The Meaning of Literary Prizes

I

Two hundred years from now, when subjects for Ph. D. theses will be even further to seek than they are to-day, when there will hardly be a minor poet, an obscure essayist, or an obscene fiction writer whose past has escaped these academic detectives — in that dim future some bright boy will suddenly begin to wonder about the Literary Prizes of the Twentieth Century, and his degree will be assured. For prizes are a phenomenon of our time: their foundation coincides with the increasing popularity of reading; their revenues have helped to liberate authors from commercial competition, and their recognition is, in a generous sense, the equivalent of what the laurel wreath meant to the Greek and what royal or Medici patronage meant to the Renaissance artist or poet. Cash, it seems, is the most satisfying reward an industrial age can bestow; it is our most powerful stimulant for new enterprise. Four hundred thousand francs are held to-day in trust by the French Academy for the first person to establish communication with the planet Mars. We offer cash awards for the daring exploits in aviation, cash awards for those who most advance the cause of peace, cash awards for the winners of dance marathons. Our writers are stimulated by the same inducement.

Prizes played little part in the literature of the nineteenth century. Certain honors, it is true, were reserved for the mature few: in England a gentle pasture was apportioned to that elderly browser, the Poet Laureate; there was an occasional title conferred upon a writer at the Birthday Honours, and in a pinch there were grants — Samuel Johnson long hoped for one a century earlier— bestowed by king or wealthy patron upon an author in need. But such endowments were very rare. And in the United States they took the more indirect form of sinecures. Nathaniel Hawthorne was made our Consul at Liverpool; Herman Melville sought a similar appointment to relieve his financial worries, and even as recently as 1904 you will find President Roosevelt placing Edwin Arlington Robinson in the Customs Office as a means of encouraging the poetry to come. But writers of the nineteenth century, writers whom we now classify under the tag of ’Victorian,’ seldom secured such relief. They found hope in the fact that the reading public was steadily widening, they sighed with relief when in the 1880’s the passage of copyright laws put an end to pirated editions, and they were thankful for the serialization of their work, indicating, as it did, a fresh source of earned income. But cash awards were left out of their reckoning.

The first literary prizes to appear in the twentieth century were without any stigma of commercialism: the Nobel Prizes in Sweden, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina in France, the Hawthornden Prize in England, the Pulitzer Prizes in the United States, however they might qualify the age, nationality, or subject matter of the author, were, broadly speaking, rewards in recognition of literary excellence.

The Nobel Prizes1 perpetuate the memory and wealth of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a Swedish inventor whose fortune was made by his discovery of dynamite in 1865-1866. As if to counteract the danger of some of his inventions, his will provided as beneficent a series of gifts as could well be imagined. In 1850 Nobel visited the United States, where he served an apprenticeship under an elder Scandinavian inventor, John Ericsson, who was one day to design the Monitor, but whose livelihood at that time was very precarious. Perhaps it was the remembrance of those struggling years that first gave Nobel the idea of a fund to aid scientists in their experiments, and to support them during their terms of discouragement. As his fortune enlarged, so did the idea of his bequest. On his death he willed that the interest on his capital should each year be divided into five prizes, one to be awarded in the domain of Physics, one in Chemistry, one in Physiology or Medicine, one in the cause of Peace, and one in Literature. According to the will the latter is to be given annually to ‘ the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency.’ The choice is made by the Swedish Academy. The value of the award, which now fluctuates between forty and forty-eight thousand dollars, ought to be sufficient to provide security for any intellect — save perhaps those in the U. S. S. R.

The Prix Goncourt, since its first award in 1903, has proved to be the most exciting, the most coveted plum in France. It goes almost invariably to a young writer and its influence is more marked than the citations which the French Academy bestows upon the mossbacks. The Prix Goncourt, as has been well said, is a ‘steppingstone, not a tombstone.’ One other award in France has had its repercussions abroad. In 1904 two French periodicals, Femina and La Vie Heureuse, joined forces in awarding a prize of five thousand francs to ‘the best work of imagination in the French language’ — the best, that is to say, in the eyes of a committee of French women writers. In the amity of post-war feeling the Femina Committee created a like prize which, since 1919, they have conferred upon English authors. And in 1932 they created the Prix Femina Américain.

