Essay contests played a central role in the intellectual life of the 18th century, as Robert Darnton relates in George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (2003). Taste was arbitrated by centralized authority – how different from the blog rolls and technorati ratings that are needed to vault a blogger onto the A-list today.
Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who gained momentary fame – cut short by the guillotine – as leader of the Girondists during the French Revolution, was a pathetically persistent self-promoter. He was an obscure hack, a lousy writer, and too outspoken to be published in France. He scorned academies in his memoirs, yet groveled to be represented as “member of diverse academies, known ... by a memoir ... crowned last year at the Académie de Châlons.” Darnton describes a cache of Brissot’s letters which show him “seeking introductions, cultivating endorsements, trying to get his name in journals, soliciting favorable reviews, demanding special treatment in essay contests, and maneuvering to get elected to academies.” [Chapter 8, The skeletons in the closet: How historians play God.]
The academy also figures in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epiphany during a tramp from Paris to Vincennes, which in his own telling triggered the breakthrough of Discourse on the Arts and Sciences: he was transfixed by a question posed by the Academy of Dijon for an essay contest. [Chapter 5, The Great Divide: Rousseau on the route to Vincennes]
The competition for visibility is fiercer today than ever, but writers are now at the mercy of the mob, rather than the mandarins. Page views make or break a blog, though referrals from the superstars can help. The elites still have their perks, but have to share power with the plebs.
Writing contests are still around, feeble scions of a once-proud house. Book prizes can still make the front page in Europe, but in the US they’re relegated to the book jacket blurbs. The London chatterati probably know who won last year’s Man Booker Prize; care to name this year’s fiction Pulitzer?