And the winner is ...

The drama and the dish behind the literary prizes that shape what America reads.


Laura Miller
November 16, 2000 11:01PM (UTC)

This year's National Book Awards judges reached their decisions with an order and decorum sadly lacking in the nation's presidential election, but when it comes to literary prizes, appearances can be deceiving. Awards like the NBA, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics' Circle Award, Britain's Booker Prize and the ultimate laurel, the Nobel, seem, to the average reader, like authoritative badges of literary quality. A shiny medallion-shaped sticker, stamped with the word "winner," affixed to the otherwise enigmatic cover of a new novel, has a formidable power to sell books -- sometimes thousands of them. But what do these prizes really mean? How are they chosen, and which of them, if any, is the most reliable?

Let's start at the top: the Nobel Prize for literature, universally considered the most prestigious award a writer can attain -- but why? According to Burton Feldman, author of the new book "The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige," the literary Nobel owes most of its Olympian aura to its sister prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine. "The science juries have long chosen far more impressive laureates than have the literary judges. Planck, Rutherford, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauling, Crick and Watson, Feynman -- a steady procession of greatness or the nearest equivalent." By contrast, the early Nobels in literature went to a parade of now-forgotten authors while -- as Nobel-watchers love to point out -- the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka went unhonored.

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The reason for these omissions lies in the administration of the awards. The winner is chosen by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, an organization founded in 1786 by King Gustaf III in order to work for the "purity, vigour and majesty" of the Swedish language. Alfred Nobel, who in 1900 willed his considerable fortune (mostly earned through the invention of dynamite and the manufacture of munitions) to the foundation of the prizes, chose this unlikely body of scholars as the arbiters of the literature honor. At the time, the academy was nearly moribund, but it's never been a font of youthful, or even middle-aged, vigor. Members serve for life, have always tended to be elderly and in the beginning set themselves firmly against the upstart writers of the 20th century. You can pretty much write off the first 20 years of winners, a disproportionate number of which were Swedish or Scandinavian.

Today, the academicians are still mostly old men, some of whom wearily, and publicly, long for retirement. Two others -- Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten, have boycotted the meetings since 1989 to protest academy secretary Sture Allen's refusal to allow the body as a whole to denounce Iran's fatwah on Salman Rushdie. Literature professor Knut Ahnlund is also boycotting the proceedings until Allen is replaced, and has accused the secretary of hogging a spot on every committee. Allen does seem to be a flashpoint: Unnamed academicians described him to New Yorker contributor Michael Specter as "an intellectual accountant" and as someone "who doesn't even read."

This year, however, another academy member suffered the spotlight, as critics called attention to Goram Malmqvist's stake in the career of the 2000 winner of the literature Nobel, Gao Xingjian. As Gao's Swedish translator, the retired professor of Chinese language and literature helped negotiate Gao's switch to a new Swedish publisher, abandoning one that Malmqvist deemed hadn't done enough to promote the Chinese writer's work. The problem is, he did this before the 2000 literature Nobel was announced, which suggests that Malmqvist had leaked the top-secret identity of the laureate before its official announcement in order to interest the new publisher.

All this infighting and scandal doesn't seem to tarnish the Nobel's luster much, though. Most observers see a greater danger in the possibility that the prize will come to seem irrelevant. As the academy struggles to make up for an early history of ignoring those who write in non-European languages, the winners tend to be unfamiliar to Western readers and not immediately available in translation -- which tends to dampen the excitement. "I don't know anyone who takes Nobel seriously," says Newsweek book critic David Gates. "It's obvious that the committee's outlook is very global and very politically correct. I always assume it's someone I've never heard of who is only marginally in English translation. Toni Morrison was a good choice, the ideal Nobel laureate: high profile, politically OK and a good writer." Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, feels the prize has become a less entertaining spectacle: "You can't dope it out anymore at all. Now it's just a great mystery."

For American readers, the second tier of literary awards belongs to the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Publishing insiders differ on which is the most desirable, though most say they'd be happy to see a book they wrote, edited or published get either one. Tell that to Sinclair Lewis, who refused the Pulitzer awarded to his 1925 novel "Arrowsmith." The reasons Lewis gave were lofty -- "All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous," he declared, comparing the administrators of the Pulitzers to a potential "supreme court" or "college of cardinals." He urged writers to regularly refuse the Pulitzer as the only way to "keep such a power from being permanently set up over them."

