The project “Contemporary Literature’s Vexed Democratization” is featured in an essay of the Los Angeles Review of Books, published on January 9, 2023. NULab Core Faculty members Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, with recent contributions from Claire Grossman, have worked to create a first-of-its-kind index of literary prizes. This project was awarded a NULab seedling grant in fall 2022 to support the next stages of its development.
Spahr and Young have published portions of their work and findings in the LARB in 2015 and the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present’s journal ASAP/J in 2020. Following the beginning of Grossman’s efforts for the project, the trio published more of their findings throughout 2021 in a Public Books essay, and later in the American Literary History Journal.
The LARB essay, “Fuck the Poetry Police: On the Index of Major Literary Prizes in the United States” by Dan Sinykin, details this years-long effort. The index contains the winners of prizes awarded between 1918 and 2022 worth $10,000 or more when adjusted for inflation, and tracks additional statistics like the race and gender of the winner, the judges of the prize, and from where they earned their degrees.
Sinykin, who is Assistant Professor of English at Emory University, writes a succinct and entertaining essay that pithily highlights some of the index’s most striking statistics. According to Sinykin, “Grossman, Spahr, and Young show how a small group of writers who served often as judges wielded disproportionate influence … [and] often prizes appear reciprocal: those who give later receive, and vice versa.” It turns out, if you want to win a literary prize for poetry at any point in the future, it might help to get a degree from Harvard University, an MFA from the University of Iowa, publish with Penguin Random House, and then quickly make friends with Carl Phillips.
The essay also includes an insightful discussion about the scholarly decisions which were part of the creation of the index, and what sort of insights the index offers to the hierarchical and highly biased world of the arts.