Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The art of prize-fighting
January 2009 - Prospect

Prizes are a vital part of the modern market for serious literature, but they're also increasingly flawed and compromised. At their best, however, they can still be an important mechanism for ensuring literature's future as a public art
Tom Chatfield
Tom Chatfield is Prospect's arts and books editor

Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog
It is a central paradox of writing that true greatness only becomes apparent over time, and yet that the judgements of the future are substantially dependent on what the present chooses to publish, publicise and preserve. Viewed from the pinnacles of hindsight, literary history looks like a stately procession of great texts.

A snapshot taken at any particular moment, however, reveals a far messier business; one clogged with readers, writers, commercial obligations, prejudices and misconceptions. Everything we might call the canon of literature those enduring works that collectively form a standard we judge others by is busily being forged or maintained within that snapshot. And somewhere close to the heart of this business lies one of the most ancient and contentious of all artistic institutions: the literary prize. Prizes are an attempt to mould, and to pre-empt, posterity. Their answers rarely satisfy; they seem, sometimes, to possess an astonishing capacity for ignoring talent. Yet they occupy an increasingly crucial, and volatile, position amid those imperfect processes by which writing is turned into literature.

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