Tuesday, November 27, 2012

All prizes are dangerous

In 1926, on discovering that his novel, "Arrowsmith," had been awarded what was then called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, author Sinclair Lewis wrote the following letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee and declined the honour. He remains the only person to have done so.

And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." [...]
I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.

Great observations. Just look at Hollywood. Even the most serious actors and creators are looking at getting an Oscar as the highest achievement they could dream of, despite the media- and commercial circus this award is. And even if it wasn't, it's just an award. Surely one doesn't make art for the awards, but for the art and for what it can do?
And surely subservience, other than that limited by time and mutual agreements, is anathema to all men, not the least artists? 

... "the highest standard of American manners and manhood." 

Oh no... Fine standards by themselves perhaps, in some circles, but to set them up as standards for literary value? Oh-em-gee. 

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