Fuck the Poetry Police: On the Index of Major Literary Prizes in the United States
By Dan SinykinJanuary 9, 2023
Me and everyone else. So many of us want to be great writers. Students clamor to take creative writing classes. MFA programs have proliferated. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people self-publish fiction online each year through Kindle Direct Publishing and fan fiction sites and Wattpad. Many compete to entice literary agents on Twitter. But vanishingly few become the kind of writer who achieves conventional success and wins lucrative literary prizes.
The game is rigged. It is rigged like capitalism is rigged. There is no puppet master, no conspiracy, only a field where advantages, to begin with, are distributed unequally. You can beat the long odds, but you have long odds to beat; a team of scholars has been working for almost 10 years to detail exactly how the rigging works. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, later joined by Claire Grossman, began by noticing that poetry readings they regularly attended were held in “mainly white rooms.” They wanted to know why. To find out, they would need to widen their purview. The wider they went, the hungrier they became to understand who gets to succeed as a writer in the United States today. They wanted to reveal the system, to see all of it.
So, they collected data. Because prizes are a normative standard for success, they collected data on prizes — every prize since 1918 worth $10,000 or more in 2022 dollars. They recorded who won, what their gender and race were, where they earned their degrees, and who served as judges. Then they published what they found in a series of essays. What did they find?
They found that writers “with an elite degree (Ivy League, Stanford, University of Chicago) are nine times more likely to win than those without one. And more specifically, those who attended Harvard are 17 times more likely to win.” They found that half of the prize-winners with an MFA “went to just four schools: [University of] Iowa, Columbia, NYU, or UC Irvine.” Iowa has special clout: its alumni “are 49 times more likely to win compared to writers who earned their MFA at any other program since 2000.”
They found that “in recent years, about a quarter of the titles that won prizes were published by […] imprints of Penguin Random House; about half were published by an additional four presses: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan), Copper Canyon, Graywolf, and HarperCollins.”
They found that race is more complicated than they initially thought. Prizes were — for long stretches exclusively — white throughout the 20th century. But that has changed in recent years: “From 2000 to 2018, 33 percent of prizewinners identified as other than white, coming close to the 36 percent of the population who did in the 2010 census.” (Publishers did not keep up; their lists remained far whiter.) But nonwhite writers needed elite credentials more than white ones. Black writers who won prizes, for example, were much more likely than white writers to hold Ivy League degrees and MFAs.
All this power is routed through people. Grossman, Spahr, and Young show how a small group of writers who served often as judges wielded disproportionate influence; in poetry, these figures include Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, and Richard Wilbur. Grossman, Spahr, and Young show how often prizes appear reciprocal: those who give later receive, and vice versa.
In short, if you want the recognition of a major prize, you ought to attend an elite university, then earn an MFA from Iowa. (This is much easier or much more difficult depending on the zip code where you were born.) These institutions will induct you into the networks and train you in the sociolects you need to know. Publish with one of a few select houses. And, still, cross your fingers. Even if you do all of the above, you need luck to escape literary oblivion.
In their analysis for the digital magazine Public Books, Grossman, Spahr, and Young write movingly and persuasively about what all this means for real people:
We think a lot about the student who went to Local State College prior to any of the 226 or so MFA programs other than Iowa. This student often shows up with both insight and a love of literature. For many, their path to the MFA has not been easy or an afterthought. They have signed up for staggering amounts of student loan debt, in addition to whatever they already owed for their undergraduate degree. Because the cost of attending an MFA program often exceeds the annual federal unsubsidized loan cap, many also take on PLUS loans, which begin to accrue interest the day they attend their first creative writing workshop. We know so many of these students. One left her job as a store manager to move across the country for an MFA program. Another worked in retail and hoped the MFA would prepare her to move into a more intellectually meaningful field. Their writing is, if measured by all accounts that we understand, excellent. So it is heartbreaking to realize that the odds of being recognized by the literary establishment are stacked against them.
In December 2022, Grossman, Spahr, and Young published the data behind their research, through the Post45 Data Collective, an act as groundbreaking as the research itself. Until very recently, humanities scholars had no way to publish datasets independently as peer-reviewed scholarship. Like all datasets at the Post45 Data Collective, “The Index of Major Literary Prizes in the US” underwent a process of peer review and is citable and available open-access on the internet. Now anyone can see how the researchers came to their conclusions, can build on them, and can thus extend our understanding of who gets to succeed as a writer.
The idealistic aspiration of the Post45 Data Collective — which, cards on table, I cofounded with Laura B. McGrath and co-edit with Melanie Walsh — is a total map of the cultural industries. Imagine if we could link the “Major Literary Prizes” dataset with the agents who represented the winning books, the editors who edited them, the houses that published them, and the venues that reviewed them. Imagine if we could do something similar with film, TV, music, video games, and the parent companies that own them. We could lay bare the mechanisms that maintain hierarchies across the arts.
