Game of Tomes: The Struggle for Literary Prizes

Game of Tomes: The Struggle for Literary Prizes

The Nobel Museum at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.

SourceJONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because how writers win prizes is also worth a novel.

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Autumn is literature’s awards season. The Man Booker, the National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize were all announced in October, and the wind down to winter is when many readers and writers celebrate or bemoan those who made it or didn’t make it onto the famed short lists. And God forbid that a musician like Bob Dylan, rather than a “real writer,” be given the highest literary prize of all!

How are such decisions made? As both a judge of book prizes and as a writer who has been lucky enough to be short-listed for one, here is what I know about book prizes. The process of selecting winners is more challenging, and frequently more random, than most people realize.

The prizes I’ve judged — in my seven times as a juror — range from the regional California Book Awards to the international Etisalat Prize for Literature. On each occasion, winners were selected only after lengthy discussions and sometimes heated arguments. On one occasion, had it not been for one juror who doggedly argued the merits of a particular title, the book that ultimately won might not have made it to the short list.

… there is almost always the challenge of more books being submitted for prize consideration than jurors realistically have time to read.

In the best-case scenario, all jurors pull their weight equally. But even when jurors are paid for their services, which isn’t often, not all jurors do what is expected. I once sat on a panel where one of the jurors failed to read the books in time for the long-list announcement. This meant that the remaining jurors had to vote on a long list without a fellow juror’s input.

Had that juror participated, the long list may have been different. On another occasion, one judge threatened to quit if others didn’t come around to their way of thinking. To further complicate matters, when rumors of this were leaked, someone close to the source of the prize’s funding volunteered to replace the juror. Edward St. Aubyn’s parody of literary awards in his entertaining novel Lost for Words is, alas, not that far-fetched.

In addition to the challenges sometimes presented by the idiosyncrasies of jurors, there is almost always the challenge of more books being submitted for prize consideration than jurors realistically have time to read. Often, books with the most press will get the most attention. Books with unappealing covers and a poor opening chapter or paragraph, or even a poor first sentence, may not get a second look. That said, I have yet to serve on a jury where jurors are not eager to discover a brilliant book by an author that nobody’s talking about. Many jurors are meticulous and dedicated, devoting endless hours to the reading of submissions.

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Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius announced that Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

Source JONAS EKSTROMER/AFP/Getty

The process of reaching consensus on a book jury is not dissimilar to some of the exchanges I’ve observed between readers on online forums. When my latest novel was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize, I followed with interest what readers on Goodreads had to say about my book’s chances of winning. Some readers questioned whether the book was “unconventional enough” for a prize created to “reward fiction that breaks the mould [sic] or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” Another reader wondered if one should “separate personal enjoyment from prize worthiness.” As it is between readers, so it is between book jurors — it’s not just the quality of the writing that is debated, but also the purpose of the prize.

While book prizes are keenly anticipated and celebrated by readers and writers alike, being selected as a finalist or winner can be something of a lottery. Budding authors should also remember that prizes are not always predictive of an author’s future success or longevity. In 1987, for example, a man named Larry Heinemann won the National Book Award for Fiction, while Toni Morrison and Philip Roth were runners-up.

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