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Are Literary Prizes Rigged?

Louise Gluck's books are on display during the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on October 8, 2020. (Photo by Henrik MONTGOMERY / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo by HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

In ASAP, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young write about what they learned when they looked at the winners and judges of 40 literary prizes in the United States since 1918. Are they marred by reciprocity?

A few years ago we began a project to understand the literary prize. We were interested in this question of whether the literary prize was impartial or not, who is favored, who left out. To better see the changing contours of the prize over time, we made a spreadsheet of winners and judges of forty literary prizes in all genres from 1918 forward. The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners. Some of what we noticed was obvious; some was idiosyncratic. First, about a third of winning poets receive more than one prize. (For comparison, only 15 percent of fiction writers in our dataset have won more than once.) W. S. Merwin is the all-time winner; he received ten prizes. Women received about 40 percent of the prizes on average at the beginning of the century; in the last five years, that number has gone up to 50 percent. The racial demographics of prizes are a far more complicated story. In the twentieth century, only three percent of prizes awarded went to poets who identified as other than white. In the last five years this has changed dramatically: writers who identify as other than white were 72 percent of the winners. Our data also allowed us to see the degree to which literary excellence is yoked to higher education. Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Some of these findings, especially the role of elite institutions, were unsurprising. But what struck us was the narrowing, symbiotic quality of prize networks. A closer look at the judges and winners of literary prizes illustrates the interpersonal and professional connections through which literary merit accrues. Take the example of Robert Pinsky, who was Poet Laureate from 1997-2000. Among his other awards are the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Award (which he won twice, in 1988 and 1997), and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. This is more than a modest amount of literary trophies, although still far from exceptional. But where Pinsky really stands out is in his capacity as a judge. Pinsky is in some way responsible for awarding over two million dollars in winnings to his peers, during which he judged close to 40 prizes.

Carl Phillips, Pinsky’s student at Boston University, is one among many anointed by Pinsky during those years. Pinsky was on the committees that resulted in Phillips winning a Witter Bynner Poetry Fellowship, a Kingsley Tufts Award, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. (These awards predate the ‘Jorie Graham rule.’) Another characteristic of the US prize system is the manner in which Phillips has followed in Pinsky’s footsteps as a bestower of rewards. Phillips was nominated to become a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets by a committee that would have included Pinsky and he began judging the Tufts award the year after Pinsky vacated the position.

Louise Glück is another poet with both a strong prize record and close-knit connections to other prizewinning poets. Phillips and Pinsky were among the Academy Chancellors to judge the Wallace Stevens Award the year that Glück won. Her other honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Pulitzer, a Lannan Award, a Bollingen, a National Book Award, and most recently the Nobel Prize, announced as we were finishing this essay. This brings her winnings so far to a little over a million and a half dollars. As a judge, she has been on enough committees to have played a role in awarding over a million dollars to around 32 of her peers. As with Pinsky and the Tufts, Phillips would eventually replace Glück as judge of the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2010. Glück is not just among those awarded by Pinsky but also his close friend. ‘She talks to [him] nearly every day,’ noted the Washington Post when announcing her 2003 appointment as Poet Laureate

Reciprocity defines this subculture. Pinsky, Phillips, and Glück all awarded prizes to a small, overlapping group of poets, many of whom in turn awarded them a prize (or vice versa). When Pinsky won the Lenore Marshall, Mark Doty was a judge; so too Pinsky was a judge for Doty’s National Book Award. Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds both served as judges when Phillips won the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; subsequently Phillips sat on the committees that awarded a Wallace Stevens Award to Kinnell and a Pulitzer to Olds. When Glück won the Pulitzer, Frank Bidart was one of the judges; she was on the committee when Bidart received a Wallace Stevens Award. When Glück won the Bollingen Henri Cole judged, and, again, Glück was on the committee that awarded Cole a Jackson Poetry prize. Literally everyone on the committee that awarded Glück the Wallace Stevens Award had already received a prize in which she played a role as judge: Glück served on the committees that awarded Academy of American Poets Fellowships to Lyn Hejinian, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Sharon Olds, and a Wallace Stevens award to Gerald Stern. And so on.

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Photo: Le Pont

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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