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Have you heard that Marlon James won the Man Booker for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings? It may have been hard to miss the news. This followed on the heels of Svetlana Alexievich receiving the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Which came not so long after the MacArthur Fellows were announced.

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The one piece of cultural news you are sure to hear from media venues high, low, and social is the awarding of prizes. In fact, you may have heard the one about there now being more prizes than there are writers and artists to receive them. To help separate the whales from the small fry of prizes, the International Congress of Distinguished Awards maintains an International Center for Data on Awards.

So why so many prizes? What is the cultural logic of the prize? James F. English notes that a lot of attention is paid to prize-giving, but not much of this attention is scholarly. This may be ironic, or self-protective, considering that academia is an arena full of prizes and awards.

English wants to remedy this deficiency. His analysis is based on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and examines the modes of the cultural production of prestige. In this light, a prize is a piece of “objectified symbolic capital” and “an instrument of exchange and conversion with its own particular rules of operation.” English asks “just what value do prizes carry in the postmodern economy of cultural prestige, and how do they retain this value in the face of their seemingly numerous and powerful detractors?”

English demonstrates how the denigration and criticism of prize-giving, not to mention all the mockery, is part of a new cultural game that has prioritized winning and its discontents. Indeed, the usual scandals about the Man Booker Prize serve to market the award and have helped to make it one of the most famous prizes in the world.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel in 1964 (he said the writer must “refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances”) took place in a completely different cultural context from that of Toni Morrison’s more recent active campaigning for awards. Those who criticized her were still thinking under an old paradigm when such awards, and their acceptance or rejection, meant something else. English lays out some of the rules of the new paradigm of prestige production, and doesn’t spare the gossip.


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New Literary History, Vol. 33, No. 1, Reconsiderations of Literary Theory, Literary History (Winter, 2002) , pp. 109-135
The Johns Hopkins University Press