Y. Papatheodorou: Red ribbon

Readers looking at works of literature on display in bookstores have recently begun to encounter a new publisher’s adornment, a red ribbon indicating a prizewinner. Novels, collections of poetry and essays all wear their badge of honor, not only to inform us that they are new releases but also to impress us with the state or private awards they have won. No longer an exception, but the rule, the red ribbon even lurks on the Internet in the form of signs urging readers to vote «for the best book.» Periodicals old and new, writers, critics and readers of literature have already invested in the institution of the award by actively participating in a wide-ranging, multifarious cultural enterprise of prestige, competition and performance on the contemporary literary scene. This phenomenon is neither new nor innocent, of course, and so it is worth discussing in the terms of a broader sociology of literature that focused on the historical perspective, the mechanisms of distinction in artistic creation, as described in detail and at depth by Pierre Bourdieu. Let’s not forget that the red ribbon is the mark of an entire process where the market leaves its traces over the traces of creation. It has to do with production and the management of a symbolic capital, in which the rules of art and the rules of the market overlap and are often in accord, where certain literary genres stake their cultural claims and the position of writers is established in the literary arena. In other words, the red prize ribbon is far from being the neutral expression of a certain literary taste. It is part of the dependence on, the annexation, and even the subjugation of aesthetic production to the sphere of power and the market. None of this, however, is as worrying as the lack of public dialogue about this «performance literature,» the criteria for the prizes, the mediation of literary criticism and its transformation into a major shareholder in the stock market of current aesthetic values, In Greece, awards unfortunately reinforce the intellectual crippling of criticism and reading, which are reduced to mere balancing acts and literary squabbles that loom overly large in the narrow world of the trade. In public debate, everything seems to come down to the indignation of the losers, but prizes go beyond that to become a privileged field where material and symbolic gains meet. In this sense, their cultural legitimization is not at all normal and not at all self-evident. And since we need not replace the red ribbons with funerary black ones for the supposedly lost honor of literature and criticism, let’s keep talking as much as we can about good books, beyond the business of awards.