The most valuable literary awards in Great Britain are, first, the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes which, in the spring of the year, are adjudged to a biography and a novel of British origin, ‘the best’ in this case being determined by the professor of English at Edinburgh; secondly, the Hawthornden Prize, which is designed for ‘the best work of imaginative literature’ by an English writer under forty-one. The Pulitzer Prizes in Letters are similarly confined to American authors, and by the original deed of gift were somewhat restricted in subject matter as well.

That the latter restrictions might prove onerous was little suspected by the Committee when in May 1926 they awarded the novel prize to Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. Mr. Lewis was a realist who occasionally saw life as through a glass darkly. He is also a redhead and it irked him to think that his work should be regarded as having conformed to any set formula. His rejection of the award followed swiftly on the heels of the original announcement ; his action caught the front page, and the reasons for it were explained by Mr. Lewis in the following letter which was printed in the Publishers’ Weekly of May 8: —

I wish [so wrote Mr. Lewis to the Pulitzer Prize Committee] to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reason.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given ‘for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American manners and manhood.’ This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

That there is such a limitation of the award is little understood. Because of the condensed manner in which the announcement is usually reported and because certain publishers have trumpeted that any novel which has received the Pulitzer Prize has thus been established without qualification as the best novel, the public has come to believe that the prize is the highest honor which an American novelist can receive.

The Pulitzer Prize for Novels signifies, already, much more than a convenient thousand dollars to be accepted even by such writers as smile secretly at the actual wording of the terms. It is tending to become a sanctified tradition. There is a general belief that the administrators of the prize are a pontifical body with the discernment and the power to grant the prize as the ultimate proof of merit. It is believed that they are always guided by a committee of responsible critics, though in the case both of this and other Pulitzer Prizes, the administrators can, and sometimes do, quite arbitrarily reject the recommendations of their supposed advisers.

If already the Pulitzer Prize is so important, it is not absurd to suggest that in another generation it may, with the actual terms of the award ignored, become the one thing for which any ambitious novelist will strive; and the administrators of the prize may become a supreme court, a college of cardinals, so rooted and so sacred that to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy. Such is the French Academy, and we have had the spectacle of even an Anatole France intriguing for election.

Only by regularly refusing the Pulitzer Prize can novelists keep such a power from being permanently set up over them.

Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and its training school, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies, every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.

I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions, we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judge of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.2

Whatever the provocation, the wording which defined the Pulitzer Prize Novel was subsequently changed. That fiction award is now intended for ’the best novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It may be added that Mr. Lewis had no thought of declining the Nobel Prize when it came his way four years later.

II

The Nobel Prize is unquestionably the greatest honor in the contemporary world of letters. It favors no nationality; it takes into account not one book but the entire range of a writer’s work, and naturally enough it is awarded in most cases in the autumn of a career when maturity has had its say. It is, in short, recognition of achievement and an epitaph of the past. Obviously, I make an exception of the one American prize winner when I say this: Mr. Lewis, I hope, has many years of production ahead.

The lesser prizes which I have specified are more partisan in their intent, more contemporary in their choice. In terms of hard cash not one of them amounts to much more than one fortieth of the Nobel Prize. But they possess a sterling virtue which as an editor I am quick to appreciate. They single out an author who might otherwise be neglected; they beat the drum for him, they remind you that here’s a man whose book you can’t afford to miss. Few bookmen in England had heard of Henry Williamson until the Hawthornden Prize helped to illuminate the value of his Tarka the Otter. When the judges of the Prix Goncourt in 1933 chose Man’s Fate by André Malraux for their award they called your and my attention to one of the most vigorous of the younger talents in France. In the first eleven months of its publication, a first novel, Now in November, by Josephine Johnson, sold approximately 10,000 copies. During the forty-eight hours following its selection for the Pulitzer Prize the publishers received 9000 reorders. In short, these lesser national prizes act as a stimulant not only to the writer but to the public. No one not in the trade can have a fair idea of the battle of books. The competition between authors is more fierce, more unrelenting, to-day than ever I can think of. Democracy did not complete its education when it trained the crowd how to read. Once you begin to relish books you are tempted to write them. And there’s the rub. Despite the lean years since 1930, despite the reduction in office force, despite the recognized and drastic decline in book buying, American publishers cannot bring themselves to issue less than approximately 5000 new and different titles every year. If a college graduate consumes twenty-five books in a twelve-month he’s doing better than average. Do those two figures balance?

