The Prizewinners Revisited

April 23, 2008 | 15 books mentioned 4 4 min read

A while back, I put together a post called “The Prizewinners,” which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the “best” books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.

With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.

Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:

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 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. The 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, **=New to the list since the original “Prizewinners” post

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Max- I love lists, and am enjoying what seems to be List Week. The very top of this one strikes me as eerily accurate. It's a crime The Line of Beauty isn't more widely read over here. Things get dicier as we move down. Kavalier & Clay, Kelly Gang, and American Pastoral feel like sleepers in the vast slough of 5's (if multiple award-winners can be called sleepers), and I hear an awful lot of good things about Gilead.

    And what of Zadie Smith's On Beauty or Eggers' maligned What is the What? I'll take them over Cloud Atlas any day. What, more significantly, of Norman Rush's Mating and DFW's Infinite Jest? It seems that the prize committees, in aggregate, can recognize goodness, but are spottier when it comes to greatness.

    I'd love to hear my fellow armchair warriors handicap this field.

  2. I agree that it seems hard to go wrong with everything at 6 or above, and the appearance of Doctorow's The March with a 7 is intriguing. The lower reaches of the list are certainly spotty.

    If I'd gone back to 1991, Mating would have made the list with a 5; it won the NBA and was an NBCC finalist (The IMPAC was first awarded in 1996, so that's when the list starts). On Beauty was a Booker shortlister, What is the What was an NBCC finalist, and Infinite Jest got no award love whatsoever.

  3. Whoops. Mortals was the Norman Rush title I meant (from 2003). Another intriguing no-show: Pynchon. I actually prefer Mason & Dixon to Gravity's Rainbow, and feel fonder of Against the Day the more time passes.

  4. No award love for Mortals, and very little for Pynchon, excepting, of course, his NBA for Gravity's Rainbow in 1974. Interestingly, Gravity's Rainbow was also shortlisted for a Nebula Award, a prize that goes to the year's best science fiction.

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