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The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value


The Economy of Prestige is a study of the history, functions, and effects of prizes in literature and the arts. The book was named Best Academic Book of 2005 by New York Magazine. Join us on Thursday, June 2 for Dr. English's talk on "The Literary Award as Judgment Device," at 7:00-8:15 p.m.

This a book about one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life: the remarkable ascendancy of prizes in literature and the arts. Such prizes and the competitions they crown are almost as old as the arts themselves, but their number and power—and their consequences for society and culture at large—have expanded to an unprecedented degree in our day. In a wide-ranging overview of this phenomenon, James F. English documents the dramatic rise of the awards industry and its complex role within what he describes as an economy of cultural prestige.

Observing that cultural prizes in their modern form originate at the turn of the twentieth century with the institutional convergence of art and competitive spectator sports, English argues that they have in recent decades undergone an important shift—a more genuine and far-reaching globalization than what has occurred in the economy of material goods. Focusing on the cultural prize in its contemporary form, his book addresses itself broadly to the economic dimensions of culture, to the rules or logic of exchange in the market for what has come to be called “cultural capital.” In the wild proliferation of prizes, English finds a key to transformations in the cultural field as a whole. And in the specific workings of prizes, their elaborate mechanics of nomination and election, presentation and acceptance, sponsorship, publicity, and scandal, he uncovers evidence of the new arrangements and relationships that have refigured that field.

About the Author

Dr. James F. English, will present a talk at our 67th Annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, June 2-4, 2022, on “The Literary Award as a Judgment Device.” Dr. English is John Welsch Centennial Professor of English and Founding Director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. His books also include Comic Transactions, the Concise Companion to Contemporary British Literature, and The Global Future of English Studies. His current projects include a book about ranking and rating systems in literature and the arts, Beauty by the Numbers, and an edited volume of essays on Literary Studies and Human Flourishing, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

$30.50 | 9780674030435 | Harvard University Press | Published: December 15, 2008 | Academic Trade | 432 pages


“[An] ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards.”—Louis Menand, The New Yorker

“[This is a] frequently hilarious and gripping book… An anecdotal delight and an intellectual revelation.”—Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times

“[An] elegant and entertaining book… English positions himself as an objective analyst, whose aim is not to criticize the awards industry but to see it as part of contemporary cultural practice. He is a witty, shrewd, and urbane observer.”—Elaine Showalter, The Times Literary Supplement

“Mr. English knows everything there is to know about the mechanics of prize-giving, from the appointing of judges to the globalizing of cultural prizes to the exploiting of prizes for further self-aggrandizement. As The Economy of Prestige makes clear, Mr. English has mastered the subject in little and large, and it is one full of interest about the way cultural life operates in our day.”—Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

“Intellectually shrewd and consistently entertaining.”—Jim Holt, New York Magazine