There is evidently a crying need for emphasis and selection. The point is that literary prizes made their appearance at a time when more books were being written than the public could possibly enjoy, at a time when some selective, or, if you like, some exterminating process was urgently needed by the casual reader, and — for this is equally patent — at a time when the industry of writing had become so overpopulated that writers were unable to secure a decent recognition, much less a good butter-and-eggs livelihood. A substantial cash prize, you see, had the effect of making almost everybody happy: deserving new literature was set apart for immediate attention; the reader was given an incentive to buy and talk about a book such as he never experienced before, and the author was given not only a feather for his cap but a bank roll nearly sufficient to pay his debts.

A theatrical producer or an editor knows that not until the public begins to talk about his play or his book is success definitely in sight. ‘Word-of-mouth advertising,’ like sex appeal or an infectious laugh, is something money cannot buy. It goes without saying that people will talk about a prize winner: half of them will praise it to the skies, the other half will say that they can’t for the life of them see why the judges picked it out. Not even the Nobel Prizes are exempt from this hypercriticism. The expostulation of certain old but rather well-known fogies concerning the nomination of Mr. Sinclair Lewis was enough to make one grin. There is a perversity in us that sets us to finding fault the moment we hear that someone or something is acknowledged as extraordinary. But, perverse or otherwise, tongues will always wag when honors are awarded. So reputations are made.

It did not take publishers long to recognize that the acclaim, the emphasis, given to a prize book was the best advertising possible. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction is said to prompt reorders of from thirty to sixty thousand copies. Well, thinks your ambitious editor, why not award a prize of our own: we’ll consult some nonpartisan judges, we’ll grade the candidates as fairly as possible, and we’ll have at least one book on our list that the public will want to read. Thus by a logical step literary prizes passed into commerce. We have to-day prize contests for short stories, for first novels, for college humor, prize contests for mystery stories and for non-fiction, for manuscripts which are to be serialized, published, translated, dramatized, broadcast, and finally dumped into Hollywood.

III

It is, I think, rather amusing to conjecture what goes on behind the closed doors of the Swedish Academy when the Nobel Prizes are at stake, what passes through the mind of that solitary Scotch professor before he confers the James Tait Black awards, what ideals, what motives, and what apprehensions plague those carefully veiled committees which dispense the Pulitzer Prizes. The Swedes must take a bird’s-eye view of all contemporary literature. What about that Argentine with the unpronounceable name — is he really first-rate and are Argentine reviewers to be trusted? And what about Herr Schnapps, who has been banished from the Fatherland and whose books have been burned by Der Führer? What about Signor Ravioli who has been banished from Italy and whose life works have been condemned by Mussolini? What about Ivan Caviar, that Russian exile novelist now being lionized in Paris? You can picture the international complications. And meanwhile in other countries responsible souls — the English professor at Edinburgh, the French ladies of the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the frowning representatives of Mr. Pulitzer — are cogitating upon ‘the best’ — really the best — novel, play, or biography of the year. Snooks has never had it — but his last book was such vieux jeu. Why must Jones be so sensual — is n’t he doing it to catch the public eye? That Brown woman writes very well, but she has n’t a thing worth saying! . . . ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we take pleasure in announcing . . . ’

But it is no longer a matter of conjecture as to what happens when a publisher awards a prize. I have weathered eight book competitions, my duties being those of the presiding editor and one of the final judges. Eight spring freshets of manuscripts have periodically swept into our shop. When the men from the shipping room stop bringing them up by hand, when along the hall come the creaking wheels of the office truck loaded to the gunwales with those unmistakable brown packages, I know that the season of competition has arrived. Long picnic tables (but this is no picnic) are laid out on wooden horses and upon them are stacked the candidates as fast as they can be opened and registered in our file. To catalogue a thousand manuscripts so that each may — if necessary — be returned to its rightful address with the provided insurance and postage is an exacting task. Manuscripts should not be lost in transit; no two of them should be allowed to inhabit the same cardboard box — though, like lovers, they will try to if you are not careful; care also must be taken that the readers’ reports — blunt and outspoken as they can be — are not inadvertently sent home with the rejected. We want no hurt feelings. Meantime my desk has been deluged with envelopes of illustrations, letters containing last chapters which were inadvertently omitted from one or another of the candidates, affidavits intended to prove that an historical drama of Henry VIII in rhymed couplets is true, every word of it — these and half a hundred other complaints, inquiries, and protestations swamp my correspondence baskets.

