Points for Effort
Fatema Ahmed · Well-Meaning Prizes
The submission period for the 2012 PEN American Center’s literary awards is now open and this year there are two new prizes: one for ‘an exceptional story illustrated in a picture book’ ($5000), the other the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction ($25,000), which was set up by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000; it’s only ‘new’ in the sense that PEN took over the administration of it this year. But what is it actually for?
‘Socially responsible literature,’ according to the prize’s ‘founding documents’ (note the slide from ‘engaged’ to ‘responsible’), ‘may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices.’ In case that’s not clear:
It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment.
There’s a list of previous winners which include Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth (Donna Gershten, 2000), The Book of Dead Birds (Gayle Brandeis, 2002) and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Heidi Durrow, 2008). There’s also a list of older writers and books you are more likely to have come across, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Kingsolver’s own The Poisonwood Bible.
The prize is well-meaning, and there’s a writer out there who will be glad of the money and perhaps also for the publishing contract they’ll get (from Algonquin Books). But it’s unusually depressing, even by the generally disheartening standards of literary prizes, precisely because of the value it places on ‘content’, on meaning – as opposed to writing – well.
Would PEN have taken it on in Susan Sontag’s day (she was the organisation’s president in 1989)? In ‘Against Interpretation’ – which has been quoted to death in a way that the Bellwether statement won’t be, but to not enough effect – Sontag argued that ‘interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art.’ If, as Sontag says, ‘the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism’, then it’s hard not to read – to interpret? – the guidelines for the Bellwether Prize in this way.
Its influence may already be apparent, if not on the state of the world then at least on other literary awards. Last month the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation awarded the first Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award – to Barbara Kingsolver. It’s the ‘only annual US literary award recognising the power of the written word to promote peace’. It hardly seems worthy of the man it's named after, of whom Wesley Clark once said: ‘Richard Holbrooke sees power the way an artist sees colour.’ Perhaps PEN (or the Nobel Institute or the heirs of Machiavelli) should start a new award for the Perception of Power. It would be the socially responsible thing to do.