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The Literary Prize System

The story that Murakami was writing in the back of his bar was Kaze no Uta o kite [Hear the Wind Sing]. A complete unknown, he entered this novella in the Gunzo Competition, which accepted long manuscripts from newcomers. He won, and he was published in 1979 in Gunzo, a literary magazine owned by the big publisher Kodansha. The prize system in Japan is a well-developed minor league for writers, with Kodansha’s dating to 1946. The entries are published without byline, to encourage reading for content. Of course, this anonymity also keeps the applicants meek, and when the winner is identified, people are sometimes surprised. His friends told Murakami to quit while he was ahead. But at 130 pages Kaze was just long enough to publish as a book, and he was writing another novella, 1973-nen no pinboru (Pinball, 1973). So he plunged ahead.

English’s The Economy of Prestige (2006) traces “prizes, awards, and the circulation of cultural value” in North American, European, and African circuits, but does not extend to Asia. While the well-known prizes—the Nobel, Man-Booker, Pulitzer, and Goncourt—may celebrate the best that is written, below them lie strata that have proliferated and are driven by commercial or partisan interests. There are over 100 in the United States (twenty-five alone for science fiction) and another fifty in Great Britain. Canada, Australia, and South Africa offer prizes disproportionate to their populations, making Anglophone literature the most prized in the world. Many prizes are narrow in focus—there are four for baseball writing—but they all serve as the plinth for publication, turning symbolic value into capital, a process of “capital intraconversion” as English terms it.10

The prize system is older in France but works the same way, in fact in closer cooperation with retailers such as FNAC, where the winners will be displayed. Casanova mentions the Prix Goncourt in passing, but no other prizes, and Moretti ignores them completely. The Spanish world, as we saw in the Garcia Marquez chapter, has the Premio Biblioteca Breve and many others. Auster won the Prince of Asturias Award, as well as the Prix France Culture de Litterature Etrangere. The prize system is a major pillar of World Literature, whose instrument value is nakedly to boost sales. Japan was a relative latecomer to this process. Its oldest and most prestigious, the Akutagawa Prize, dates to 1935. Most of the Japanese prizes originated after World War II, with a clutch of the more important ones dating to the 1950-1970 era when the economy was being reshaped. A striking number of literary prizes are sponsored by or allied with newspapers, publishing houses, or corporations (the Yomiuri Prize, the Subaru Prize, the Shugoro Prize, etc.). They use the contests as talent and screening systems.

This is the way that Murakami rose through the ranks, but the conditions have become more nakedly commercial than in the West. One of the major “New Talent” prizes, the Nekusuto Sho (“Next Show”) sponsored by Kadokawa Publishing Company, pays no advance and only 8% royalties to the three winners it selects.11 But this rather Darwinian prize system opened the gates for Murakami. Three years later he would win the Tanizaki Prize, begun in 1965 by the publisher Chuo Koronsha, with its award of 1 million yen (-$4,200). In 1995 he would win the Yomiuri Prize for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In 2006 he won the World Fantasy Award for Kafka on the Shore. Murakami’s manner of framing a career on prizes and big publishers has been very modern.

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