that selects oneself, shows startling sagacity. One that does not, is necessarily dominated by time-servers and pimps.

We may even be right in our assessment of those doing the choosing, but of course we cannot say anything. Just as one must never argue with editors, so must one never argue with prize-giving committees. Yet logically, it may be perfectly true that the committee erred. It is the fear of being stuck with the sour grapes label that keeps many of us silent.

The original sour grapes story formed the basis of a fable by the ever-wise Aesop. Aesop’s version was later recycled by the 17th century French writer of fables, La Fontaine. It is one of many fables with a fox as the main character. The fox is a popular candidate for fable writers, I suppose because foxes are always up to something. Unable to reach some luscious-seeming grapes, the fox in the fable claims not to care because, he says, the grapes were sour, anyway.

But in the case of the glittering prizes, this interpretation seems not quite right. We do not deny the worth of what we have missed out on. We simply criticise the system of which it forms a part, for not having picked us.

Feelings about rejection, whether it’s in personal life, or in the job market, are hard to rationalise away. If it’s not them, it must be us, mustn’t it? And that cannot be. We are told who the winner is, and wonder anew at the ways of the world. Not – so and so? But didn’t he … And wasn’t she …? And of course, we may well be right.

Speaking up in the heat of the moment can be wonderfully cathartic. The renowned author E Annie Proulx gave the Academy Awards, Californians in general and residents of Los Angeles in particular an extraordinary spray when the film of her book, Brokeback Mountain, failed to win the Best Picture award for 2007. Nor did either of its two stars (including the late Heath Ledger) receive an award. True, its Director scored Best Director, and the screenplay was also honoured, but the most important of the ‘gelded godlings’ as she memorably described the Oscars, went to a film called Crash which, it would appear, promptly did exactly that.

In a widely published column, still available on the Internet, she evinced her distaste for the glitterati sucking up champagne, for the extravagant red carpet and above all, for the dimness of the members of the Academy who, she said, were totally out of touch with current mores. This was an apparent reference to the fact that Brokeback Mountain is about a homosexual relationship and, Annie clearly felt, the Academy had not yet caught up with the fact that the majority of the population is comfortable with homosexuality. Right at the end of her wonderful piece, Ms Proulx wrote ‘for those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays’. Wow. But then E. Annie Proulx did win the Pulitzer, whose judging committee, I am sure, she believes to be as discerning as the Academy was not.

Most of us are not as gifted with the invective as Annie. So we pull our punches, and remember not to burn our bridges (at least, not until we have come to them), realising that we do not want to stir up antagonism from people more powerful than ourselves. In this way, we learn self-censorship without any threat from governments.

If all awards are necessarily invidious, would we be better off if there were no prizes? No Archibald, no Nobel? No Booker? No Miles Franklin? No Premier’s Awards? Surely the activities for which these prizes are awarded would still take place? And to the extent that this was not so, perhaps we are better off without the efforts of those whose prime motivation is recognition?

Then again, the prizes may not really about the prize-winners, but the rest of us, the spectators. There is something reassuring about the culmination of effort that the prize represents. We may not agree with the judges’ choice, but (provided no favours have changed hands) the winners, will at least, be worthy of their honour. Perhaps, too, with so much marketing around, we need the assurance of reputation to make up for the difficulty of making our own judgements.

From a public policy point of view, prizes for winning particular competitions create wonderful levels of effort, for very little outlay. Design competitions seem particularly worthwhile. If the most prominent examples are historical, rather than modern, perhaps this is a modality that needs reviving.

But then, these were different sorts of prizes – not an award for something already done, but an incentive to do something that has never been done. The fact that the benefits far outweighed the cost is another plus, at least for the prize-givers.

The original concept for my own city, Canberra, resulted from the Griffins’ response to a design competition. Although support for the full realisation of Walter Burley Griffin’s vision was never forthcoming, key elements of it, particularly Griffin’s understanding of the relationship between the city and its setting, remain.

Science and technology provide further examples. For years, the need for precise chronometers hindered navigation, because sailors could not measure longitude accurately. The British Parliament, through the wonderfully-named Board of Longitude, offered a prize for the first person who could do it.

And although, in the case of the chronometer, the Board wriggled out of paying John Harrison, the perfector of the marine chronometer, the full amount of the prize (£20,000 an enormous sum in those days), he received a number of smaller payments over many years. It was money well-spent: the cost in lives and ships lost because navigators had no accurate way of knowing where they were, outranked the cost of the prize by a huge factor.

In effect, what John Harrison had won, was not a prize, but a series of research and development grants. If only more of their modern equivalents produced such value for money.

What about academic prizes, at school and university? I have won a few of these in my time, but I think, on balance, society is probably better off without them. We need marks and grades, which should be rigorously earned, while remaining private. The days are long gone and I think, rightly so, when students clustered around a public noticeboard to learn their fate, with names (rather than student numbers) there for all to see.

From a public interest point of view, we need to ask whether prizes produce better literature or not? They certainly give prize-winning writers a boost in income. But the question of an adequate income for writers and creative writers in particular is a subject in its own right. There have been great writers who have never won any prizes. In Dickens’s time, with readers hanging on the great man’s every word, there was surely no need for prizes. The idea would, probably, have been considered bizarre.

But in a world where publishers hang on by their fingernails, it is undeniable that prizes sell books. And having a prize named after you is a great attractant for those rich enough to endow such things. There is a prize for just about every conceivable sort of American academic writing. In Australia, alas, there do not seem to be sufficient wealthy people or institutions to go around. Or maybe Australian millionaires are simply more inclined to keep their money to themselves.

It was Nobel who created the most glittering suite of prizes, based on the fortune he made out of the invention of dynamite. But the Nobels, surely, recognise more than they motivate. The prize-winners are obsessive people who are driven by what is inside them. I would be surprised, for those whose careers develop most powerfully, if they do not occasionally think – ‘I could win the Nobel’. But is it the prize that keeps them going?

The science prizes rarely arouse controversy. But then, science is much harder to fudge than literature. The subjective obviously plays a much bigger part where literary achievement is concerned whereas the language of science – mathematics – is universal. But writers must write about what they know. Such are the glories, and the limitations of literature.

Sometimes the winners of prizes tell us they were lucky. Usually they thank the people who helped them. But if someone has to win the prize, what is so remarkable about the particular individual who receives it? Although the prize-winners have their name on the honour board, it’s probably more important to miss out than it is to win, if only we could bring ourselves to talk about it a bit more.

 

This column first appeared in Quadrant, May 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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