In reality, Lewis had been harboring a grudge against the Pulitzers ever since his novel "Main Street," strongly recommended by the Pulitzer's fiction jury in 1920, got the kibosh from the Pulitzer Advisory Board in favor of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." The wisdom of the board's choice may seem obvious now, but once again appearances deceive. Then-president Nicholas Murray Butler had actually altered the mandate for the novel prize as it was specified in Hungarian-born U.S. publisher Joseph Pulitzer's 1904 will. Pulitzer specified that the prize be given to a novel that would represent "the whole atmosphere of American life"; Butler made the "slight" amendment of changing the word "whole" to "wholesome." (That word has since been changed back to "whole.") There was a definite strain of decency crusading in the early incarnations of the Pulitzer board, causing critic Malcolm Cowley to dub the prize the "Mid-Victoria Cross." Lewis' fictional attack on small-town American mores was considered insufficiently "wholesome." The author's own fastidious objections to literary prizes did not extend to the Nobel, which he accepted four years later.

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The prize for fiction has always been the most controversial of the Pulitzers; a nonfiction book can be judged on the depth of its research and other quantifiable matters, but imaginative art eludes measuring-stick evaluations. The postmodern novelist William Gass denounced the Pulitzer in a notoriously dyspeptic 1985 essay, charging that the prize "takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses," and complaining that it caters to "a large, affluent, mildly educated middle class which has fundamentally the same tastes as the popular culture it grew up with, yet with pretensions to something more, something higher, something better suited to its half-opened eyes and spongy mind." Although Gass' jeremiad prompted immediate cries of sour grapes, it's true that the Pulitzer is seen as the most middlebrow American literary prize.

The most important thing readers should keep in mind about the Pulitzer Prize is that it's awarded by a board of journalists, and that journalism is the primary focus of the Pulitzer Prizes. Some publishers feel that the Pulitzer gets better publicity than the NBA because when the prizes are announced, they make the front page of newspapers nationwide. True, but many newspapers (including last year's New York Times) don't list the winners of the letters prizes (fiction, nonfiction, American history, autobiography or biography and poetry) on the front pages with the winners for feature writing and beat reporting -- they wind up relegated to the back of the paper, on the "jump" page. The press may be Pulitzer-crazy, but they're mostly interested in the awards they're eligible for themselves.

Three-member Pulitzer juries are appointed annually to each letters category, and the juries -- usually a mix of critics, academics and authors -- recommend three candidates to the board, which is made up of newspaper editors and journalism professors; the board makes the final choice. The fiction jury and the board often haven't seen eye to eye, though it's hard to say who's got a better record for picking real winners. In 1941, the board rejected all three unmemorable titles recommended by the jury in favor of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which the chair of the jury had faulted for "a style so mannered and eccentric as to be frequently absurd." In 1974, a jury of formidable literary cred -- Elizabeth Hardwick, Alfred Kazin and Benjamin DeMott -- enthusiastically endorsed Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," but the board hated the book so much they decided not to award a prize at all that year. So, a rule of thumb: The journalism-oriented Pulitzer Board shows much better judgment when the novelist in question writes like a journalist.

The 1974 National Book Award, however, did go to "Gravity's Rainbow" (though Pynchon shared the prize with Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer). By contrast, the NBAs are judged by five-member panels composed of writers who practice the art in question: Fiction writers judge the fiction prize, children's books authors pick the best kid's book, etc. While the NBA isn't as readily recognized outside the book business as the Pulitzer is, the award is, according to Bill Thomas, editor in chief of Doubleday, "an industry badge of honor." In a ceremony held annually in early November, publishers and literary journalists gather for a black-tie dinner and ceremony in Manhattan. "It's smart of the NBA to do that," says David Gates. "The NBAs are very show biz, like the Academy Award. The Pulitzer is more along the Nobel line, chosen in deepest secrecy, and the word comes down from on high." (Gates has served as a Pulitzer juror.)

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The National Book Award was launched 51 years ago by a "consortium of publishing groups" (according to the National Book Foundation, which now administers the awards). Rebecca Sinkler, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and a veteran Pulitzer juror, recalls that the initial incarnation of the NBAs wasn't impressive: "It seemed more commercial. It started off being run by publishers, and in the early years they gave about 500 prizes and every book in the world got a prize. Journalists thought it was a way to stamp 'National Book Award winner' on every book you could sell. But they cleaned that up. The last few years they seem almost the same as the Pulitzer." The nonprofit National Book Foundation was formed to run the awards along with other literacy programs in 1989, and the current executive director, Neil Baldwin, was brought on in part to help lift the awards' profile and make the annual ceremony a glittering event.

Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove Press, thinks the NBA fiction prize carries slightly more weight than the Pulitzer's, although the Pulitzer counts more when it comes to nonfiction. Many feel that the NBA's judging panel of fellow fiction authors makes for more "literary" and "surprising" winners. David Kipen, book review editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, says, "The Pulitzer is judged and approved by journalists, who tend to be smart people and unimpeachable in their opinions on journalists and critics, but when it comes to the writing of fiction or poetry I'm a little more skeptical about them than I would of the National Book Foundation."

