Prizes: What's the Point?

Sarah Harrison Smith on September 26, 2017

23546759_sThis is the season of literary awards, and the lists of finalists have been rolling in, one after the other, from the Man Booker Prize to the National Book Awards, which currently has ten books in each of three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The Man Booker list is now down to six novels, and three of those are by American writers – George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, Paul Auster for 4 3 2 1, and Emily Fridlund for History of Wolves, her first novel.

Some critics, like the Washington Post’s Ron Charles, bemoan the Booker’s decision, in 2014, to open the prize to all novelists writing in English. “For any serious reader of fiction in this country,” Charles wrote in the Post, “the Americanization of the Booker Prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t already been widely heralded.” He called for a “literary Brexit” – to return the British prize to the Brits.

Charles reads more than almost anyone in the U.S., because that’s the nature of his job. He knows the big American books that came out this year like the back of his hand. But do the rest of us? A year is a long time when it comes to book publishing, and though the press pays a lot of attention to big books when they're first published, those books fall out of the conversation pretty fast unless they're nominated for prizes, or better yet, win them.

Take Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. It came out the first week of January, 2017, and if you didn’t read it right after it was published, you might well have forgotten about it until the Man Booker Committee named it as one of its top 6  -- not least because the book's snowbound, rural setting was perfect for cold weather reading but not so great for the beach.

Well, the list is a reminder of how excellent a book that is — and you’ve still got time to read it before the Man Booker judges announce their final decision on October 17. You can’t say the same for one of the non-American books on the list, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, which won't be published in the United States until December. That's another reason to be grateful that American novels are on the list—we can read them now.

Prizes are important, for all sorts of reasons, though the benefits are not quite as clear as you'd expect. They boost book sales, but according to an article in Forbes last year, that rise doesn’t extend across all genres -- poetry, for instance, doesn’t seem to benefit much from a big win. Prizes attract new readers, but a 2014 study showed that winners can count on receiving lots of negative reviews once they've won the award, because prizes encourage people to read books they wouldn't normally choose.

Some effects are unambiguously positive. Prizes give much-needed affirmation to writers who spend most of their time alone, wrestling with sentences. Increased visibility and status helps those writers sell future books, get better teaching jobs, and promote their work at more festivals and bookshops. That's all valuable -- but the greatest beneficiaries are, without doubt, the readers. We’re the ones who lose the most when a fantastic book falls from view too soon.  

I missed reading Emily Fridlund’s book when it came out last winter, but now that the weather is cooling, I’m back in the mood for an intense story set in the icy hinterlands of Minnesota. If the Man Booker judges hadn’t chosen it for their shortlist, it might not be on my bedside table now. It doesn't matter to me, at this point, whether it wins a prize or doesn't. I’m just grateful to be reminded that I meant to read it all along.

 Photo madllen / 123RF Stock Photo

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