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More Literary Prizes Beget Additional Prizes, Scholar Says

People love prizes. And publishers love it when their books win prizes.

They love it so much that the number of literary prizes is growing faster than the number of books published, according to James English, a University of Pennsylvania English professor and author of “The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value.”

While there were only a handful of literary prizes awarded in this country in the 1920s, and perhaps 20 per 1,000 new titles by 1960, by the end of the 1990s the number of literary prizes had burgeoned to more than 1,000, or about one prize for each 10 new works of fiction.

But that doesn’t stop people from complaining that art is above the tawdriness of prizes or prize money, English says, a somewhat disingenuous stance for artists to take.

“Even though we mock prizes and have all sorts of strategies for signaling our condescension towards them, in fact we take them very seriously,” he told JTA. “The idea of winning a prize continues to be troubling, but the prizes themselves are becoming more powerful.”

While an author’s status 50 years ago was not dependent on prizes won, that is no longer true, he maintains. Articles — or obituaries — about writers typically begins with a list of their prizes, prizes are considered in choosing public speakers, and any writer worth his or her salt had better be “prize-winning,” he notes.

“An effect of having a lot of prizes makes it somewhat mandatory that an author win one,” English says.

Despite the increasing number of literary prizes, the field is far from saturated, he continues. Prizes beget other prizes, in a continual snowball effect.

“A prize for the best Jewish work of fiction translated into English would not have occurred to anyone 30 years ago,” he says, describing the criteria for the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, awarded this week for the first time. “Rather than saturat! ion, it’ s a matter of opening up other opportunities. This new prize makes it more likely that other similar prizes will emerge.”

More literary prizes, especially those that carry cash rewards, help encourage more and better writing by giving authors a boost of confidence and, if the award is large enough, financial support to continue their work.

Author and philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein says the MacArthur Fellowship she won in 1996 gave her the confidence to write “Properties of Light,” a novel about quantum physics, a book she’s more proud of than her other, better-known novels.

“For a young writer to get that vote of confidence, especially from your peers, is so important,” she says.

Stanford University Jewish studies professor Steven Zipperstein, former chair of the Koret Jewish Book Awards, believes there’s nothing wrong with cash awards for working writers.

“The notion that you can actually give enough money to change people’s lives is tremendous,” he says.

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