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fiction as a winner-take-all market

This Magazine Staff

The Hollywoodization of the global market in fiction writing continues apace. The good people who run the booker have announced a new, Nobel-ish sort of prize. It will be given every two years, based on an author’s entire body of work. It is worth something like $150k Canadian.
Among the people on the first list: Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow , Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass. My bet is on Roth or Bellow winning, though my personal choice would be Stanislaw Lem.
At any rate, I find these sorts of prizes a bit annoying. The money, while not at Nobel-standards, is pretty high, and almost by definition it will go to someone who doesn’t need the money. Now, that alone isn’t a reason not to hand out prize money, but it makes me wonder just what the money is actually for.
1. It can’t be as an incentive, to attract talent into the writing biz. Nobody would reasonably set out on a career as a novelist in hope of someday cashing in on the $150k, and, again, if you are up for it, almost by definition you no longer need the money.
Besides, all the evidence suggests that there are too many novelists in the world, not too few.

2. Perhaps the prize is to function as a reward, for “service to the arts” or something like that? Perhaps, but that seems a bit weird to me. Isn’t it one of the world of literature’s central conceits that it is about “art,” not commerce? All you ever hear is that writers write “because they are driven to” or some such drivel. Surely, a true artiste, especially one who has proven his or her artistic merit over the length of a career, would be above taking a tawdry cash reward?
3. Maybe the point of the money is to function the way those Macarthur “genius grants” are supposed to work: i.e., it gives you the sort of coin you need to seriously indulge yourself, really let your creativity loose etc.
Could be, though that’s hardly the picture of the romantic writer in a garret we’ve been fed all this years.
Plus, I’m extremely skeptical of the usefulness of the genius grants. If anything, it seems to me that they just tend to convince the recipient that they shit gold bricks. See: the collected works of David Foster Wallace since he received his genius money. That award killed his talent.
4. Prestige? Maybe that’s it. After all, part of what makes a Nobel so prestigious is that it comes with a cheque for $800 000 or something like that.
Or is it?
I’d like to see someone start a prize that comes with zero dollars attached. Not even a medal or a trophy. You just get some cheapo certificate, like you got in grade 6 for having perfect attendance or something. The trick would be to make it such a prestigious prize, that the very notion that mere money would accompany it would be offensive.
5. But maybe, in the end, these prizes are all about the money. Maybe Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth and Milan Kundera are just as keen for the green as the investment banker down the street. Maybe they like winning these sorts prizes because of the big pile of cash that comes with it.
I’m happy with that. After all, I heard a story once about the poet Derek Walcott. Apparently, after hearing that he’d won the Nobel prize in 1992, he said: “I’m rich. I’m stinking rich.”
Probably an urban legend. But I want it to be true.

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