The entries arrived to me in a box that had been destroyed in transit. It was a cardboard container about the size of a small TV set -- maybe two feet cubed, and heavy. Someone must have dropped it (more than once?) during its long journey between London and Washington, DC, because holding it together now were layers of packing tape, new strapped over old. You could see stacked papers through a split running down the side; a corner had been torn apart. It was a massive, imposing thing, this demolished box. My back strained as I heaved it toward my office.
I don’t think I will ever forget opening it -- I remember feeling anxious (had all the stories arrived?) but also excited (would they be good?) and, most of all, tingly with a sense of responsibility. (Theyhad all arrived, and more remarkable, nearly all of them turned out to be gripping reads.) It was humbling that these 100-plus stories had come to me at all. What an honor, I thought, to have been vaulted into a group charged with doing the work of cultural consecration, separating “good” literature from “bad” and, inevitably, enforcing the standards that might determine what counts as good in the first place. It is, to say the least, a big job.
In a chapter called “Prizes and the Politics of World Culture,” literary critic James English explains that conferring global prizes like the Caine Prize always exposes a delicate problem. That’s because “to honor and recognize local cultural achievement from a declaredly global vantage is inevitably to impose external interference on local systems of cultural value. … There is no evading the social and political freight of a global award at a time when global markets determine more and more the fate of local [literary cultures]” (298). The asymmetries of cultural and economic power that English references, familiar to anyone who follows debates about what he calls “prize culture,” resonated in my unconscious, even as my conscious mind paced through riveting stories of village life, urban violence, river journeys to rebel camps. My double-consciousness was yet more pronounced when I read in the Library of Congress’s European Reading Room, which looks out on the U.S. Capitol, and whose ceiling lists the four universal elements -- air, water, earth, and fire -- as though it had the power to contain them all:
The Caine Prize is awarded from a center of global prestige, Oxford, but lends that prestige to writing from an area that, as many of the submissions themselves attest, can seem far removed from airy cathedrals of leisure like the Library of Congress or the Bodleian. Reading these stories produced, in me at least, a sense of disconnection between where they took place and where I was evaluating them.
Some of the stories were funny; many found a place for redemption; others played irreverently with form; and not a few dealt movingly with feelings of dislocation I felt I could recognize, having come from no global metropolis but a California city best known for raisins. Some of the most polished stories conformed to the mostly unwritten aesthetic rules of consecrating institutions like The New Yorker. Others, to my mind better, took less familiar shapes, and elaborated vocabularies and images foreign to me: a plane crash caused by magic; infidelities rupturing a patriarchal North African home; a breathless ambulance chase through an urban zone; and episodic, first-person narratives of sexual violation, unconsoled by formal resolution.
In his own blog post, John Sutherland writes convincingly of the material circumstances that make art possible. My broken box of African writing made such material circumstances uncannily palpable. Some stories had been printed on office paper – 8 ½ x 11 and A4 variously— while others arrived in bound and printed formats of all sizes: in literary journals from three continents, in Nigerian glossies, in a men’s magazine published from London. Who had sent them? From where? From what material situations, in other words, had these documents been imagined, composed, and typed -- but also printed, stapled, mailed?
The most important “matter” of art is ineffable: human experience, translated into form and made legible to another human being across time and space. To access this kind of matter you can download the stories now, from wherever you happen to be sitting. But there is another kind of matter, too, one I am glad to have accessed, if only for a time, in the piled-up jumble of these astoundingly good submissions. I am referring to the physical fact of the stories in their material forms. These artworks were created in any number of countries, in who knows what concrete circumstances; promoted by editors equally various in situation; received in a small office in London by staff members; reboxed there and shipped across the ocean to be handled by innumerable postal workers, dropped, and re-taped along the way. Finally they arrived to me: a mass paper on which the experiences of other human beings have been transformed, as if by magic, into aesthetic form -- an amazing process of connection that is also, and in some final way, physical.
Whoever wins this year’s Caine Prize will experience both immaterial and material benefits: a feeling of profound accomplishment, perhaps, but also £10,000 and (we hope) exposure to a wider audience. She or he will also visit Georgetown, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. My colleagues and I look forward to welcoming the author in Washington and to inhabiting briefly the same space with him or her. And I hope the winner’s journey is less bumpy than that of the document that won the ride.
English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.