William Gaddis was a bitter writer and, to be fair, he had more than enough reasons to be that way. When, in 1955, he published his first novel, The Recognitions, the majority of critics – that infamous breed – did not think much of the 956-page tour de force. Nonetheless, the few that managed to read it – yes, it is true, there was gloating about the fact that some of them had not read it – compared it to Ulysses, and in a good way: the Ulysses of the 1950s. It was only twenty years later, with the publication of his second novel JR, which won the National Book Award, that, in retrospect, the appropriately titled The Recognitions won the prestige it had deserved in the first place.
Despite its belated fame, in 1962 Jack Green defended Mr. Gaddis. In an essay entitled 'Fire the Bastards', Mr. Green compiled, exposed and corrected all the mistakes, misinterpretations and, in short, the mess the critics had made by not reading the book.
In his posthumous novel Agap? Agape Mr. Gaddis has a dig at the critics, the readers, the writers and the institutions:
'Write what they want and you'll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you tight to the grave. Maybe won the George Cross even the Nobel but once you've been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies (...) The prize winners? They're just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories' (GADDIS).
It is not only in the US market that prizes proliferate. In the UK, with a large reading population, the awards are plentiful: the Author's Club First Novel Award, Booker Prize, Branford Boase Award, Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize, British Book Awards, Commonwealth Writers Prize, Costa Book Awards, CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, Guardian First Book Award, Hawthornden Prize, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Macmillan Fiction Prize, New Writing Ventures, Orange Prize for Fiction, The Orwell Prize, Ruth Hadden Memorial Award, Samuel Johnson Prize, Somerset Maugham Award; and this is not a comprehensive list. But what does it mean to receive an award? Or, what does it tell the reader? Who is the award for, in the end?
Strange as it seems, television and radio play an important part in this. When books and literature were still the most important medium for information and knowledge transmission and inscription, critics were there to tell you what to read and how to read it. The advent of radio and television meant that literature was no longer the superior media, and literary critics turned mainly to academia for their audience.
These days, the award, any award, fulfils the same function as the literary critic did before radio and television: it is a barometer of quality in literature; it informs the reader of what to read. And, by the same token, it gives due credit to a good writer.
If only things were that simple. In fact, to receive an award is more about the influence of one's agent or one's publisher than the merit of the writer. The latter is not excluded, of course, but it is not, however, the rule. To receive an award is a certification of commercial success, similar to making Richard and Judy's Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn lists. Instead of rewarding good writing, awards exist to put more money in publisher's pockets, and seldom promote ground-breaking literature: a writer that takes pride in his or her craft is more likely to be happy to not receive an award. Mr Gaddis was right; receiving an award has become a stigmatising experience.
In a time when educated literary criticism is confined to the über-conservative academic milieu, awards should exist to reward those writers who are not afraid to push the boundaries of literature and, therefore, to inform and educate the reader. Unfortunately, awards have become the tools of consumerist and neo-capitalist interests, and publishing lobbies that are seriously threatening the art of literature.