Others wonder if fiction writers really make the best judges of each other's work. "They all know each other and have reviewed each other," says Sinkler, who also notes that the Pulitzer jurors remain anonymous until the prizes are announced, and thereby free of outside pressures, while the names of NBA judges are made public. "Editors have a set of fairly objective standards -- it's part of the job. There's so much unconscious stuff going on when you're competing." Percival Everett, a novelist who served as an NBA judge in 1997, found the experience frustrating -- and irresistible material for his forthcoming novel. He feels the winner that year, Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," deserved to win "given the other finalists, but as good as it might be it doesn't represent a work that was clearly superior to other books that weren't finalists." Getting to that list of finalists meant negotiating with authors who didn't fully grasp their responsibility. "One judge, who I won't name, actually said that a certain book should be a finalist because 'the author is a friend of mine and just got a bad review in the New York Times and this will make my friend feel better.'"

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Many book editors say they prefer the National Book Critics' Circle awards to either of the Big Two. (Full disclosure: I'm on the board of the NBCC and participate in judging the winners.) "The judges have better taste, or at least theirs are closer to my sensibility," says Nan Talese, editor of Nan Talese Books. For Entrekin, though the NBCC is lower profile, "It's a more discerning group of judges. As conscientious as the other awards' judges may be, I can't believe they have time to read with the depth of critics every year. The NBCC are professionals. It's their profession to follow what's going on, so it's a more esoteric, refined award."

But David Ulin, an NBCC board member, sounded a cautionary note about the awards in a 1999 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "We in the judging business rely on each other to fill the gaps in our own reading, using the awards panel as a kind of giant collective mind ... Unfortunately, though, that approach can fail us. A few years ago, one major novel went disregarded because almost nobody had read it." When the group of 24 NBCC board members meets, as Kipen puts it, "A hell of a lot depends on a judge's powers of persuasion," in convincing the rest of the board to put a title on the short list.

Everybody, though, seems to relish Britain's Booker Prize, whether or not they consider the winner to be "the best novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland" that year. "The Booker is my favorite in some ways because it's the wackiest, the most contentious," says McGrath. "The judges will publicly get up and deride each other, and the other great thing is that the British can bet on it. If we could once a year legalize gambling, that would be great, then people would actually have to read these books." Booker judges have made headlines with such high jinks as drunkenly admitting at the celebratory dinner to never having read either James Joyce or Proust (Richard Cobb); pronouncing that all modern novels are essentially worthless (John Bayley); neglecting to mention that one of the novels on the "long short list" was written by his wife (James Wood); resigning to protest the sexual explicitness in novels in general (Malcolm Muggeridge); declaring the winner an unreadable "disgrace" (Rabbi Julia Neuberger); and being a television personality (this year's Mariella Frostrup).

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British literary culture is notoriously more rambunctious and feud-ridden than its American counterpart, and as a result, more entertaining, so the public takes more notice. As Kipen says of the Booker, "It's covered live on TV, it's a holiday for books. It's just such a carnival. This is what the NBA should be like." Surely the bookmakers and their famous prognostications on each short-listed title's odds provide incentive for everyone to watch the awards closely, but it's the overall gusto of the Booker that makes America's literati gaze so wistfully across the pond.

Although its plethora of smaller literary awards is nothing compared to the prize-giving frenzy lamented by French readers, the United States does have its share of what Gates calls "mystery meat" prizes. PEN, a writers' organization, sponsors no less than 17 different awards, for categories as discreet as "a woman writer early in her career, at work on a book of general nonfiction marked by high literary quality." The two best-known PEN awards -- the PEN/Faulkner (for fiction) and the PEN/Hemingway (for first fiction) -- have struck me as something of a crap shoot, with the winners as likely to be tedious as riveting, but Everett, who has judged for the PEN/Faulkner, prefers it to the NBA because "the lack of an entry fee meant that many more presses were able to submit work for consideration. Once you're reading 400 or 500 novels in a stretch of time, what's another 100?"

If I had to pick one prize to watch, it wouldn't be any of these, though. It would be the remarkably low-profile annual Whiting Awards, in which prizes of $35,000 are given to "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise" (including fiction and nonfiction writers, as well as poets and playwrights). The Whiting selection committee, "a small anonymous group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors, appointed annually" by the Mrs. Giles Foundation, has the tricky task of picking the writers who are just about to do great work. So far, they've got a fine record, spotting Michael Cunningham, Mary Karr, Kent Haruf, Alice McDermott, Stanley Crouch, David Foster Wallace, Mona Simpson, Tony Kushner, Denis Johnson and Jorie Graham, and many more before any of these came to national prominence. Do they have a Web site? Alas, no, but watch for a tiny item proclaiming the Whiting winners in the New York Times each October, and you'll be reading the future winners, and should-be winners, of Pulitzers and National Book Awards before the judges themselves.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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