What Qualifies as Greatness: On Literary Awards Season

October 14, 2015 | 6 books mentioned 17 5 min read


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?

covercoverIn 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?

In 1937 Margaret Mitchell took the prize for Gone with the Wind, the same year that William Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!

covercoverPoor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.

Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?

Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known —  are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?

Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”

About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”

What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”

The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?

covercoverJoyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee.  A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”

Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.

When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.

Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.

's novel The Prize was published on September 15. She is an executive editor and vice president at W. W. Norton & Company.


  1. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

    My name is Joseph Stalin and I approve this message.

    I appreciate the interrogatory tone of the piece, but why so polite? “Perhaps, in the end, … it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.” Perhaps?

    This has never been more (or less) true than it is now – in the age of Everybody Wins a Prize! The prizes are viewed with a huge and healthy skepticism by anybody with enough time and energy to think about them. There seem to be no answers to be had to the questions raised here except, perhaps, that offered up by – ironically – Derrida, that slippery Sartre critic whose wince-inducing position on “…money [and its function in the] neutralization of differences to achieve pure singularity as a dignity and a universal right” says a pebble-filled mouthful about who wins what and when and why it matters.

    Cash is ‘neutralizing’, and cash attached to notoriety, liberalizing. Ideas freely expressed, soul to soul (as dictated by select committees, accompanied by a significant cash prize, and beamed into the interwebs) are good for the development of a progressive society. Especially when it’s MY kind of progressive.

    There’s a scary prescriptive quality to the whole deal, one that wouldn’t be any less scary if it were decided by a Twitter and/or Facebook poll.

    Who really needs a prize to tell him what’s good?

  2. I’d actually thought about trying to game the Iowa Writers Workshop for my own ends. In my scheme I’d fill out all the paperwork and apply, put in the manuscript, then, after being accepted, reject it, put the manuscript on the Amazon Kindle Store and the acceptance letter on my website, and very loudly declare that I had, for the purity of art, rejected Iowa.


  3. “Which work now would be regarded as literature?”
    There’s nothing decidedly un-literary about either book, just one is more popular. Pretty ridiculous question, and very off topic considering the article is about prize winners and not the definition of literature as a genre.

  4. I’ve read The Caine Mutiny. It was pretty good.

    Also, the prize for least helpful comment goes to Jack M.

  5. “Who really needs a prize to tell him what’s good?”

    Well, I would say someone who doesn’t have an eternal wellspring of time. Prizes help us winnow down an almost infinite field. Even the most dedicated reader is only going to plow through, what, a book a week? And assuming there are still lots of things from, you know, all of history that we haven’t read yet, there are only so many slots in a given year anyone can afford to contemporary literature. Prizes help people fill those slots.

  6. @ Sean H

    I’m a dedicated reader who for the last four years give or take has done the bulk of his reading on, oddly, a dedicated reader. I keep myself at a rigorous 2.4 books a week pace. I’d do more, but there’s the whole elusive eternal wellspring of time issue.

    As the sainted Robin Williams said, I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing near you. We don’t disagree except perhaps in mood: re these prizes, you prefer the indicative – “the prizes help”, while I cling to a skeptical subjunctive “who really needs a prize”. Above – first paragraph, first sentence – unintentionally and meagerly illustrates that we have an absurd lexical problem in the world of literary merit: words seemingly begin to mean less and less.

    The author of this piece puts it well: “do they [prizes/sales boosts] necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?” Now I like a buck as much as the next lumpen, and where I’m writing from we’re slapped silly by it’s perceived authority on a daily basis, but given the universally acknowledge unholy union between art and market if you can insist with a straight face that a Booker et al., Prize nomination offers you a more credible line on literary merit than say, “The Millions” or “Your Local Librarian”, then 1) you’re a better, more trusting person than I am, 2) we’re going to disagree, and 3) I’m going to continue to be better-read than you.

    Stipulated, there exists a ton of stuff yet to read from both antiquity and contemporaneity and every -ity in between, but any agency as – apparently – obeisant to the god of this age as is the book-manufacturing, prize-generating industry has ceded any authority it may have had as an arbiter of taste/merit to, well, me. And me – schmoozing with the well-read, listening hard to the better-read, reading sites like this, ignoring, largely, the grotesquely empirical voting apparatus at pristinely commodified book outlets – I am legion, baby.

