I asked myself this on Monday when I and 600 others gathered at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to hear the British writer Robert Macfarlane give the first annual Weston International Award Lecture, a prize (with $75,000) that Macfarlane had accepted two minutes earlier. Funded by the Westons and run by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, it’s the latest dish on a growing buffet of prizes for artists, and particularly for writers, to reward excellence (and Macfarlane is easily that), but more and more, to promote promise.
From medicine to movies, accounting to influencing, the world is awash in promise. That world, however, is largely limited to the young. Indeed, “promise” means you may someday have a brilliant future. So the world places a bet on you fulfilling that promise because you have many years ahead to do that.
There are also a rising number of ‘mid-career’ prizes, (including some by the Writers’ Trust) given to people with a couple of decades in the trenches, who need a little help to make their next work their big one. These, too, are ‘promise’ awards.
But there are few to no prizes for promising old writers.
True, there are lifetime achievement awards in writing and every endeavour from surgery to sky-diving. But 70-year-olds don’t get rewarded for their promise. Their glow comes from past performance.
I wonder why this is.