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Literary prizes are still crucial, despite prevailing scepticism

We need some way of sorting through these… Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

The winners of the enormously respected Pulitzer Prizes have been announced, and of the 21 award categories for journalism and the arts, three caught my eye in particular. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the prize for Fiction, Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections took the Poetry prize while Annie Baker’s The Flick was awarded the prize for Drama.

Along with the Nobel Prize for Literature, established in 1901, the Pulitzers are among the longest standing of modern cultural prizes. First awarded in 1917, they are the legacy of renowned journalist and newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer. In his will, he endowed Columbia University with funds to establish a training course for journalists and a series of annual prizes, which have become recognised as some of the most prestigious awards in the world.

Fiction winner. Little Brown

But to what extent do the majority of us really sit up and take notice of award announcements of this kind? News coverage of the Pulitzers suggests we’re still keen to know who’s won what. And the Pulitzers in some sense heighten anticipation by not releasing a shortlist as other prizes do; finalists and winners are announced together. But have we become saturated by news of cultural prizes?

Prizes breed prizes, it seems, and prolifically. Rough estimates from James F. English’s 2005 study suggest that there are around 400 British prizes for literature and in excess of a thousand in the US. “Nobel envy” spawned prizes in practically every other cultural field you can think of. And then there are the prizes set up to counter other awards. Take, for example, the Folio Prize, awarded for the first time this year in response to the Man Booker’s apparent predilection for readability over quality.

With so many vying for our attention, should we still bother to take notice of cultural prizes? Are they not, after all, as critics argue, simply a marketing strategy for boosting sales and an opportunity for self-congratulation among the artistic elite? I’m inclined to follow English’s cue and look beyond prize-bashing. Even while we might be sceptical, we still seem to find something worthwhile in this act of prize-giving, even if just as a talking point.

Like Alfred Nobel before him, Pulitzer felt that by honouring excellence in journalism and the arts prizes might take culture in an “ideal direction”. It’s a sentiment that echoes Matthew Arnold’s memorable definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said”. This might sound naïve to modern ears, but the emphasis on the prize’s wider influence is still relevant.

Prizes are not just the efflorescence of culture; they shape culture. True, they often increase sales for winning authors, but they also set standards of taste, directing us to what we perhaps ought to be reading in place of the bestsellers. And in the case of a nationally specific prize system, such the Pulitzers, they contribute to a historical sense of lived national culture. If we think of culture in Raymond Williams’ terms, as expressing “the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings”, then it becomes clear that this year’s Pulitzer winners stress the continued interdependence of these two aspects of culture.

Pulitzer Poetry winner. Graywolf Press

The Pulitzer Fiction award is awarded to “an American author, preferably dealing with American life”, as is the Drama award. So let’s look at this year’s winners. Baker’s realist drama is set in a dilapidated movie theatre in Massachusetts, and reviewers praise it for emphasising “the continued necessity, and profound uniqueness of theater”.

Tartt’s coming-of-age novel similarly foregrounds how art can continue to direct modern lives. Its protagonist Theo survives a bomb attack at a museum and rescues Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting, The Goldfinch. This propels him on a life of dalliance and crime as he struggles with the loss of his mother until finally he finds reconciliation by returning the painting.

And in Seshadri’s powerful and affecting poems, we’re often shown the value of “straining to reach the shiny object fallen through the grate”, so that we might better understand contemporary culture and its aspirations.

The Pulitzer Advisory Board may well have played it safe by selecting authors who are well established and have already won awards. It might have, for instance, been interesting to find new writers in the final running, as we saw with the Costa Prize this year and in the current shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize.

But these winners, whatever our thoughts on prize culture, have something crucial to tell us about how we value culture more generally on a national and – given America’s current dominance on the international literary scene – on a global scale. They signal the direction in which we’re travelling culturally, and that is something that is definitely worth our attention.