When those details crowd in on me for attention I realize why Rip Van Winkle went away.

To meet the emergency a staff of first readers take their place in the office, tried and true critics who have responded to my call on previous occasions. And then we begin to fish our stream. To make our routine picturesque, think of us as salmon fishermen, casting the day long. The small fry — I am sending you an 18,000-word painting of my Uncle William, a sea captain,’ or, I hope you will want this 20,000-word book on God versus Science,’ manuscripts under the required length — are dropped back into the current as fast as they come. But it takes more time to separate the bright fish from the kelts (which have length, but little weight or brilliance). Manuscripts judged to be without hope are marked with the letter ‘D’ — not for ‘damnation,’ but ‘decline’ — and beneath this stigma is written a report, as short and telling as possible. The ‘D’s’ are stacked up on one special table and there they await my inspection. For as the presiding editor, the veteran angler, as it were, I must make sure that nothing good has been lost sight of. I shall never forget an incident that occurred early in my experience. In the midst of examining a pile of ‘D’s’ I came upon a substantial manuscript, carefully typed and bound, which for reasons unexpressed the first reader had ticketed as ‘on the whole a rather vulgar story.’ I had not read far in it myself before I realized that ‘vulgar’ was not the word. That book was eventually awarded the prize. The first reader’s license was not renewed.

The unmistakably bright fish are, of course, of different weights and sizes. They are played more slowly, and when a good one comes to the surface a shout goes up and the word spreads. They, too, are segregated on a special table from which they will be withdrawn for two, three, or half a dozen readings, depending upon the insistence of their claims. Each reader as he finishes sums up his own conclusions and adds them to the dossier. This judging of the bright fish goes on long after the last hopeless manuscript has been returned to its maker. The number narrows down from thirty to fifteen, and again to seven or eight. A typewritten digest of the opinions passed upon these finalists is then prepared for the five editorial judges, and at last, when the atmosphere has become decisive, a round-table meeting is held: the digests are discussed, a vote taken — and a telegram of congratulations dispatched. This business of selection occupies from eight to nine weeks. The effect upon the readers is exciting and wearing; the pace of the work tires the eyes and upsets the digestion. In a recent contest we judged 1400 manuscripts totaling approximately 98 million words.

I have said that every manuscript save those disqualified by being too short is read at least twice. This is true — though it is not to say that they are read from cover to cover. A precedent insists that a reader give the first fifty pages of every manuscript a fair hearing. Remembering how important are our first impressions throughout life, it would seem to me only natural that a writer should spend a good deal of time satisfying himself that his story gets off to a good start. Within the first fifty pages an impression is created of whether or not the author is at home with words, whether he is a stylist; within their scope the narrative has to be set in motion and the characters introduced to the reader and identified with enough magnetism to make one wish to know them better. Spotty typing, errors in spelling or punctuation, won’t worry a trained reader. He is intent on something else: he has got to keep his ear tuned for the really distinctive style and his eye on the lookout for a manuscript which, however rough it may appear on the surface, has within it the makings of a good book. If the style is plainly unimpressive, the reader will begin to skip forward, reading for the story alone, watching the development of the plot and character and giving particular heed to the climax. When Mary shoots John, when the automobile goes over the cliff, when the sea captain sinks or swims, then you can tell whether the book will meet the test of credibility.

It can be a grind, this search for the hidden talent, but, like anything worth doing, it is relieved by touches of unsuspected humor along the way. Mixed metaphors, figures that have slipped out of hand, characterizations which tell more than they intend, have a way of rewarding the eyes when least expected.

Let us suppose that I turn into my tenth manuscript on a rainy April morning and find at the outset this introductory letter from the author: —

GENTLEMEN:

Am entering this novel for consideration in your Prize Contest. The work has been truly inspired. God gave it to me almost chapter by chapter with but a minimum of interference on my part from December 1st to March 25th. Trusting the results with God and you, I remain . . .

Suppose that several hours later I am laboring with another and quite different novel when suddenly I am rewarded by this happy characterization : —

Sarah Lovelock’s face with its mass of bright bobbed hair was very intriguing. Her conversation, when surrounded by men, bubbled, not gushed, but she was capable of long discussion that had depth, too.

