It is unquestionably a good thing that prizes in the arts exist. By and large, artists of all types are underpaid—if paid at all!—and monetary awards help them create or, in many cases, even just subsist. My problem is who or what, and on what basis, is rewarded.
I have never been on the selection committee for a major monetary award, but I have frequently been a voter on New York or national film and theater awards. (Come to think of it, I was once a juror for the Paris Film Festival, but apparently managed to jinx it: it promptly ceased to exist.) Relatively rarely have I agreed on which plays or movies won awards; quite a few of them I downright abominated. The same goes for important awards I only read about.
There is even worse: I frequently had little or no respect for the persons adjudicating these awards. In fact, I was somewhat ashamed—pained by the thought that readers might assume that I actually voted for some of those stinkers. As if my single vote could have made much of a difference by defying the majority.
I vividly recall a session of the National Film Critics’ Society where Hollis Alpert passionately argued for Charles Champlin’s election to the group. I found myself wondering not only about the proposed postulant, but no less also about his ardent champion. What thinking person would want to gain membership predominantly on the efforts of such an advocate?
I likewise recall leaving a meeting with Stanley Kauffmann, whom I respected, and wondered why he had voted for a certain idiot. To which he replied that in a group comprising that many idiots, what difference would one more make. My point, however, was that it further diminished the slender chances of something worthwhile prevailing. Which raises the greater question of who let in the other voters. There is the obvious answer: the jobs they unfortunately held.
Frankly, I can see why first-rate critics might not want to be members of such an organization, although I can also see why they might want to. Being a voting member gives you the (specious) illusion that your views somehow matter, even if not even the whole issue—the unimportance of the occasion--hardly does. So the Oscars are of real interest only in the speeches made by the winners and presenters: who will come off with dignity, and who will make an ass of him or herself? And perhaps also in who will wear what laughably outlandish attire, and who will be in good taste?
Still, not wanting to be a voting member also makes sense. One looks at one’s fellow voters, in a group small enough to fit around a table, and wonders what one has in common with most of these individuals, and what good membership is in an assemblage in which you are visibly outnumbered, and your vote cannot count for much over against twenty or thirty others. And there is such a thing as guilt by association.
And then there is also the dreadful business of political correctness. The Nobel Prize in literature is clearly the most important extant literary award. Now if you look at the list of choices through the years, you are bound to be prey to contrary emotions. Yes, they have chosen some wonderful, often obscure but eminently deserving winners. But no, why on earth would they have picked this or that one?
Some of it has to be P.C. A country that hasn’t had a representative in years, or at all, must—it is high time!—have a winner. And who are we to dispute the choice? How many Egyptian novelists and African poets have we read? Can we truly tell whether this laureate won for being a novelist or for being Peruvian? Or of any other country short on accolades? You may actually stand a better chance of winning if you are from Honduras or Mozambique than if you are from France, England or the U.S.A. Of course, the Nobel Committee will sternly deny that geography has anything to do with it, and they may honestly believe what they are saying, but does that necessarily make it true?
I am guessing that it does for the current winner, Alice Munro. Regrettably, I have never read one of her stories, but I am ready to believe that the award was justified, having read many glowing and credible critiques of her work. The very fact that she has published numerous volumes of short stories, but eschewed novels, speaks for her. Surely the short story is the undervalued and relatively unrewarded cousin of the novel, yet to have steadily favored it may be proof of some kind of artistic valor and magnanimity. Also speaking for the bountiful Ms. Munro, now in her early eighties, is that, before winning her Nobel, she declared that she would write no more.
To acknowledge some sort of limitation in oneself is praiseworthy, but it is especially noble (not Nobel) to know when to stop something you are famous for. Just think of the enormous number of artists in any field who did not know when enough was enough, and went on turning out repetitive, diminished, even worthless work. This even holds for singers, who surely ought to know when their song has turned into a croak.
Then think also how hard things must be for the members of the Nobel Committee who surely cannot know all the many languages in which numerous writers publish, given also that translations from many of them do not exist, and even if they do, cannot readily be trusted. Lyric poetry, for one thing, is virtually untranslatable. So how does one pick a winner among thousands upon thousands? It is no surprise that there have been a few Nobel lit winners who sank back into justified oblivion. The wonder is how many have not.
Lamentable, too, are some of the Pulitzer Prize winners for drama. Nilo Cruz leaps to mind. Am I then against awards? Not at all. If anything, I am for more of them. Imagine if every American who wrote a play got something like a Pulitzer. The result would be that, among heaps of tripe, no genuine talent would be overlooked.