The Magazine


Joseph Epstein, prizeless.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The MacArthur Fellowships were announced some weeks back, and, for the twenty-seventh year in a row, I did not win one. I could have used the half-million dollars, payable at a rate of $100,000 a year, no doubt about that, but I also find I can live without it. At least no one I loathe won; the only person among this year's winners I have heard of is Alex Ross, the excellent young music critic of the New Yorker. Even better, none of my friends won it, either.

I haven't had great luck with prizes, which is a gentle way of saying that I haven't won many, and when I have, the satisfaction hasn't been anywhere near as complete as one might imagine.

The first prize I won was, at age 14, for sinking 21 of 25 free throws in a free-throw shooting contest at Green Briar Park in Chicago in 1951. My parents allowed me to nail a basket and backboard to our back porch, and I used to shoot a hundred free throws every afternoon, through all seasons. So I wasn't surprised to win the contest at Green Briar. What did surprise me is that I never received the trophy.

I once won $5,000 for something called the Heartland Prize given by the Chicago Tribune for a book of my literary essays, which was gratifying. But when I called my mother to let her know that I had won a prize from the Tribune, she replied, "Oh, we get that junk in the mail all the time. I just throw it out."

Early one evening, checking my voice mail, I heard a message from a woman informing me that a book of my short stories had won a prize named after a deceased novelist, and asking me to call back the next day to discuss the details. All that evening I allowed myself to contemplate the amount of the prize: $10,000? $25,000? I went to bed that night thinking myself $50,000, perhaps $100,000, richer. The next morning I learned that the amount of the prize was $250 and that I was expected to travel to Hartford, Connecticut, to receive it and also prepare a talk to give at the lunch where it was to be awarded. I decided to turn down the prize, with the result that the people who awarded it placed me in their permanent enemies pantheon. Another rainy day in the Republic of Letters.

I've won a few other prizes, been given a medal or two, none of them of sufficient moment to shake me entirely free of doubts about my skill. The problem with almost all prizes and awards in our time is that, even if their sponsors and judges have shown the wisdom to give them to you, they have also, like as not, shown the ignorance to give them to people you know are third-rate. If anyone ever tells you that you are the best at what you do, all you need do to prevent an exaggerated sense of yourself is ask that person who he thinks is second best.

Prizes are one realm where it is better to receive than to give. I have been a judge on a few literary prize panels. The one that gave me most pleasure was that of the Joseph Bennett Award, given by the Hudson Review, because we gave the prize to Andrei Sinyavsky, the Russian dissident writer, who deserved it and a great deal more for his physical and intellectual courage in taking on the juggernaut of the Soviet Union.

I was once paid $1,000 to be, for a year, an official nominator for the MacArthur Fellowships, though none of my nominees won a fellowship. Twice I have been asked to serve on the panel of judges for the Pulitzer Prizes and refused both times because the judges' decisions can be overruled by the main Pulitzer Prize committee.

Perhaps--who knows?--I could have done some useful preventive work here. Years ago I heard that Gertrude Himmelfarb, a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, entered a meeting of her fellow panelists by saying, "I say, boys, we're not going to do the commonplace thing and award the prize this year to X [a standard bien pensant who had written a book about a famous American columnist], are we?" And no doubt they would have done, had she not begun the meeting on that aggressively negative note.

The hard fact is that, while prizes are nice and the money that comes along with the prizes even nicer, what most prizes do is stir the hunger for still more prizes. This point was nicely underscored for me one morning when my friend Edward Shils called to say, "Be careful if you speak today with Saul [Bellow]. They've announced the Nobel Prize for Literature this morning, and he's likely to be feeling touchy because he didn't win it for a second time."