Friday, April 20, 2012

The Plague of Prizes

This week there has been a tempest in a teapot over the Pulitzer (henceforth PUlitzer) committee's failure to award a prize to a novel this year. The website Mondoweiss has an interesting story about Karl Shapiro's winning for poetry in 1945 though the documentary record shows that the committee thought that W. H. Auden was a better candidate. . . . Auden was deemed a dangerous lefty. Little has changed. Such prizes are still highly politicized. Witness the vile Barack Obama's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize (following in the footsteps of great monsters like Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin).

With regard to the PUlitzer this year, I have to admit I've never heard of Shapiro, and I don't think I'm poorly read. One thing we can say with confidence: Auden has stood the test of time better, and a PUlitzer in 1945 didn't have any effect one way or another on that.

My own view is that prizes of the PUlitzer sort (or Nobel or MacArthur or take your pick) are really quite damaging. Some become obsessed with winning the prize. I knew a chemistry prof years ago who had been passed over while his colleague won for work they had collaborated on. The man was bitter beyond the telling of it. The joke among physicists was that it was called the "No-Bell" because the actual discoverer of pulsars — Jocelyn Bell — was ignored by the prize committee while her thesis adviser shared the prize (the physicist who had theoretically predicted the existence of pulsars, Thomas Gold, of Cornell, was also passed over).

Others, having won, can't get past it. And then there's the history of terrible recipients, not least the long list of real monsters who've won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A small handful of people have taken a stand against such prizes. The one who comes immediately to mind is N. David Mermin, physicist at Cornell. His public opposition to a Nobel Prize of any kind cost a stellar Cornell physics department at least a couple of Nobel Prizes in physics. Now, how could that be if the committee were saintly, impartial arbiters of genius that they would like us to believe they are? It's well-known that Graham Greene, though nominated more than any other for the Nobel in literature, never won because there was one person on the committee who swore up and down that no Catholic would ever win as long as he had anything to do with it.

It may be difficult to say whether the PUlitzer in poetry or fiction is politically tainted by short-sighted, narrow-minded bigots on a committee, but the prizes for journalism, history, etc., certainly are. An Eric Hobsbawm or Tony Judt or Edward Said is a wildly unlikely recipient (albeit, not impossible) compared with nice, safe candidates. I was astonished that AP reporters won this year for revealing the gross misconduct of the NYPD. (Giuliani would have called for closing Columbia University.)

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