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75 Notes For An Unwritten Essay on Literary Prizes

2010 November 27
by Matthew Hunte

Photo: National Book Foundation

1. “The point of prizes, presumably, is to establish literary standards, honor worthy work and the writers of it, and enlarge the audience for fine fiction by bringing it to wider public notice than its publishers can bear to.”

2. During the annual book award season, which runs from the Nobel Announcement in the fall to the Pulitzer in the spring, there are many complaints that the majors awards are dooming themselves into irrelevance by making obscure selections.

3. The irony of this position is that most of the soi disant ‘serious readers’, who apparently number no more than 4,000 in the United States, have a great fascination for the neglected classics, the lost masterpieces long out of print. This dissonance comes out of an acknowledgment of the various levels of utility involved in the awards process itself and the competing interests of the awarding institution.

4. “While the reception of products called ‘commercial’ is more or less independent of the educational level of receivers, ‘ pure’ works of art are not accessible except to consumers endowed with the disposition and the competence which are necessary for their appreciation.”

5. At what point does a jury become a focus-group ?

6. One of the dangers of book prizes is that, if only subconsciously, they may lead some to rely on them for validation prizes, in lieu of the hard work of developing a refined literary sensibility. Such a stance implies is that there really is no such thing as intrinsic artistic value; that the value of a work is to be found outside it.

Le Monde

7.  The Nobel Prize in Literature had great cachet from the very beginning in large part because it was the first and the most lucrative prize : it was founded in 1896 and first awarded in 1901, prior to the Prix Goncourt.  The Nobel also has the largest monetary prize and was from inception, an international prize, albeit with an initial Western European bias.

8. This prestige has lasted even though it passed over many of the greatest writers of the early 20th Century, and thus had no great list of laureates to assess its relative prestige. These omissions were in large part  consequences of the criteria involving writing of an idealistic nature, proving moral uplift,thus precluding the Swedish Academy from awarding even a Scandinavian like Ibsen, much less Tolstoy. (The Pulitzer Prize would also suffer from the specificity of its award criteria.)

9. Andre Malraux was passed over for the Nobel in no small part due to the disfavor in which the Academy held the politics of De Gaulle, whom Malraux had served as Minister of Culture. Graham Greene was passed over by the Academy repeatedly because of a personal dispute with one of its members. Indeed, Greene, Bellow and Nabokov were apparently supposed to have been joint winners in 1974 but instead the prize was shared by Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both of whom were member of the Academy. Bellow was the only member of the triumvirate to eventually win, becoming a laureate in 1976.

10.  Though it often seen as such, it is stipulated that the Nobel be awarded for lifetime achievement. According to the Academy “The awards shall be made for the most recent achievements in the fields of culture referred to in the will and only for older works if their significance has not become apparent until recently.” This has allowed the Academy to anoint writers just as they have completed what is deemed their magnum opus,e.g. Derek Walcott with Omeros, or to Saul Bellow finally winning the Pulitzer for Humboldt’s Gift the same year he was named a laureate. V.S. Naipaul, who had long been a rumored contender, is thought by some to have won the Nobel in 2001 for his examination of Islamic societies in Among Believers and Beyond Belief.

11.  Kurt Vonnegut believes his failure to win a Nobel was due to his failed management of a Saab dealership : “Old Norwegian proverb: “Swedes have short dicks but long memories.””

Year After Next In Jerusalem

12.  I have argued that just on the basis of the writers who have won it, the biennial Jerusalem Prize, deserves to be held in nearly as much esteem as the Nobel. One of the difficulties with this is that much of its prestige derived from its connection to that older prize, either as a predictor or a substitute. Not including Bertrand Russell, the inaugural winner in 1963 who was already a Laureate, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, J.M Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa all won the Jerusalem Prize prior to winning the Nobel. Borges, Ionesco, Graham Greene and Arthur Miller won it in lieu of the Nobel. (Other notable winners include Milan Kundera, Don Delillo and Haruki Murakami.) Indeed, Susan Sontag, near the end of her life, apparently wondered if one day Stockholm would come calling after she won the Jerusalem Prize in 2001, to go with her surprising National Book Award for In America the previous year.

