Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews, Snobbery) takes a look at the glut of awards, literary and otherwise in a Wall Street Journal piece: “All this prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his classmates.”
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2011 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is usually the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The lone past winner (for The Line of Beauty) is Alan Hollinghurst, and longlisters Sebastian Barry and Julian Barnes have gotten shortlist nods in the past. At the other end of the experience specturm, four debut novelists make the list: Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards, and Patrick McGuinness. All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available): The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt) On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (excerpt [pdf]) Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt) Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (excerpt) Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt) The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick) Far to Go by Alison Pick The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers Derby Day by D.J. Taylor
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The contenders for the 2013 National Book Award were pared down to a five nominees in each category today. Winners will be announced in New York City on November 20. Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri will be excited to know that after missing out on yesterday’s Man Booker Prize, the Lowland author is still squarely in the running for the National Book Award. Of course, in order to attain the honor she’s going to have to beat out former Millions Top Ten member George Saunders and Millions favorite Rachel Kushner – as well as previous NBA winner Thomas Pynchon. On the nonfiction list, Millions readers should recognize George Packer’s The Unwinding, which Chris Barsanti called an “awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul.” At the final awards ceremony on November 20, each finalist will receive $1,000, and each winner will receive an additional $10,000. Additional awards will also be goven to E.L. Doctorow and Maya Angelou, who will be receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community, respectively. The National Book Foundation has also announced that free e-books will be released containing excerpts from each of the works on the shortlist. (We’ll have more on that when it’s available.) Edit: The new e-books are now available for the Fiction Finalists, Nonfiction Finalists, Poetry Finalists, and Young People’s Literature Finalists. (E-books for other platforms are available here.) Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Millions review, Millions interview) The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt) The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (excerpt) Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (first page, excerpt) Tenth of December by George Saunders (Millions review) Nonfiction: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (review) Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Millions review) The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (review, excerpt) Poetry: Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart (review) Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (review) The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka (excerpt) Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (review) Young People's Literature: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt (review) The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (review) Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (review)
From across the bookstore, it flashes at me like the plumage of a wild bird seeking a mate: one of those small gold circles indicative of acclaim. And, frankly, I'm a little turned on. I already know I like shiny gold things; could this be a PEN finalist? A Pulitzer Prize winner? Up close, it turns out to be The Omnivore's Dilemma - one of The New York Times' "Best Books of the Year." To this honor, the inside flap appends the following: Gold Medal in Nonfiction for the California Book Award Winner of the 2007 Bay Area Book Award for Nonfiction Winner of the 2007 James Beard Book Award/Writing on Food Category Finalist for the 2007 Orion Book Award Finalist for the 2007 NBCC Award What does this list tell me? It depends, perhaps, on the speed at which I'm reading. At a quick glance, each accolade works like a word-of-mouth recommendation; together, they suggest that this book is worth my time. Closer inspection also helps refine my generic expectations: clearly, The Omnivore's Dilemma is a work of nonfiction about food, written by a Northern Californian whom book critics like (and possibly containing an element of science fiction? I suppose I could look up the "Orion Book Award," but I prefer to imagine that it portends space aliens or time travel.) However, were I to take the list in the spirit in which the publisher has proffered it - to embrace the assumption that these awards have some settled empirical meaning - The Omnivore's Dilemma might, paradoxically, start to look second-rate. Sure, it was the best book in California, in 2007 (a weak vintage for Californian nonfiction, if memory serves), but there are 49 other states, and at the national level, it was merely a "finalist." What I want to know is, Who won the NBCC that year? Maybe I should go read that book instead. Of course no one is this literal-minded, and thank goodness for that - The Omnivore's Dilemma turns out to be one of the best books I've read in months. But what its flap copy tells me about prizes is mainly that there are an awful lot of them. The NBCC. The NBA. The Newberry. The Nobel. The proliferating PENs: /Faulkner, /Hemingway, /Nabokov... The Governor General's and The Giller. Commonwealth and Orange and Costa (née Whitbread, not to be confused with Whiting). The Pushcart, The O. Henry, The Paris Review/Aga Khan, The Story Prize. There are so many prizes, in fact, that we at The Millions started a series to keep track of them. (Our "Prizewinners: International Edition" suggests that the mania for awards is not confined to Anglo-American letters; Spaniards, for example, have a whole host of regional honors). It may be worth bearing in mind, though, that many of these seemingly venerable prizes are no older than the mobile phone. Thirty-five years ago, fewer than half of the above awards existed. It's also interesting that hand-wringing about the health of book culture was at that time less pronounced. While correlation is not evidence of causation, it would appear that the spread of those little gold circles - which project, in the wilds of the bookstore, an aura of critical consensus - is in reality a response to a crisis of authority. These days, everyone's got an opinion. Should everyone, then, get an award? Or, to put it bluntly: are there too many prizes? The answer to this question depends on how we perceive the function, or functions, of literary prizes. I would argue that they do several valuable things. First, in an era when