Thomas Frank at The Baffler:
In his 2005 study of prize-giving, The Economy of Prestige, the English professor James English takes note of the dizzying proliferation of honors and awards in recent decades—it’s “a kind of cultural frenzy,” he writes. “Just indexing all these prizes is a daunting task.” Indeed it is. In the course of researching this article, I discovered numerous distinctions I had never heard of before, including the American Creativity Association’s Special Achievement Award, a right-wing imitation of the Genius Grant called the Bradley Prize (every conservative newspaper columnist will eventually get one), and a literary honor that is named for Rob Bingham, a friend of mine who died tragically in 1999.
What James English tells us about the countless foundations and academies that make these awards is that they are not simply neutral observers, impartially recognizing merit from some lofty height. They are always engaged in a cultural project of their own—usually to establish themselves as authorities and their own concerns as correct ones.
In pursuit of that project, all award programs face the same problems. Because the reputation of the prize must itself be established for the academy in question to set about judging the merits of others, all prize programs gravitate toward convention. They tend overwhelmingly to reward people whose reputations are already made. Indeed, as the competition between prizes grows more intense, English tells us, the pressure to associate a prize with safe and unquestionably prestigious figures only grows.