When Literary Prize Committees Royally F'ed Up

When Literary Prize Committees Royally F'ed Up

Why you should care

Because there’s good drama in awarding literary prizes, too. 

Tomorrow we find out who makes the short-list of one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards: the Man Booker Prize, handed out in London to any author publishing in the United Kingdom. Before we engage in ritual worship of the recipients, it’s worth remembering just how often award committees screw up.

Winner Take Nothing?

A Nobel Prize winner “for his mastery of the art of narrative,” Ernest Hemingway’s path to the podium entails quite a story in and of itself. For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated for the 1941 Pulitzer Prize. The board of fiction recommended the novel, and the overarching Pulitzer board agreed at first; seemingly Hemingway was set to win.

Enter Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University at the time. Butler, deeming Hemingway’s work offensive, persuaded the overarching board — which claims singular discretion in awarding the prize — to recant its support. Ultimately the Pulitzer went unawarded, only the second time the award for fiction had not been given out since the prize’s inauguration in 1917. The title of his 1933 short story collection, Winner Take Nothing, became oddly prophetic.

While Hemingway could have ultimately joined the likes of John Updike and William Faulkner as a double Pulitzer winner, his legacy was cemented in the 1950s, when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954.

The Man Booker Prize has been awarded yearly since its birth in 1968. While the prize originally awarded books published a year prior, the format changed in 1971 to award work from the same year. Since the 1970 prize was awarded to Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member, published in 1969, and the 1971 prize was awarded to V.S. Naipaul for In a Free State, published 1971, the winning work from 1970 was essentially “lost” in transition.The ‘Lost’ 1970 Man Booker Prize

Fortunately, we needn’t speculate as to who would have won. In 2010 the Man Booker committee sought to rectify the loss of the 1970 award, retrospectively selecting J.G. Farrell’s Troubles as the victor.

The Nobel Casualties of the World Wars

Black and white portrait of author Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

While the loss of the 1970 Booker Prize was rectified, six Nobel prizes in literature were lost to the World Wars, none of which have been revisited. Since the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for lifetime achievements, any number of authors might have been bestowed with the honor, had the world not been in upheaval.

Might 1918 have seen Marcel Proust commemorated as a Nobel laureate? Would 1940, a year before his death, have held promise for James Joyce? Unfortunately, despite Sweden’s dedication to neutrality, these Nobels were lost amidst the smoldering rubble of Europe.

Puerto Ricans Win Big

Established in 1980, Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Literature has cemented itself a place among premier international awards. It does, however, differ from awards like the Man Booker or the Pulitzer in one capacity: namely, that awards are not restricted to individual authors or books. While most of the yearly prizes since the first award in 1981 have gone to outstanding authors like Günter Grass, the 1991 prize was dedicated to none other than … the people of Puerto Rico.

Stack of books on a shelf inside a library.

Source Gallery Stock

You read that right; on April 5, 1991, Puerto Rico changed its national language to Spanish after English had shared a co-designation since U.S. colonization. In the presentation speech, the Puerto Rican representative championed his people for “having defended (their) native language against a policy imposed during the first forty-five years of this century.”

Especially noted was that the decision “enabled the works of (Puerto Rican) poets, novelists, playwrights and essayists to be produced in the universal language that they share … with Borges, with García Márquez, with Cela and with Octavio Paz.” Puerto Rico’s award stands as one of the least expected in literary prize history, rivaling JFK’s Pulitzer, which he won despite not appearing on the list of semifinalists or finalists.

Shady Dealings: The 1974 Nobel Prize

Two Swedes, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974. They were likened to Aesop in the presentation speech, but their readership outside of Sweden was, and remains, low. Also, Johnson and Martinson were active members of the 18-person panel — nicknamed “de aderton” — that selects the laureates. Now consider the north-of -one-million-dollars prize money that accompanies the prize. Was the Nobel committee running amok?

Apparently the nomination of committee members was and is legal, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. Still, world-renowned authors like Vladimir Nabokov, whose Nobel hopes expired three short years later with his death in 1977, are considered to have been much more deserving of the 1974 prize. “Every academy member has his or her own agenda and their own personal favorites,” says Swedish journalist Jonas Thente. Indeed, “personal favorite” seems the apt description.

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