Sunday, May 16, 2004


It is true, as somebody suggested, that I can figure out who is posting anonymously, even pseudonymously, to the comments section of this weblog. I’ve sent the fellow – you knew it was a guy, didn’t you? – who was railing on Fence this past week a note, but as he’s already apologized (albeit anonymously) I won’t out him.


His paranoia – especially with the conspiratorial tones regarding Iowa City – reminds me more than a little of Foetry, a curious little act of literary muckraking. Foetry’s argument is simple enough – many literary contests either are rigged or might as well be, given the numerous points of contact between judges, hosts & winners. While the website’s thesis falls apart somewhat when it gets down to specifics, its deeper premise is even more true than I think they themselves imagine. Because poetry is social – not, repeat not, individual – all poetry contests, awards, prizes, fellowships, you name it, are always rigged all of the time. That’s not the important distinction. Some of them are competently done and others are not – that’s one important distinction. Certain groups of human beings have organized themselves more tightly around such institutions than others – that’s another point worth discussing, tho it’s not quite the same thing.


What do I mean by this? First, that there is no method known to human beings to remove the social from a social practice, but this is what would be required to fully expunge personal preference from the process of identifying “the best” manuscript. For the most part, blind screening such as is done, for example, by that National Endowment for the Arts, simply inserts a filter of incompetence as a randomizing factor. But ultimately the judges, real human beings, will sort what makes it through this literary spawning challenge to select those texts to which they most respond.


The idea of prohibiting judges from selecting their students or former students or colleagues or spouses or even the cute kid they slept with at the writer’s conference last summer, however you want to define that, even maybe just the one they thought they wanted to sleep with, is the kind of pro forma rule you put in place precisely because you don’t trust the competence of the judge or judges in the first place. The most significant volume ever published in the Yale Younger Poets Series, John Ashbery’s Some Trees, was virtually recruited by W.H. Auden. It wasn’t even Ashbery’s first book. Yet one might point to it as an example of “the process” working at its finest. Auden picked the best possible manuscript by a young writer available, and did a better job locating it than the bureaucratic procedures put in place by the Yale University Press.


What seems to me more disturbing, actually, is the idea anyone would have that a prize, whether it’s the Nobel or Jimmy’s Crush List, represents some kind of “objective” or “impartial” validation. That isn’t how prizes work – it’s the other way around: the winner validates the prize. Or not, as the case may be. Consider, for example, the Oscars. Does anyone imagine that giving the Best Picture award to a film such as Rocky or Chicago or Out of Africa means that these celluloid dogs can dance? It’s the same for the Pulitzer.


It’s this need for external validation that strikes me as sad, finally, though I’m sure I crave it just as badly as the next human being, maybe more. What makes it sad is what it says about how our culture doesn’t let us value the act of writing itself, for its own sake, as its own reward. And that craving, that index of our own lack of self-confidence, is what is exploited by contests, especially those that are intended not to find, say, publishable manuscripts, but just to raise funds. Are they any worse than the flood of writing conferences that the School o’ Quietude puts on each summer? Contests are cheaper & leave you with fewer mosquito bites. But you might enjoy a week in the woods with like-minded people a whole lot more.


So Foetry might be right in the most trivial sense, but it’s so completely missing the larger picture that it warrants the great So What. The real story about literary prizes isn’t who picks whom, but the larger anthropological question of how value is concentrated & assigned, both across society & within ourselves.


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