13.  It is said that Sontag was overwhelmed, openly sobbing, when she won the NBA for In America, since it validated her image of herself as primarily a fiction writer, an image not widely shared by even her admirers. But given her major contribution to belletristic writing, a Nobel for Sontag would hardly be undeserved; the Swedes have done worse. Edmund White’s assessment : “She should have won the Nobel Prize. That would have made her nicer.”


14.  Frank Conroy revealed in one of his last interviews that his acclaimed book Stop-Time could have won 1967 National Book Award for Fiction. Unfortunately, Conroy felt it would have been more honest to label his work as a memoir rather than a novel.

15.  “About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, ‘Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won?’”

16.  Wilder’s The Eigth Day beat Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and William Styron’s Pulitzer-winner, Confessions of Nat Turner.

17.  Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, which was released during the same period as Conroy’s Stop-Time and Willie Morris’ North Toward Home may have been labeled as fiction out of an attempt to avoid legal action.

18.  Conroy’s work was entered in the ‘Arts and Letters’ category; it lost to William Troy’s posthumous collection Selected Essays.

19.  It took another 18 years for Conroy to produce a second book; in the mean time he supported himself by playing the piano in jazz clubs and working as a scallop fisherman in Nantucket.

20.  Richard Yates was nominated for the National Book Award for his first book, Revolutionary Road, along with Joseph Heller for Catch-22 and Walker Percy for the Moviegoer. Percy eventually won and both he and Heller went on to have successful careers, although, particularly in the case of Heller, their later work was overshadowed by their early success. The fragile Yates never really gained traction, with his work selling abysmally in spite of his generally favorable reviews.

21.  Yates continued to produce novels and short stories but they were ignored by the wider public, eventually falling out of print after he died in 1992; his work only was returned to prominence about a decade ago. It’s impossible to say how the trajectory of Yates’ career could have been different but one could legitimately argue that his lacerating portrayal of apathy and anomie in mid-century America stood to gain the most from having such a prestigious imprimatur. Yates himself felt that his career was derailed by not having won.

22.  “Want it? Want it? Of course I wanted it. I wanted it so fucking bad I could taste it!”

The Bitch Goddess

23.  Its not clear how much failure might be tied to sucess. Ralph Ellison famously never completed his sequel to Invisible Man, which he’d actually started before that book won the National Book Award in 1952. For years he struggled to complete a novel which he felt surpassed his debut in terms of quality but what is often forgotten is that due to the massive commercial success of the book and the teaching/lecturing opportunities it opened up, Ellison never had financial pressure to produce another work.

24.  In 1978, Ellison’s protege James Alan McPherson became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his story collection Elbow Room, which was also a finalist for the NBA. Instead of giving McPherson greater freedom, the prize seemed to have forced him into a shell.

25.  “I was really frightened of that environment. That’s why when I got the Pulitzer, I didn’t respond to calls. I stayed at home and hid out. You should be allowed to take joy in what happens to you. But I was scared of the backlash….For them to see me doing well wasn’t what they expected….Some whites get resentful when someone from the lowest levels of society starts winning ‘their’ stuff. So I’ve been very careful about protecting my privacy ever since those years.” McPherson has published little fiction since then, though he has produced a memoir and an essay collection that have been well received.

Prix l’Amérique

26.  “The Pulitzer does not give glory to its choices, its choices give celebrity to it; and that is precisely why it is the best known, and, to the public, the most prestigious prize.”

27.  The Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, as it was known then, was founded using funds from Joseph Pulitzer’s will : “ One Thousand dollars for the American novel published during the year which shall present the wholesome atmosphere of American life.” The Pulitzer, like the Prix Goncourt , which which preceded it by only a few years, was inspired by the Nobel.

28.  The Pulitzers are considered the most prestigious prize by the public merely because it is touted the most in the newspapers; in no small part because the Pulitzers are mainly journalism prizes.

29.  The pattern of prizes spawning other prizes either as augmentations or corrections continued. The National Book Award was founded as a correction to the Pulitzer, the National Book Circle Critics award was founded as a reaction to the convergence of those two older prizes and the PEN/Faulkner was founded as a reaction to the evolution of the National Book Award.

