Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cultural Prizes and Prizes as Culture

This article in the Guardian talks about how awards have turned into cultural totem poles that writers uphold to show their power and prestige in the literary firmament. Nay, it is not confined to things literary per se, even the music and entertainment industry endorse the creation of cultural icons, idols, by heaping awards on their already famous sons (being a writer I am more concerned with how awards affect the hallowed literary wordosphere). Not fair, the article warns, as many deserving, struggling, starving authors, musicians, lyricists, story-tellers are likely to be ignored in the process. True, once awarded the Booker/Oscar, the book/movie carries on with the new tag, "Winner of Booker/Oscar" and goes on to sell a few more million books/tickets, but at what costs? A celebrity is created with the detritus of the deserved acclaim of a hundred writers who languish in anonymity, a book is made a bestseller by sacrificing sales of a hundred other deserving ones. A celebrity writer is "Ooh-, aaah-ed," by the all, deliberately ignoring a few writers who do not even get read by agents and publishing houses. In fact, as they say, "The bitch goddess Success favours the already successful."

In India I guess the system is similar, but a bit more vicious. Here authors are directly in touch with publishers, and publishers do not even entertain first-time authors. Writers aren't welcome in publishing houses, "Let your work speak for itself," one editor tells me eyeing my warily. Speak from under the slush pile, I want to ask. Recently an editor in a publishing house returned my manuscript five months after I submitted it, with a lot of internal office stationery attached to it. "What am I going to do with it?" I wonder. All those returned manuscripts have formed their own slush pile beside my desk, a grim reminder of the progress of my writing career. This is accompanied by my worst nightmares of remaining unpublised.

Some excerpts from the article:

"He would have been even more indignant today. For ours is truly the age of awards. Prizes are becoming the ultimate measure of cultural success and value. One prize inevitably spawns another, in imitation or reaction, as the perceived male dominance of the Booker spawned the Orange Prize for women's fiction. There are now so many, in so many different fields, that it can be difficult to find a professional artist, writer or journalist who has not been shortlisted for a prize."

"The culture is no longer so patient. In a time of information overload - of cultural excess and superabundance - our taste is being increasingly created for us by prize juries and award ceremonies. Art is beginning to resemble sport, with its roster of winners and losers and its spectacles of competition: the Oscars, the Baftas, the Brits. Indeed, the larger cultural festivals and prizes, such as the Venice Biennale, the Oscars and the Nobels, are consciously imitative of international sporting competitions like the Olympics."
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