Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Dead Need Not Apply

In an essay at the Harvard Crimson, Sanders Bernstein opines that literary awards should be reserved for living authors. His essay was sparked by the recent posthumous bestowal of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction on Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Bernstein's primary argument is that book prizes are "supposed to encourage further production of literature," which cannot be accomplished by dead authors. If the posthumously awarded prize happens to carry a monetary award, that award is squandered on the dead author's family rather than awarded to a living author who might use the funds to continue producing worthy literature. Bernstein asks: "How does this serve to promote the arts? ... How does it serve to inspire new creative works?" Bernstein concludes that "in the cash-strapped world of letters, it is more important than ever that the moneys within are channeled to the warm bodies that can produce the next White Whale and not to skeletons that will merely rest in the muck."

In response to Bernstein's essay, the Literary Saloon says this is "the kind of argument that drives us nuts." Their primary point: "The product should be rewarded, not the producer (hence also our annoyance with those headlines that read, e.g. 'Bolaño wins NBCC Prize'; Bolaño did not win the NBCC fiction prize, 2666 did)."

Although I sympathize with Literary Saloon's ideals, I also understand the practicalities raised by Bernstein. There's not much prize money and publicity to go around, so doesn't it make sense to use those resources in the way most likely to support future production of great literature?

1 comment:

Robert Nagle said...

given the precarious state of the publishing industry and declining advances, I think prize money is turning out to be a major means of support for storytellers.

I hate the arbitrary aspects to prizes, but it is a necessity.

Dead vs. alive: I don't have problems with awards for recently dead (i.e., in the last year or so) as long as the author was alive when the book was submitted.

I also have problems with awards given for Collected Stories which includes stories from older collections. (but on a case-by-case basis, this may be inevitable).

Wouldn't it be nice to have a Bad Novel Tax--whereby someone would read commercial novels and assess taxes based on awfulness. Maybe there could be mandatory rebates for those who bought the winning books?