The Problem with Prizes (or, Who Cares About the International Booker?)

January 19, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 18 6 min read

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

coverWhat 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 NewsTournament 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.

coverThe 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.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Aw, the Man Booker International Prize ain’t so bad. Ismail Kadare won it in 2005, and he’s one of the world’s greatest writers (though not nearly as well known as he should be in the United States). If you doubt me, give Broken April, The Siege, or The Pyramid, or Chronicle in Stone, or The Palace of Dreams, of The General of the Dead Army a try . . .

  2. Thanks for mentioning The Story Prize (even in this context). Arguably, there may be too many book awards, but when we started ours in 2004, there were none for collections of short stories, which are rarely finalists or winners for other major prizes. Our award has a clear purpose—to shine the spotlight on short story collections. Now could you add a bracket for The Story Prize in your mock tournament? I’d stack our winner (and finalists) up against the winners of the other awards any year.

  3. Haah! Line of the day this: “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.”

    Buy your arguments that the gold circles lend “an aura of critical consensus” & may in face be “a response to a crisis of authority”. Presumably, books with gold circles get picked up, perused & maybe bought more than ones without them – espeically when strategically highlighted in a book store. Also buy your argument that these prizes can be a “financial & psychological vote of confidence” for starting authors, who do not get due recognition often. (Writing is a very lonely job, I am unhappy vocation, as Simonen said….so, I cannot get myself to grudge any of these prize winners.)

    And agree how about it is silly to award a prize for a “fourth book of fiction”! Maybe the awarder wants to gloat in the aura of the famous author!

    BUT..the Booker and Nobel committees had shunned Alice Munro’s genius until recently. For that alone, I cheer the International Booker award!

  4. Love this answer by Jesse Ball.

    Q: Do you feel any responsibility to set a precedent for award winners of the future?

    A: Yes, they ought to wear lizard skin boots with a balisong hidden by the left ankle.


    Q: Are there any awards you take particular notice of each year?
    A: Most of all the MacArthur. I was very pleased when they gave it to the guy who studied movements of fish populations through oral histories. That’s the ticket.

    via: (which I reached via the link to Plimpton Prize for Jesse Ball in your article.)

  5. Totally agree with your arguments, but still feel that any excuse to bring attention to books is worthwhile, and prizes, with their potential controversies, do just that. Hollywood learned that long ago. The Oscars clearly started as a P.R. opportunity and stayed that way. A two to three hour commercial. And there certainly is a proliferation of movie awards: Oscars, Golden Globes, etc.

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  7. While the “fourth book” does appear arbitrary, it also seems desperately necessary. I am so grateful to St. Francis College, and whoever else was behind the prize, for trying to build an audience for and interest in writers who are 1) older than 30; 2) have actually graduated from college; and 3) are building a body of work, not just hoping to leap to script writing as soon as possible. Beyond this, the College seems to have somehow gathered a distinguished jury, and to have chosen a very worthy prize winner. If this prize encourages people to keep working, it has done us all a good service. Stop the whining and be grateful that there are people and institutions that want to support good writing.

  8. Super piece.

    I started following book awards as an occasional pastime many years ago, intrigued by winning titles deemed worthy by the litterarti and fascinated by the politics of the process. That was before I became horribly addicted to the whole affair. I now follow over 250 English speaking awards and read 3-5 award winning books each week: no claim to fame there, more a description of a lingering malady.

    Circus or the University of life?

    Book Awards certainly feed many egos, whilst keeping the wheel of capitalism oiled. Judges seek affirmation for their choices and are elevated in their social circles by their election to office; authors half wanting to win and half contemptuous of their seduction; publishers, desperate for sales and vindication within their company for backing that ‘rather strange book” and desperate for a bit of cashflow; agents scrambling for relevance; retailers hoping that at least a few books will resonate and ring the tills whilst starving authors by undercutting prices; a wider public seeking enlightenment through a writers’ insight into the human condition but not really that interested; the crass but oft necessary nature of commercial sponsorship (Nestle finally had the good sense to vacate the arena), and, above all, the sheer transitory nature of it all plus the delicious corruption that occasionaly comes to light ( well, in France and Canada anyway). The sheer arrogant snobbery of “Ivy League” awards? Another day Henrieta.

    In recent times we have witnessed the rise and rise of the half-human half cybercommerce-bots devoid of ethics public relation teams who have diminished the value of the Booker Brand to a point of absurdity. The once beyond reproach Dublin International,whose recent longlists suggest that even librarians are not reading that much anymore, is now suffering a long full from grace.

    The ill-fated commercially focused American Quills got what they deserved whilst the UK Brit Awards, in danger for a while of redefinning ‘shallow’, have actually managed to suprise on the upside in recent times by glamming-it up and achieving some measure of literary merit. Canadian and Australian Book Awards appeal to, well, Canadians and Australian respectively, whilst leading Irish and Scottish Book Awards should probably just throw in the towel.

    As for the ‘World Cups’ of Literary Awards, The US National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize , they have their parellel in the Baseball World Cup (a sport played by a handful of nations), the winners are so American-middle class sensibilty-centric in their construction that the winning books barely tickle the shelves of oversea bookshops. The international, yet myopic Nobel Prize for Literature, is so ensconsed in it’s own Ivory Tower that it has almost ceased to have any meaning to the wider populace whatsover.

    Still, literary awards do occasionally recognise an author of superlative merit, a book or two of sublime content, and present us with an opportunity to enter a real or imagined world beyond our previous experience. We are enriched by the carnival. Despite the constant pain of betrayal inherent in the process, the bent theatre, the lively discussion amongst ever diminishing circles who actually read a shortlist, many of us still love em’.

    Ultimately any event that attempts to place literarture of worth before an ever more plasma-screen-a-tised and coca-culturised public deserves our whole-hearted suppport. Yes, we love to piss on book award proceeses and choices from a great height, but at least they are throwing-up a narrative worthy of dissection. And, did I mention the authors who some would argue deserve our accolades for their garrett suffering and art and the books, the books, the books…..? No, just bit players really an the books mere figments of electronic cyber-illusion.

    Deep sigh. What’s on the free to air telly tonight? Another glass of red and to hell with the grammar, spell-check and sentence construction.

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. To be honest, I sat on this piece for about half a year; the International Booker press release for summer ’09 got under my skin a little bit, but the more I thought about any individual award, the more I thought, is this really so objectionable? I’d hate to be unfair to anyone’s hard work. (And thanks for the Kadare tip, PG!) On the other hand, it does seem that, as with currency, the more awards get minted, the more the value of any one award becomes open to question, and the easier it is to ignore it. In lieu of an actual solution – other than to take the whole thing with the good humor and good sense of these commenters – I guess we’ll just endure the deluge – and keep it in our pants when we see those gold circles.

  10. The National Book Awards and the Newberry Awards are very Prestigious awards and the Newberry are the oldest. The Ruth Lilly Award is only 36 years old 1986 I believe and it ” BIG TIME” out classes the Pulitzer Prize Award in Poetry seeing as it comes with a 100,000 USD paycheck while the Pulitzer only comes with a 15,000 USD paycheck hmm I don’t know you tell me which one is more Prestigious?

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