Or again, suppose that the end of the day is at hand. I reach for just one more candidate to complete my quota and find that not altogether unexpected phenomenon, a travel diary disguised as a tourist romance but based, as the young author tells us, upon ‘a good memory which is common to people who love profoundly.’ The work is illustrated with picture postcards. And in the spring of 1934 there is this sobering thought: —

March 30. Liverpool.

A terrible thing has happened. Mrs. Purvis was killed. Her neck was broken by being folded up in a folding bed. Evidently she and Mr. Purvis were unfamiliar with the contraption: when he got up he touched the wrong button or something slipped. Anyhow it folded up quick as a wink before he could do a thing. It was very sudden and very grave.

I sometimes think I know more about my acquaintances after they are gone.

Believe me, such accidents are not confined to the work of amateurs. They have been known to occur in the pages of the best-equipped writers. If I allude to them it is not to sneer, but rather to pay my respects to those touches of natural comedy which are so heaven-sent in relieving the tension of our day.

Sometime in the course of our judging a single bright manuscript will emerge — to use our fishing figure for the last time, call it a 36-pound Restigouche salmon — which is gradually recognized as having set a standard. As reader after reader examines this work the conviction grows that the other contenders will either have to surpass this competitor or be dismissed. Is this evidence of that conformity which Mr. Sinclair Lewis found so objectionable? I don’t think so. For the truth is that we have no preconceived notion of what the standard-bearer is to be. Having judged a number of previous competitions, we are of course familiar with the points of excellence in the previous prize winners. But we recognize, and so I believe does Mr. Lewis, who has himself acted as a judge in the Harper contests, that neither among the judges nor among the more promising competitors is there any determination to repeat a success.

It not infrequently happens that two such standard-bearers appear, books which have no more resemblance than that between a dancing pump and a riding boot. Compared with these two the other finalists are clearly also-rans. Each of the two books, of course, has its supporters, and when the time comes to argue their respective merits the question is not, ‘Which will sell the best?’ The question is simply, ‘Which is the more interesting, the more distinctive book?’ Whatever the terms of the award may be and however the competition may be restricted, — whether for first novels, for proletarian novels, or for books of non-fiction, — the decision in the end and in the mind of every judge must be determined by this double-barreled query: ‘Is it interesting and is it distinctive?’

The initial distinction between literary awards and publishers’ prizes is simple enough. The first is a recognition of achievement; the second, a stimulant to evoke the best work procurable. Literary awards in most cases are conferred upon writers of established reputation; publishers’ prizes, on the other hand, are much more apt to single out new writers of promise. I think Mr. Lewis is right when he asserts that all prizes are ‘dangerous.’ In the case of literary awards there is always the danger that the honor may become too sanctified, the definition of the winner too rigid, the deliberations of the committee too pompous. In the case of the publishers’ prizes there is the danger — an insistent one to-day — that too much may be expected of the prize-winning book. It is one thing to offer a prize for a book of whatever subject. But in my judgment it is much more difficult and much more fallacious to hold out a prize for a manuscript which will be at once a good book, a good magazine serial, a good plot for a play, and a good scenario for Hollywood. When prize offers are put together representing those four industries, the chances are four to one that Hollywood will win. You may get an exciting yarn, but the chances are four to one that it won’t be literature. Such dangers must be clear enough to any reflective reader. But to say that a thing is dangerous is not to say that it is essentially bad. Literary awards and publishers’ prizes both, it seems to me, have proved their worth. In a time of overproduction they have provided us with a much-needed method of selection. More often rightly than wrongly, they have held up for the public’s regard a book to be read; not infrequently they have been the moans of discovering genuine talent. Prizes, I think, are the best form of patronage surviving in a democratic world of letters.

  1. For these details I am indebted to The Nobel Prize Winners in Literature, 1901-1931, by Annie Russell Marble. — AUTHOR
  2. Writing on August 8, 1935, Mr. Lewis comments on his own letter: ‘I still think this is a reasonable comment on prizes in general, although I do think that the standard of freedom in the judging of novels for the Pulitzer Prize has vastly improved in the nine years since 1926, when I wrote the above. Certainly Now in November by Josephine Johnson was an admirable choice.’ — AUTHOR