The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value Hardcover – November 15, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
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Ambitious...Reading [The Economy of Prestige by James English] feels like being in the company of a cultural code-cracker. His work shows that we hardly know how to think about art outside the rubric of awards...[English] is an astute guide down this dizzy rabbit hole. He reminds us of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who cries, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes'...English dissects the dishy politics and tawdry tricks, but the author is after much bigger intellectual game. He wants to understand how the awards-biz carries our cultural currency, creating our shared investments in what is art...The Economy of Prestige is rich fare for anybody who has ever been trapped at an awards banquet. It ought to win a prize. (Karen R. Long Cleveland Plain Dealer 2005-11-13)
Examining film and literary prizes' geneses, history and the hoopla that accompanies them, English parses the many ways awards and award ceremonies have become an institutionalized 'game' that relies on the condescension and outrage they provoke among critics and contenders alike...The book brings a refreshing perspective to a conversation usually dominated by reflexive positions. (Publishers Weekly 2005-11-01)
James F. English's compelling [book] offers a harsh view of the process of giving and receiving special prizes. Anyone who thinks that awards genuinely pay tribute to excellence in achievement should have their naivete shaken away with this often-startling book. (Phil Hall Hartford Courant 2005-11-27)
Intellectually shrewd and consistently entertaining. (Jim Holt New York Magazine 2005-12-19)
[This is a] frequently hilarious and gripping book...An anecdotal delight and an intellectual revelation. (Bryan Appleyard Sunday Times 2006-01-08)
[An] ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards. (Louis Menand New Yorker 2005-12-26)
Did you know that there are more film prizes than there are feature films made every year? I didn't. Similar odd facts abound in this fascinating analysis of the business of prizes and awards: their meaning, their financing, their cultural machinery. English sets off at a brisk trot through the history of gongs, from the tragedy prize at Athens, through the Nobels, the Goncourt and Booker, to the Oscars and the sadly defunct alternative Hubby Awards, which featured 'Best Kung-Fu' and 'Best Mindless Sex Comedy' categories...I hope someone inaugurates a prize for Best Book About Prizes, and gives it to this one. (The Guardian 2005-12-31)
[English] has embedded himself in the public history of awards, emerging with a slew of entertaining anecdotes. (Howard Davies Times Higher Education Supplement 2006-01-20)
The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value argues that we've become an awards-crazy culture in a prize-drunk world. (Art Carey Philadelphia Inquirer 2006-01-23)
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The bad: stupefying bad writing. The author never uses a short word where five long ones will do. This type can never say "use" when he can say "utilize" or "the utilization of." He also apparently has never heard of short sentences or paragraph breaks, since he favors page-long paragraphs. I put some random passages into readability tests like the Gunning Fog Index and they are off the charts; poster children for unreadable writing. Some parts are written at such a high level of abstraction that the book sounds like a parody of academic blather. The subject is intrinsically fascinating. The author makes it dull.
The book is also marred in places by the author's leftist bias. For example, he indulges in an intemperate and false tirade against, supposedly, Reagan's and Bush's minion's reaction to imaginary racial bias in favor of minorities. He fails to acknowledge that there was, and is, an actual and pervasive racial spoils system in the "Awards Economy" and elsewhere, especially in academia. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and many other blacks have been lionized mainly because they were blacks. If they were white, no one would have cared about their books.
One very practical aspect of the book, however, although certainly not the one intended. If the reader is organizing a pretentious literary prize or competition, there are lots of ideas here to copy. Even a list of preposterously pretentious organization and prize names to help he reader generate ideas...
There is a fair amount of theory in the book, but it's not the sort of nihilistic and excessively abstract theory we've come to associate with the humanities since the 1980s. This may still be distracting to lay readers who simply want to read about how awards work, but as an academic (whose biases tend towards empiricism) I found that it not only helped draw connections between awards and broader social trends but the theory is beautifully exposited and much more accessible than in many of the works English is drawing upon. For instance, if you contrast this book with Bourdieu's (excellent but moderately dense) The Field of Cultural Production, you'll appreciate that English is actually making these ideas about as clear and accessible as is possible. Seen in this light the book not only describes and theoretically situates awards, but parts of it could serve as a solid introduction to theories like new class, post-industrial society, or cultural capital.
Also of possible interest is that similar themes are addressed in Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology)
I have to admit, though, that in places I found the extensive theoretical scaffolding of the book to be tedious and somewhat overdone. At the end of the day this book is best suited for those with an academic interest in "cultural criticism."
Top international reviews
However, the content does not justify the title "economics".
Readers can draw a lot from this reading but will not learn much about the economic thinking about awards, status, prestige, uncertainty, and inequality.