30.  The book prizes which followed the Nobel, even though they are awarded to single works of fiction often suggest canonization. Faulkner’s lack of a Pulitzer when he won the Nobel in 1949 was a reason for the formation of the National Book Awards.

31.  It’s not surprising that Faulkner hadn’t won a Pulitzer up to that point : the prizewinners were generally bestsellers and until Malcolm Cowley produced the Portable Faulkner in 1946, most of Faulkner’s work was out of print. His reputation was greater in France, in large part via Hollywood, where he had great influence on Malraux, Sartre and Camus. Eventually Faulkner won the Pulitzer for two minors works : A Fable, which also won the NBA, and The Reivers, his last published novel.

32.  “From the 1920s to the 1960s,roughly half of all Pulitzer winners were drawn from the top ten bestseller of the previous and/or current year. Since then, only one of more than thirty has come form this most commercially successful sector of fiction.”

33.  The recommendation for the awarding of the 1974 Pulitzer to Thomas Pynchon for NBA winner Gravity’s Rainbow, from a fiction committee comprised of Elizabeth Hardwick, Alfred Kazin and Benjamin DeMott, was overturned The book was described by Board members as “turgid”, “overwritten”, “obscene” and “unreadable”. The Pulitzer Board ultimately didn’t award a prize that year.

34.  Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It suffered a similar fate in 1977 and no award was given. Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King was rejected by the Board in 1960 but the prize was instead awarded to Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent.

35.  One reason for the specific bent of the Pulitzer Prize is that the board is mainly comprised of journalists as opposed to literary types. As such, there is often a divide between the fiction committee and the Pulitzer Board which oversees the prize.

36.  The National Book Awards were first presented in 1950. The prize was administered by the National Book Award Committee, featuring representatives from the American Book Publishers Council, The American Booksellers Association and the Book Manufacturers Institute. The categories were fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

37.  A major impetus for the formation of the National Book Circle Critics Award was the “bitter comedy” of 1974 National Book Awards; four prizes were split. The translation prize alone had three winners.

38.  The National Book Circle Critics award differed from the two established prizes by being open to any work printed in English, including translations, and being decided exclusively by critics.

39.  Ironically, by 1981, John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich swept all three prizes. During a stretch beginning with Rabbit At Rest in 1991, two of the four major prizes were won by a single book. Rabbit at Rest won the Pulitzer and NBCC as did Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Carol Shields’ The Stones Diaries. Annie Proulx won the Pulitzer and NBA for The Shipping News. (In fact Proulx also won the PEN/Faulkner in 1993 for her preceding book, Postcards.) Richard Ford’s Independence Day won the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner as did Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

40.  “With the collapse of the National Book Committee, this year’s NBA (the 26th annual) may be the last. An ad hoc committee is administering it, and the cultural emprassario Roger L. Stevens is personally guaranteeing its financing (including the 10 $1000 prizes), which is nice but not very healthy.”

41.  “…a sensible plan, from this viewpoint, should include major financing from the book industry, which appears reluctant because the NBA, it is thought, doesn’t sell many books…because the industry is tired of split decisions…wranglings about how the show should be conducted…and because peering down the nose at such silly goings-on as giving prizes has always been a mark of supposed sophistication…”

42.  “The death of the NBA, if it comes to that, will be a case of murder, committed by a book establishment gone so sour that it believes the only credible display of integrity is to demonstrate contempt for what it claims to love…”

43.  The National Book Circle Critics award was once considered not just an alternative for the National Book Award but an actual replacement for it. However this proposal from the NBCC was rebuffed. E. L Doctorow won the inaugural prize for Ragtime.

44.  The 1976 National Book Awards were administered by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, under the leadership of August Harrison Salisbury. The next year the Institute’s ties to the award were severed and the Association of American Publishers assumed responsibility for administration and financing.

Après moi le Deluge

45.  In 1979, the National Book Award went to the obscure Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien instead of the commercial favorite, John Irving’s The World According To Garp and The Stories of John Cheever. In retaliation, the Association of American Publishers withdrew their support from the prize and changed the voting rules. The awards were re-branded; the award was re-named the American Book Award (T.A.B.A), not to be confused with another prize of the same name, and the categories expanded to cater to commercial interests, featuring 16 categories and 28 prizes. A publishing executive is reported as saying “The feeling is that [the NBA] was too elitist and did not recognize a lot of factions in the industry.”