A total map would do more than sociological work: it would transform our interpretations. Using their data, Grossman, Spahr, and Young observe not only that prize-winning writers of color tend to perform their identities in their writing but also that, in a dialectical turn, they express “a deep unease about the ways prestige compels and dictates a restricted mode of self-representation.”
Consider the poem “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual” by Ada Limón, current poet laureate of the United States. The collection in which it appears, The Carrying, won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. “When you come, bring your brown- / ness so we can be sure to please / the funders,” the poem begins. “Will you check this / box; we’re applying for a grant.” The speaker — an event organizer for a literary nonprofit, presumably — makes explicit the kind of performance of Latinx identity they want from the invited poet: well-suited for “troubled teens,” bilingual, the kind that will make the audience “uncomfortable, but not complicit.” The speaker goes on to offer a very specific anecdote that the poet might tell “about your father stealing hubcaps / after a colleague said that’s what his / kind did.” The poem ends with lines that emphasize the peculiar racial logic at play: “he did the thing / he was trying to prove he didn’t do.”
“The Contract Says” is an act of rebellion. It reveals the distorting expectations people with power — presumably white or speaking on behalf of whiteness — put on nonwhite poets. And it undermines those expectations by including anecdotes the speaker does not want the poet to tell. (“Don’t read the one where you / are just like us.”) But it also performs coerced complicity in the recitation of the hubcap anecdote in the poem itself. By attending the event (in the world of the poem) and by including the anecdote of the hubcaps (in the published poem in our world), the imagined poet and Limón both do the thing they’re trying to prove they don’t do. They resist and perform tokenization at the same time. Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s data makes visible that this poem is an expression of the nauseating racial logic of contemporary prize-winning culture.
It adds a further layer to the poem to know that Limón published it with Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit literary publisher funded by grants and philanthropists. It makes the poem ineluctably biographical and self-reflexively about the nonprofit publishing sector, in addition to poetry readings. More radically, we could understand the poem as an expression of that sector. Acquiring editors hope to propitiate prize committees, selecting and shaping work — from appropriately credentialed writers — that they believe will help them win. Editors do this work differently depending on their own status and their location among publishers: Are they at a prestigious nonprofit such as Graywolf? A high-end conglomerate engine for cultural capital such as Penguin Random House’s Riverhead? A Chinese multinational looking for US clout such as Astra? A total map of the literary field would allow us to let go of our fetish for the author alone and to understand the work — every part of it, its form, style, voice — as an expression of the struggle between the author and her location in the system.
But there is no map without an infrastructure to house the data that maps it and without incentives for scholars to do the work. Building datasets like Grossman, Spahr, and Young did requires painstaking, time-consuming labor — often, as in this case, over years. They had to evaluate where to find the most reliable sources for prizes and demographic information about authors, then gather data from them. They had to develop standards by which they would determine a writer’s gender, then implement them. Humanities scholars have few resources for thinking through how to work with data. With the Post45 Data Collective, we established shared criteria to help guide dataset creation, and we established a system of peer review, which ensures users that the data has been approved by an expert and gives scholars academic acknowledgment of their labor in the coin of the realm: a peer-reviewed publication.
In the last year, the beginnings of a larger collective cultural-data movement have emerged. Needing historical boundaries to keep us sane, we limited our collective to data covering the years since 1945. In conversation with us, Meredith Martin and Megan Ward have launched the Nineteenth-Century Data Collective. There have been rumblings about a possible Early Twentieth-Century Data Collective. With an explicitly global focus, Matt Erlin and Andrew Piper created the World Literature Data Collective. Each of us is doing our part to collect and share the data that will reach toward a total map of culture.
The game is rigged — the prize game, anyway. It is mostly for the elite in our stratified, grotesquely unequal world. That doesn’t mean we can’t burst with alternatives. “No time now for our little literary games,” writes Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When I gave up writing fiction, I became a literary critic and, through work such as that by Grossman, Spahr, and Young, became curious about value: how we make judgments about the quality of art. As a first step, I let go of my attachment to normative standards of success; when I did, when I began reading literature on no major prize jury’s radar, I found elating aesthetic experiences awaiting me, there in the cultural shadows.
Today when asked for advice about how to be a writer, I say: Find writing you love and follow it. Make those writers your writers. Read each other, publish each other, create literature that speaks from where you are. Take as your model Belt Publishing or Cave Canem or Deep Vellum or Dorothy: A Publishing Project or Hub City Press or Sublunary Editions. Fuck the Poetry Police. Learn from others. Think collectively. Make an aesthetic of your own. “Poets, descend,” writes Ferlinghetti, “to the street of the world once more.” Out from the shadows, into the light.
Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University.
Featured image: John Bingley Garland. Page from Durenstein! a.k.a. Victorian Blood Book, 1854. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, from the Evelyn Waugh Collection. www.hrc.utexas.edu. Accessed January 6, 2023.
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