column-inches for book coverage are disappearing from our major newspapers, they offer publishers free promotion for books that deserve it. (Or nearly free; I'm sure they pay a couple cents per gross to the little gold sticker factory.) And we Americans respond to prizes. In the best cases, as when the Nobel alerts us to a Herta Müeller or an Imre Kertész, a worthy author immediately finds a broader audience. In other cases - the Pulitzer, most years - an author of whom people were already aware gets a dispensation to stop worrying about whether her next book will sell. It will. Literary prizes may also offer writers in whose lives rejection, penury, and doubt are the rule (which is to say, almost all writers) a financial and psychological vote of confidence. Conferred on an author who has yet to find a sustaining audience, a prize purse may act as a kind of fellowship, subsidizing another three or six months of work - $10,000 here to Ron Currie, Jr.; $10,000 there to Jessie Ball. Even the ubiquitous Pushcart Prize nomination - though there must be a thousand of them every year - lets the writer know that someone out there is paying attention. (In this light, Alice Munro's decision to recuse herself from the Giller competition last summer looks honorable. She's already won it twice. Give that money and recognition to someone who can use it.) Also: Prizes are fun. The most interesting of them seem to make a virtue of subjectivity, or to dismiss, by transparency of design, any pretenses to Olympian objectivity. I've always been partial to the International IMPAC Dublin's huge and heterodox longlist of librarian-nominated titles from around the world. And on the Internet, conferring an honor is a matter of keystrokes. Among the most enjoyable of the recent spate of prizes is The Morning News' Tournament of Books. With its parodic structure, its color commentary, and its Zombie Round, the TOB simultaneously serves the functions mentioned above and punctures the premises of, say, the Pulitzer. Laying bare its mechanisms, it is the most postmodern of prizes. In my view, however, all this award-granting gets silly whenever prize-granting bodies short-circuit the practical virtues of prizes - promotion, encouragement, and pleasure. They do this in two opposed but mutually reinforcing ways: first, by contriving prizes so commonplace or parochial as to carry hardly any cultural weight. Second, by attaching to a single prize more significance than any award should rightly carry... by eliding the plurality of critical judgments in favor of some settled, authoritative Best. This sounds like a fuzzy distinction, even to me, but a couple of recently minted prizes may help to clarify what I mean. The first is the St. Francis College Literary Prize for a fourth book of fiction. "What's the best fourth book of fiction?" would have been a great parlor game or blog debate. But with no sign of the college trustees' tongues being in their cheeks, the design of this prize was so narrow - its proxy for "midcareer" so arbitrary - that it seemed to me to verge on parody. In theory, the prize was to offer "significant...support" to a writer at a crucial juncture. In practice, it was an occasion to give $50,000 to Aleksandar Hemon (who had just won half a million from the MacArthur Foundation)... and to get him to come lecture at St. Francis College. Then again, Hemon is a terrific writer, and we can take these things with a grain of salt, can't we? A more egregious offender, in my view, is the Man Booker International Prize, new as of 2005. With its widely publicized betting odds, the Booker once seemed to acknowledge that literary prizes are as much sporting event as science. Over time, however, the prize grew popular enough to attract the sponsorship of The Man Group plc, and with it a ceaseless pursuit of the best of the best. There's the longlist; the shortlist; the Booker where all the Bookers of the given time period are Bookered against each other (The Best of the Booker, The Booker of Bookers)... and now: The International Booker: The Man Booker International Prize is significantly different from the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction in that it highlights one writer's overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. In seeking out literary excellence the judges consider a writer's body of work rather than a single novel.... The Man Booker International Prize is unique in the world of literature in that it can be won by an author of any nationality, providing that his or her work is available in the English language. Well, yes, because the Nobel can be won by an author of any nationality, period. But more broadly: whom does this prize serve? What would it mean for Jane Smiley et al to have declared E.L. Doctorow superior to V.S. Naipaul in 2009, or vice versa? Do these writers need the 60,000 pounds? Notoriety? The good opinion of Jane Smiley? Was this award even fun to talk about? I may be missing something - feel free to correct me in the comments - but does anyone even remember who won? Together, The St. Francis College Prize and The International Booker delimit the double-action that characterizes literary culture in the digital age. On the one hand, pronouncements proliferate democratically, even as their prestige diminishes; on the other hand, institutions that have amassed authority under the old dispensation scramble to capitalize on what remains of it. We may look forward, on the one hand, to the Nobel of Nobels, and on the other, to the Award for Best Third Collection of Short Short Fiction by a Southpaw. Lucky for readers, though, I have a modest proposal, a compromise that might save us from all that. I believe it fulfills the core functions of literary prizes and encourages cooperation among competing prize-mongers, while nakedly retaining the flavor of arbitrary silliness. With apologies to The Morning News, ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the Prize Championship Series. Now all I need is for the heads of the various prize-granting bodies to agree to participate, or perhaps for President Obama to weigh in. That shouldn't be hard. In the meantime, I can offer only a stopgap solution to the problem of prizes: Perhaps we should decide how seriously to take any one of them based on whether it seeks to start a conversation or to end one.
Tomas Transtromer, the 80-year-old poet, became the first Swedish laureate since 1974. The Nobel committee gave Transtromer the award "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." He is the first poet to take the $1.5 million prize since Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in 1996. The Associated Press called Transtromer a "perennial favorite," and indeed he has ranked high in the betting odds in each of the last several years. The AP also noted that Transtromer suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him half-paralyzed but that he has continued to write. A number of collections of his poetry have been published in translation. Here are a few: The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems For The Living And The Dead Truth Barriers The Deleted World Bonus Link: Solitude (I) by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Robertson