Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Common sense tells us that writers and artists shouldn’t worry about receiving literary awards. Nevertheless, they do worry about these things, despite the self-inflicted damage this may cause to their egos in the absence of such prizes. In a recent article, “Is Mine Bigger Than Yours?,” in Buddhadharma (Winter 2010), I touch upon this subject in terms of scholar Richard Hayes’s discussion of the Sanskrit word maana, usually translated as “pride,” which in Buddhist literature is one of the impediments to our experiencing peace, awakening, and liberation. The word is derived from a verbal root that means “to measure.” So maana is the act of measuring ourselves against others, something we do 24/7 (even when we pretend that we don’t). We have been conditioned to constantly do this all our lives, from our earlier years of receiving grades that measure our academic progress to the promotions we seek on our jobs. Nothing could be more human since we are social animals and learn by imitation. If we did not do this measuring of ourselves against others (or against ourselves at different times), we would be unable to improve our performances or correct our mistakes. Literary awards, or an “A” grade are---or so we’ve been taught---public validation that we’re OK and doing good.  I certainly believe that outstanding work should always be acknowledged, but the absence of an award attached to one’s work is obviously no indication that we aren’t doing good.

In addition to serving as a judge for several literary awards (the National Book Award for fiction, Pulitzer Prize for fiction, PEN/Faulkner, and many more) I’ve greatly enjoyed creating awards for others. The Marie Claire Davis Award at Evanston Township High School (named after one of my writing teachers in 1965), is given to a senior for a portfolio of creative writing that demonstrates excellence in English, and the winner receives $500. The Charles Johnson Student Fiction Award at Southern Illinois University is a nation-wide competition for college students; the winners receive publication in Crab Orchard Review and $1,000. And I even once created (at the urging of one of his disciples) a special literary award for my friend, the late spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy for his voluminous spiritual writings---it was presented to him by my UW colleague Shawn Wong since I had to be out of town, but I bought the plaque at a trophy shop, and wrote the laudatory citation.

Something I discovered during the creating of these awards for others is that giving is just as rewarding as getting. The happiness the recipient experiences becomes my happiness, too. Furthermore, the creation of an award intended for others serves to de-mystify the allure, glamour and enchantment of awards and prizes in general for a writer.

I would advise young writers (or old ones) to enjoy literary prizes when they receive them, and not to feel bad when they don’t. Resist naama. Don't worry about external validation. Try not to compare yourself to others, because each of us is unique---a life that is unlike any that has ever been before or will be in the future. (As the Buddha supposedly once said, "You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.") Read the splendid historical overview of the major literary awards written by Salon’s Laura Miller on November 16, 2000. She points out that the Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded to Leo Tolstoy, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka. (Their work is certainly not diminished because they were passed over for a Nobel Prize.) If one enjoys the creative process for its own sake, that really should be reward enough. An award is “after the fact,” so to speak, when the special joy one experiences in doing the work is long over.

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