46.  At one point 1,400 titles were submitted; there needed to be ten copies of each book to send to judges.

47.  “Commercial literature has not just come into existence recently; nor is it new that the necessities of commerce make themselves felt at the heart of the cultural field. But the grip of the holders of power over the instruments of circulation – and of consecration – has undoubtedly never been as wide and deep as it is today – and the boundary has never been as blurred between the experimental work and the bestseller.

48.  Roger Strauss and Aaron Asher wrote a letter to chairmen of the new prize, Franklyn Rodgers and Roland Busch, stating that Farrar,Strauss,Giroux would not submit books to be a nominated, characterizing the new award as “cheap, horrible, ridiculous vulgar and pathetic.” Rodgers and Busch replied that the award was “ a response to to strong expressions of discontent within the trade.”

49.  “Fifty of the country’s best-known authors and critics…called for a “boycott” by “all serious writers” of the 1980 American Book Awards.”

50.  For the 1980 American Book Awards, William Styron, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth asked that their books, Sophie’s Choice, The Executioner’s Song and The Ghost Writer respectively, be withdrawn from consideration for prizes. Styron, who was nonetheless awarded the Fiction Prize, described it as “ a popularity contest and a vulgarization of what went before.”

51.  Upon being announced the winner of the National Book Award in 1985, for White Noise, Don Delillo stood and said “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming”, then sat down.

52.  The Pen/Faulkner award was formed after the controversy resulting from the awarding of the 1979 National Book Awards. Mary Lee Settle, who had won the the National Book Award in 1978 for Blood Ties and was on the jury in 1979, felt that writers needed a “national prize that would recognize literary fiction of excellence, an award juried by writers for writers, free of commercial concerns.”

53.  Settle was wary of the commercial interests seen to be dominating the agenda of the National Book Awards, in no small part due to the hostile reception of her own win. She later told the Paris Review : “It made me sick. It also made my advances seven times what they had ever been before. It should have been wonderful, after all the necessary years of obscurity…but it was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had. The envy, the viciousness were appalling. I have always tried to protect myself from that second-rate literary posse that forms in New York when anything generous shows its head. My husband said afterwards that he would rather be invited to a train-wreck than a New York literary cocktail party.”

54.  The award was dubbed “The PEN/Faulkner” because it drew inspiration from the Faulkner Foundation Prize for First Novels,which had been funded by William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize. The winners of this prize included Pynchon for V. ,Cormac McCarthy for The Orchard Keeper, and Robert Stone, who would later serve as a director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, for A Hall of Mirrors.

55.  The Faulkner Foundation Award was discontinued in the by the early eighties when the foundation ran out of money. The Foundation was quasi-reformed as a branch of PEN American Center by Settle along with some writer friends in her hometown of Charlotteville, Virginia, where PEN/Faulkner Prize was launched in 1980.The award was not only administered but also partially funded by writers; the early patrons included Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth.

56.  The inaugural winner for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1981 was Walter Abish for How German It Is. The next year, David Bradley won for The Chaneysville Incident, which was also nominated for a National Book Award. As the prize grew in prominence , Settle decided it needed a bigger and it was moved to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., which was then headed by O.B. Hardison. The PEN/Faulkner Award’s current monetary prize of 15,000 for first place is still the largest among the major American book prizes.

57.  After several years, the publishers found the American Book Awards to be a cash drain; they were intended to sell books and books weren’t being sold. American Book Awards reverted to the old name in 1987 and was scaled back and to the current format. The awards were now administered by the National Book Foundation, a non-profit.

58.  “…an even larger part of cultural production – when it is not coming from people who, since they work in the media, are guaranteed the support of the media – is predefined, down to date of appearance, title, format and size, content and style – to catch the attention of journalists who will make it exist by speaking about it.”


59.  As part of an effort to relaunch itself, the restored National Book Award, now run as a non-profit, sought a winner with impeccable credentials to assert its seriousness; Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a prohibitive favorite. The awards night was considered a coronation; according to James English, Morrison “confidently brought three tables of her friends and associates” to the awards dinner.

