How do literary awards factor in your reading? I pay attention to new of the awards but only one captures my attention continuously and factors in my reading: The Booker Prize. I read before that Book has a diverse panel of judges that changes every year. The line-up that picked Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger for the 2008 Booker is entirely different from the one that selected Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in 2004. Nevertheless, the criteria used to select those judges has been consistent, and while even the most breathless prize-watchers seldom stop to consider such details, it’s these criteria that determine the character of each prize.
Pulitzer Prize is the most influential of the American prizes. It is awarded by the Pulitzer Board, which is mostly composed of newspaper editors and journalism professors. However, the board selects its winner from a list of three candidates chosen for it by a panel of three jurors. The National Book Awards, by contrast, are chosen by panels of five judges in each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature), who have “written and published works in that category.” Nobel Prize to me has been an enigma: partly because of its very insular panel, and partly
I’ve been keeping records of winners and short-lists in my journal. Over the years I have seen a prominent trend: My reading identifies with the Booker Prize shortlists more likely than any other awards. Of the 20 short-listed books between 2009 and 2012, I read 7 and own another 9. As for Pulitzer, (surprisingly) I read all 3 winners from 2009 to 2011, and no award was given in the fiction category in 2012. Last year’s omission stirred up a storm among the literary circle. The Pulitzer judges did reveal that three books had been named finalists, but declined to award one the prize. A committee of readers, which changes annually, recommends a small slate of titles to a panel of judges, who choose the winner.
I am neither a writer nor a critic. But I feel that civilian perspective should be respected. It is no wonder that I’m familiar with a high percentage of the Book nominations. I credit Booker for routinely bringing in non-writers as judges—not as the only judges, but as an essential part of the mix. A literary culture in which the only people who read novels are other novelists is neither healthy nor, ultimately, sustainable. There is a need for conversation between novelists, critics and readers. Any literary prize that wants to be valued by a wide variety of readers must, like the Booker, be willing to return the favor.