An artist’s life isn’t easy. Creativity may be a gift, but when creativity becomes a profession—the means by which an individual is judged—the gift can seem more like a cross to bear.
Jill Bialosky, a poet, memoirist, novelist, and executive editor at Norton, is intimately aware of the pressures of making a living as an artist. In her latest novel, The Prize, appreciation for art and the beauty of creative expression are pitted against the darker forces of power, fame, and the stresses of everyday life. Through Bialosky’s protagonist, Edward Darby, a partner at a major New York gallery, we get an intimate portrayal of how art and life intersect.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between art and commerce and also fame. What happens to people when they are pushed up against outside forces—what happens to their art?” Bialosky wonders. She began her creative life as a poet in college, and then as a graduate student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. At Iowa, she says it “was very clear from day one…which of the incoming artists or writers were considered the ones who were going to be successful.” She was fascinated with how writers dealt with the competitive nature, how it affected their interactions—and maybe their art. Every day as an editor she sees how creative works are assessed for the marketplace: “Sometimes a book will go for $1 million and sometimes a book will sell for $5,000,” she says. “And they both would be projects that could be equally weighted in terms of artistic creation.”
Artistic creation should, ideally, be what’s valued most—but how is value measured? Through appreciation and public response, or through money and fame? In The Prize, Edward is a fierce lover of art and the power it possesses: “art has the power to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life could be made special.” Though he holds art in the highest regard, he too is subject to the contaminating effects of competition and the gamble he must take on artists in the hopes they will bring in money for his gallery. His prize artist, Agnes Murray, is an introverted, sensitive soul who paints fearless works that seize the attention of viewers and ask them to feel. But as she falls victim to her insecurities, measuring the legacy of her work against that of her superfamous painter husband, Edward begins to question his own ideals.
Can art truly “offer a refuge from the troubled world?” Or is it instead the main cause of trouble in Edward’s life, and in Agnes’?
“As a writer…I would like to have a strong readership for my work, [but] I don’t want to compromise my work for the marketplace,” Bialosky says. “From an editor’s point of view…I think about quality as the most important aspect of deciding what I want to work on.” With her experiences, Bialosky could’ve easily made this book about the relationship between an editor and a writer, or an agent and a writer. When I ask her about those parallels, she says she specifically didn’t want to write a book about publishing. It was important to show that these issues, these outside forces that move in and threaten the integrity of creative expression, are present in “any form of creative enterprise in which fame and money are at stake.”
The Prize also looks at the ways in which relationships and creativity are linked, how they play off each other. When I asked about Agnes’ character and her insecurities regarding her success, Bialosky says she wanted to explore “marriage in my novel, a more conventional marriage versus a marriage between two artists.” She wonders whether two artists being together “enhances the creative process or becomes destructive.” Edward, in representing Agnes’ work, is intimately attuned to her changes in mood and her growing vulnerability. Agnes’ suffering begins to cause disillusionment with art in Edward. While he’s always looked for quality in his artists, works that would “make an indelible mark”—a sentiment which seems to align with Bialosky’s own—his search becomes more personal. Now, he must find works that will “excite him again.”
Edward’s disillusionment carries into his personal interactions. He is suddenly aware of a rift in his marriage, and the home he’s built with his wife and daughter now feels empty, cold. The only solace he finds is with a sculptor, Julia Rosenthal, who brings beauty back into his life; Julia understands the art world and the pressures he carries. This fear that Edward feels over losing his connection with art—and through this, himself—is captured perfectly in a scene in which Edward is told that “art must capture what we’re afraid of most”; in this, art mirrors life and life mirrors art.
Thinking about the creative process, Bialosky admits that “I’ve always been very protective as a writer of also wanting to have a real life. I’ve always valued my family life and my life in the world.” In The Prize, Bialosky’s characters are at risk of losing this. “I heard Richard Ford give a talk recently and he said—and I’m not quoting him verbatim—but he said something along the lines of ‘life comes first, somehow.’ And I think as a writer I feel that way, too,” she says.
As the novel comes to a head, and Bialosky’s characters grapple with the blurring of life and art, the outside forces that have the power to both inspire and destroy, one line pauses all of the action:
“She’ll never be happy if she’s looking for someone to place a value on her work. The prize is the creation. It’s all that matters.”Chelsea Langford is the assistant editor.