    Winnowing takes time, but it should. And mistakes will be made. But reading a bought-n-paid for glowworm of a New Yorker review also takes time, and significantly heightens the probability of a disingenuously written review resulting in time wasted on a “brilliant! evocative! groundbreaking!” clunker. Finally, I refuse to allow whatever aesthetic (I believe) I’ve developed over time to be co-opted by “have you read? Of course I have!” desperation. See what you’ve done? You’ve forced me to quote Thoreau: ‘a book should be read as deliberately and reservedly as it was written’.

    It should take time. Literature should. A document that aims to process human consciousness and send it out into the maelstrom should take a LOT of damn time. To write and to read. Maybe it’s easier for me: in Ukrainian and Russian “book” is a feminine noun, so I go slow. Treat her well. Try a little tenderness. I mean, if I truly want to get where I think she wants me to get.

    On my personal hierarchy of resources to turn to for a worthy read, a Prize is, typically, at best a post factum consideration.

  7. Certainly a thorough response, il’ja,
    I mostly agree. I guess I would just say that for me there is something to be said for “buzz,” whether it’s The Goldfinch or The Wire, Anthony Doerr or Larry David, Interstellar or Blue is the Warmest Color. Hearing a bunch of people whose opinions I respect (online or in person) certainly can make me give something a try, but so can a Pulitzer or a Golden Palm.

  8. Back on my meds, so this reply should be less ‘thorough’.

    Buzz v Hype: I have a friend of years who has sat on both the Booker and (I think) Orange Prize juries; the word he/she chooses to describe the process is ‘coercive’. This person is neither timid nor particularly sanguine; he/she says the fix is in. I have no reason to distrust their perspective, and little reason to claim that Americans are more principled than Brits in the job of handing out prizes. When a prize gets it right it’s serendipitous. Which is acceptable, I suppose; serendipity can be helpful in fine-tuning the distinction between buzz and hype.

  9. Of course prizes are far from perfect and incorruptible, but wins for Tinkers (Paul Harding, published by Bellevue) and Lord of Misrule (Jaimy Gordon, published by McPherson) within the last few years certainly were small presses. I agree that, like the Oscars, they’re wrong more than they’re right, but maintaining a sense of meritocracy (as opposed to voting for 12 Years a Slave even if you haven’t seen it just because you think it’s politically “the right thing”) is the key. As long as submissions are read blind and the judges aren’t patently being paid off or leveraged, there’s at least a decent mechanism for coming up with a reasonable result that can change an author’s life and draw attention to a deserving book or two.

  10. Il’ja – screw the meds! Your paragraph re literature taking time and book being a feminine noun in the Russian is the best sentence I’ve read in any comment section anywhere!

  11. I, on the other hand, am a poor writer. I meant “are the best sentences”, not “is the best sentence.”

  12. @Rebecca J. Novelli –
    Not being willfully obtuse here, but I wasn’t aware of that. Reading National Book’s “about us” page, makes it clear that the ‘Big 6’ are involved, but also that it isn’t quite as cut and dried as “major publishers fund the awards”. The thing has morphed through the years, with the prizes, panel makeup, panel selection, the donor base, et al. undergoing some serious tinkering, and ultimately headed up by some ex-mucky-muck from the New York Public Library – a fact, which, to my naive view, adds some serious gravitas to the whole deal. I’m taking it on faith that the other “major awards” have also been correspondingly attentive to the need for retooling their processes as society – and the book market – change. Besides, Rebecca, ginormous for-profit organizations doing charity? I’d be more ready to accept that it’s all part of an Illuminati plot.

    @ Sean H
    “As long as submissions are read blind and the judges aren’t patently being paid off or leveraged, there’s at least a decent mechanism…”

    But isn’t this exactly what’s at issue? That leverage of some sort – commercial or social engineering – has been introduced into the mechanism, thus casting other salient aspects of the process into doubt? I, like you I suspect, am resistant to soft coercion that intimates my reading list – a function of my free speech and a distinctly private matter – is somehow not up to snuff if I haven’t read ‘X’. I respectfully support a committee’s right to promote whatever it has determined to be among the ‘best books of the year’, but, as a grownup, I also retain the franchise of voting with my wallet and ignoring their selections. Especially, and only after, in my secret laboratory, my self-determined tests of literary merit have been employed and I conclude, again, privately, freely, that the committee has been behaving badly.

    @heather curran
    You are a fine writer! Let’s not get bogged down by terminology – paragraph, sentence, subject-verb agreement – your first bit up there is brilliant! Incisive! The mark of (if you’ll excuse an unconscious lapse into the local speech) a genuine literaturoznavets!

    I’ve chucked the meds! Are you free for coffee, say, around 6:30, Kyiv-time?

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