60.  “Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a shape-shifting effort, a shocking and visceral narrative that was a revelatory slap in the face for everyone who’d filed slavery away as a mere tragic institution. It ripped back slavery’s cliched veneer and forced us to confront subtle gradations of shade and light in the very human, often painfully conflicted hearts of its characters. Beloved was an unflinching look at the texture of family and how we find both solace and betrayal within its clutches. Of course, the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction was a given. It would be a a somber nod from the academy, an acknowledgment that America has a place for its brutal chronicles, its don’t-wanna-hear-it-again, alas, its black women with insistent tales to tell.”

61.  The winner of the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction was an obscure Vietnam vet, Larry Heinemann who won with his first novel, Paco’s Story.

62.  A letter written by June Jordan, then a professor at SUNY Stony-Brook and Houston Baker, released with a statement signed by 48 prominent black writers, highlighted the fact that Morrison had not won a major award for Beloved, having been passed over by the National Book Award and the National Book Circle Critics Award, which went to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife.

63.  The letter also linked Morrison’s snubbing to the recent death of James Baldwin, who hadn’t “received these keystones to the canon of American Literature : the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize : never”.

64.  “Prizes matter so much to writers, especially writers of fiction, because the habit of fiction-writing is itself so peculiar, almost unique in its disregard for the claims of sociability and order.”

65.  Jonathan Yardley pointed out neither did F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor or John Dos Passos.

66.  Far from being ignored, Morrison’s loss was made conspicuous by her major critical and commercial success: Song of Solomon had won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and she was the subject of a Newsweek cover-story (‘Black Magic’, March 18th, 1981) upon the publication of Tar Baby.

67.  For many of her boosters,and probably for Morrison herself, winning one of the major awards was validation, not merely, of her literary merits, which were bona fide, but for her identity as an African-American woman. June Jordan declared “awards are the only kind of validation that make sense in the literary world.”

68.  “I do think that the distribution of awards in relation to black and Latino and Asian-American and Native American and gay and women writers in this country would suggest that either there’s some kind of structural genetic difference between us and white male America- or that there’s a definite pattern of racism controlling the distribution of the awards in the arts, as is the case everywhere in our American lives. But I want to reiterate : that doesn’t seem to me news.”

69.  “Toni Morrison, [has since the 1980s] been perhaps the most active and enthusiastic collector of literary awards, lobbying for them and openly embracing them as a form of ‘redemption’”.

70.  In the years just prior to the publication of Beloved, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall and Gloria Naylor all won National Book Awards/American Book Awards.

71.  Naylor, who also happened to serve on the fiction jury that year, was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories . June Jordan, then a professor at SUNY Stony-Brook wrote Naylor stating it would be “embarrassing and morally elliptical” for her to accept a previously arranged residency in creative writing at the school. Naylor didn’t attend.

72.  “. . . Most of the protesters also know who voted how on the NBA judges’ panel, which means they know that beautiful black sisterhood is not invariably abiding.”

73.  Morrison would months later win the Pulitzer Prize, en route to the Nobel five years later. In the aftermath, the National Book Award expanded to five judges for the fiction prize, larger than all the major fiction juries except the National Book Critics Circle’s 24-member committee. The addition of two judges was intended to served as a check against idiosyncratic results.

74.  Despite protestations otherwise, there has been a divergence between commercially successful books and the prizewinners. Since 1980, no Number One bestseller has won the Pulitzer, National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award.

75.  “But I do want to thank the bureau…I mean the committee, the organization, for the $10, 000 they’ve given out…Tonight they made over $400,000. And I think that I have another appointment- I would like to stay here, but for the sake of brevity I must leave. I do want to thank you. I want to thank Studs Terkel. I want to thank Mr. Knopf, who just ran through the auditorium, and I want to thank Brezhnev, Kissinger-acting president of the United States-and also want to thank Truman Capote, and thank you.”

7 Responses
  1. Matthew Hunte permalink
    November 28, 2010

    I should note that I left this incident, which I dubbed “Rick Moody and The Five New York Ladies” out :

  2. Matthew Hunte permalink
    December 4, 2010

    Judges from the first 40 years of the Booker Prize spill the dirt on how it went down :

  3. December 8, 2010

    If you just removed the numbers, this would be an essay.

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