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

Article number: English TEOP
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James F. English was a featured speaker at the 67th Annual Willa Cather Spring ConferenceLiterary Prizes: Acclaim and Controversy in Red Cloud, Nebraska in 2022.


This is 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.

Harvard University Press: 2008 | Paperback: 432 pages, illustrated


About the Author

James F. English is John Welsh Centennial Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a featured speaker at the 67th Annual Willa Cather Spring Conference—Literary Prizes: Acclaim and Controversy in Red Cloud, Nebraska in 2022.


“The irony of course is that there ought to be a prize for a book that so beautifully exposes the business and culture of prizes. James English's The Economy of Prestige is a smart, sardonic but never cynical, and genuine in its curiosity and mission. A pleasure to read and think about.”  Percival Everett, author of Erasure and God's Country

“In an impressive tour de force, James English has quite brilliantly accomplished what he set out to do: reveal some essential features of our cultural landscape through the systematic analysis of a set of cultural practices that has been commented on ad infinitum, but never really understood. An extraordinary book, it is at once a delight to read and an original contribution to both cultural sociology and the broader interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. I know of no other book that addresses the issues that he takes up so knowledgeably. This is a genuinely innovative piece of work.”  Elizabeth Long, author of Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life

“No one has tried to discuss the ins and outs of nonacademic cultural prestige as dispassionately as English does. We have scads of gossipy tales of how the game works and is played, but nothing like the nonparticipant-observer account on offer here. This book is truly ground-breaking, as well as informative and entertaining.”  John McGowan, author of Democracy's Children

“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 EpsteinWall Street Journal

“Ambitious...Reading [The Economy of Prestige by James English] feels like being in the company of a cultural code-cracker. His work shows that we hardly know how to think about art outside the rubric of awards...[English] is an astute guide down this dizzy rabbit hole. He reminds us of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who cries, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes'...English dissects the dishy politics and tawdry tricks, but the author is after much bigger intellectual game. He wants to understand how the awards-biz carries our cultural currency, creating our shared investments in what is art...The Economy of Prestige is rich fare for anybody who has ever been trapped at an awards banquet. It ought to win a prize.”  Karen R. LongCleveland Plain Dealer


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