The Politics of Literary Prestige: Prizes and Spanish American Literature by Sarah E. L. Bowskill

The cover to The Politics of Literary Prestige: Prizes and Spanish American Literature by Sarah E. L. BowskillNew York. Bloomsbury Academic. 2022. 215 pages.

Sarah E. L. Bowskill’s succinct study deals properly with the “never-ending network” discussed in her eighth and last chapter, which is ultimately the ample partisan positioning that is the subtext of the Spanish-language literary prizes she analyzes. In a 1981 press release on the misfortune of being a young writer, Gabriel García Márquez, no stranger to prizes and aware that they reveal who readers perceive as your peers, regrets young writers’ “almost childish enthusiasm” for national awards and fashionable fame. For him, with those prizes the publisher “not only mugs the novice writer, but the publisher uses [him] to become richer with little effort.” Bowskill examines the politics behind such machinations, and her fine introduction encapsulates her methodology and goals.

Her first chapter evaluates the relation among literary prizes, controversy, and the state in Spanish America; the second, how Spanish publishers intensified their cultural and economic influence during the Franco years with awards to Spanish American authors. In a strict chronology of those developments, the first chapter should follow the second, followed by the fifth (on Spain’s Biblioteca Breve prize and “the forgotten women of the Boom,” rightly rescuing “Ana Mairena” and Nivaria Tejera), even though the sixth chapter, “Women Winning Prizes: A No-Win Situation?” dovetails smoothly from the previous one, asserting that prizes are no country for younger women. This redistribution is as academic as The Politics of Literary Prestige but reinforces Bowskill’s optimistic view of the relatively unknown writers she marshals in the seventh chapter, “Prizes for Literatures in Indigenous Languages.”

Evidently a sociological study (Pierre Bourdieu is ever-present) conceptually framed by James English’s The Economy of Prestige, Bowskill has a fine eye for detail and information that may seem “gossipy.” Her attention and dependence on digital resources, charts, and archives is impressive, leading her to conclude that “As the prize network colonizes more and more positions in the literary and political fields, there remain few options for authors wishing to remain beyond the network,” although she avers that “caution must also be exercised when proclaiming the freedoms of publishing online as this space is increasingly colonized by corporations using our data for profit.” Her ideological stance is well considered when ChatGPT could write books, or this review, and the humanities are losing prestige.

At this state of the art, likening literary and political fields, or emphasizing “colonization,” is better served by questioning the dependence on those terms, for concrete and ideological reasons. If Spanish America has not yet produced a Sherman Alexie, who writes in English, what network would judge literature in what Indigenous languages? Would such a web replicate the wheeling and dealing of mainstream prizes based on “a discourse of globalization rooted in Europe,” in which exoticism and condescending attitudes still prevail? What to do with scandal-ridden prizes like the Planeta, or that since 1969 only six women have won the Anagrama prize, facts absent in Bowskill’s analysis? She is right that women-only prizes or “the transcultural, transnational pan-Hispanic identity created and envisaged by the Premio Alfaguara” are not the solution as a counterdiscourse to anglophone acculturation. For the Colombian Héctor Abad Faciolince, who has lost prizes for over forty years, the statistics for gender equity, “official literatures,” and conspiracy theories prove the senselessness of affirmative-action solutions for Spanish America.

For the fourth chapter—which seeks common ground among Roberto Bolaño, Carmen Boullosa, and Fernando Iwasaki, writers with vastly different talents, as the reception of the latter two shows—putting in perspective other writers could have benefitted from Discípulos y maestros 2.0: Novela hispanoamericana hoy, much of which deals with emerging novelists’ ethics vis-à-vis contests; and an earlier compilation, The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: After Bolaño, which contextualizes almost all the recent novelists Bowskill discusses. If she proposes the notion of “network” to understand how prizes shape a wider literary field, Alejandra Laera’s “Los premios literarios: recompensas y espectáculo” (2007), a seminal essay based on English’s concepts, expressed similar views, as did Vicent Moreno’s “Presencia y funciones de los premios literarios en el campo literario transatlántico desde 1940” (2014). Her scheme is further tweaked by Franco Moretti’s “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” (2011), vis-à-vis her discussion of world or universal literatures.

Yet her intentions are praiseworthy because beneath her scrutiny lurks a complex, impenetrable opaqueness,  indefensible as an ethical deportment. Still, one does not get the sense that her authors considered the financial rewards of prizes unreasonable. This is because politics rule, as when she explains that the Colombian Fernando Vallejo caused a scandal by criticizing Fidel Castro in his acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (a prestigious venue now discredited and defunded), leaving out that he donated the substantial award funds to Venezuelan animal protection agencies. Regarding similar prize canonicity, an unfortunate gap in Bowskill’s study is the guarded perusal of the Premio Bienal de Novela Mario Vargas Llosa.

One must recognize prizes in order to criticize their value, which is what Bowskill does. But there is the need to acknowledge that one has to win them so that the lack of respect for them acquires symbolic value beyond the market. Argentine César Aira, often on the longlist for the Nobel Prize, avers that “when there is pure literature, as in my case, we are the writers who are not given prizes.” He is cognizant that the novelist who uses politics to fill vacuums becomes more and more extreme and ends up a zealot. The Politics of Literary Prestige’s faith in academese does not diminish its value, but editing could have corrected the nonpolitical lacunae in the very important issues Bowskill interprets.

Will H. Corral
San Francisco

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