Intellectual stampede

Graphic by Yanna Lee

By 6:55 p.m. on Mon., Sept. 19, Sprague Hall had nearly reached full capacity. The crowd babbled with anxious anticipation, and an announcement was made asking those located near an empty space to raise their hands. Professors and punks in cotton suits and denim jackets rubbed shoulders as they shuffled down the aisles. The electric atmosphere of the room seemed to herald a rock concert. And yet, projected behind the podium on stage, large serifed lettering reminded everyone of what they were attending: “Windham-Campbell.”

The Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes, now in their fourth year, honor nine writers of the English language—three each in fiction, nonfiction, drama, and, starting next year, poetry—for their collective works to date with a grant of $150,000, intended to help fund their future writing careers. As prize director Michael Kelleher noted in his opening remarks, the awards’ benefactors, authors themselves, recognized that what writers need most in order to work is mental space and time, resources constrained by everyday concerns, like paying the rent. The prizes’ selection process reflects that ethos. “We’re looking at people who deserve a wider audience,” Kelleher told me on Monday morning over the phone. “We’re looking to have an impact on their careers.”

That’s a praiseworthy goal, and treatment well deserved by the prizes’ recipients. On the Windham-Campbell’s slow march to international recognition—for the first time this year, its announcement was covered in most major metropolitan newspapers in the English-speaking world—it has grown more equipped to alter the trajectories of the prizewinners’ careers. Still, perhaps the festival’s organizers felt that to truly launch the recipients into orbit, it needed a little publicity rocket fuel.

Enter Patti Smith. The legendary singer-songwriter, performer, and author, whose writings have earned her a few literary prizes of her own, gave the festival’s opening lecture and drew many from the Yale community and beyond to Monday night’s event. Many (if not most) came for her, not the authors. A graduate student I spoke to had never heard of the prize, though he’s been on campus since its inception in 2013. A married couple seated near me had come from upstate New York (by train!) to see their musical idol speak. As Kelleher took the stage to start the introductions, the husband whispered in my ear, a little guiltily, “So what’s the prize for?”

It seemed an odd, if not unproductive, partnership. Presenting the Windham-Campbell opening lecture is a great honor to Smith’s growing literary achievement and, perhaps, an auspicious sign; one of this year’s recipients, Hilton Als, gave last year’s opening lecture. What’s more, her lecture is due for publication later this year as part of a series called “Why I Write” by Yale University Press. Her fame can only lend more publicity to the prizes, and her lecture—a beautiful meditation on how writing allows one to delay the inevitable existential end-point of the self—was a fitting paean to the activity that they honor. As Smith concluded, we write, “because we cannot simply live.”

Still, like any marriage, the partnership had its tensions. After Smith finished, a few in the audience stood up to leave. Encouraged by these intrepid deserters, many more soon followed. Kelleher, for his part, tried to stem the tide. “You should feel guilty,” he admonished from the podium. “We’re all looking at you.” The Windham-Campbell had hitched itself to Smith’s celebrity steed, but on Monday evening, it looked as if it couldn’t hold on for the ride.

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