Prize culture

Earlier this month it was announced that the Griffin Poetry Prize, which for its twenty-year history has been a double-barreled affair with a $65,000 award for the best Canadian book of poetry and another award for the same amount in an international (English-language) category, would be rolling the two prizes together into one open category worth $130,000 for the winner.

This was big news in Canadian poetry circles, but I can say with some confidence that nobody outside of those small circles cared. Indeed, I’m sure nobody outside of those same small circles has ever heard of the Griffin Prize. And that’s the problem, or at least a big part of it.

Put simply: people don’t care very much about any awards in the arts. It used to be presumed that a prestigious award would lead to some sort of bounce in sales, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. From what I’ve heard, even winning top literary prizes won’t move many, or in some cases any, more units. And this isn’t just the case for books. How many people saw CODA, last year’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards? How many people could see it? Will Smith slapping Chris Rock received more coverage.

The reason this is important is because arts awards are meant to be advertising. That’s really all they’re meant to be. But how do arts awards advertising themselves? Throwing a huge party with lots of celebrities is one way, but basically unless you’re the Oscars all that can be done to grab eyeballs is to bump up the prize money. So the Griffin Poetry Prize is now (the press releases tell us) the richest for a single book of poetry written in or translated into English in the world. Headlines!

Unfortunately for the Griffin, the headlines weren’t all good. The prize’s founder, Scott Griffin, justified the move by explaining why Canadian poets no longer needed a prize of their own. In short, it’s because the prize’s work is done: “now that a lot of Canadians have been recognized in the poetry world, we felt it was time they had to compete on the international stage with everybody else.”

Now? Why only now has the time come? From what I’ve read, which admittedly isn’t as much as I’d like, I think Canadian poetry has been very good for at least the last couple of decades, but I don’t see it as being any stronger today, or more visible internationally, than it was at the beginning of that period. So what has changed?

Nothing Griffin had to say about the move made sense to me. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if somebody like Anne Carson wins that top prize?” he said. Such a comment was revealing, to say the least, about what its founder sees the purpose of the award as being. Carson has won the Canadian prize twice already and is one of the most celebrated and recognized poets in the world. The list of rich and prestigious international prizes she’s won is as long as my arm. Why does Griffin feel it’s such an imperative that she (now!) “get a lot of coverage worldwide”? How many poets get more coverage worldwide? It must be a short list.

This all smacks of the Matthew effect. As I said of the Nobel Prize a year ago:  “Such awards are in no way, and never have been, meant to provide any kind of objective or even rational assessment of achievement. They continue only as a way of credentialing celebrity or the professionally well-connected and as an exercise in branding.” You can call this a cynical take, but is it any wonder nobody pays attention to prizes anymore?

I don’t like the change to the Griffin’s prize structure. The rationale makes no sense to me even on the face of it. It leads one to question why there should be national arts prizes at all. I’m no cultural nationalist myself, but I can see the point of having awards for Canadian writing. I don’t have any problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) either, even though you could make at least as strong an argument about women writers being able to compete with everybody else. What the Griffin looks like now is just a big pot of money without any identity. I guess what they were trying to do is spark some interest in a prize that had fallen off the media radar but I’m not sure they’ll get more than a blip. Eventually another prize will offer more money, turning the whole thing into a game of paying for clicks in the attention economy.

Observers of the literary scene have often suggested better uses for the cash doled out on literary awards. In the 1990s Philip Marchand asked “Are Literary Prizes Necessary?” and thought the prize money might be more profitably be directed at literacy programs. In response to the Griffin Prize announcement, poet and critic Jason Guriel tweeted: “Prizes are nice, but if I had $ to burn, I wouldn’t bankroll a book prize, I’d bankroll a book review section in a major newspaper.” Another good idea.

It’s great when arts awards sometimes direct attention to work that’s otherwise likely to be overlooked, or feed a bit of money to filmmakers, novelists, and poets who might be sleeping in their cars. There’s also a dinner for guests. Unfortunately, in their bid to appear relevant in some way awards increasingly feel bound to play to a global media market that’s not very interested in the product that they’re selling. Put another way, if you’re talking about money, you’re losing. And money is all we’re talking about.


9 thoughts on “Prize culture

  1. There once was a lady called fraggle
    Whose good friend Alex was a bit bedraggled
    Words were what he was mangling
    So he took up strangling
    And they visited the castle of Tintagel.

    Right, when can you get this cheque over to me? The full £1300,000 please. I’m in a hurry.


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