In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”
Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.
It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UK
Here in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.
The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.
And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.
In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.