Adam Gopnik takes stock of why we, as a society, still love literary prizes:
A kind of Devil’s Theory of Value seems to rule: A prize is always assumed to be shining, intact; it is those wrong prize-winners who are discredited by it. When we win it, the world will be restored to its proper balance. We blame the winners, not the prize, for the errors.
Why should this be so?
The bleakest theory is that the purpose of a literary prize is not to reward the deserving but to provoke conversation and controversy within a community. When a prize goes to a Brodsky or a Milosz or a Walcott, the way that once in a blue moon a decent apartment goes to a newcomer in Manhattan, it keeps the game alive.
The real reason that literary prizes are so prized, however, is that prize-giving is intrinsic to the purposes of poetry. From birds to bards, the urge to outdo the other singer is what makes us sing.