Awards Honor the Year’s Best Literature
By Elizabeth Cate, Collection Development Librarian
Sedona AZ (November 21, 2011) – The 2011 National Book Award winners were announced last week at a ceremony in New York City. Jesmyn Ward won for fiction for her novel Salvage the Bones; Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve, took the prize for nonfiction; the poetry prize went to Nikky Finney for Head Off and Split; and Thanhha Lai received the young people’s literature award for Inside Out and Back Again.
A considerable number of literary prizes are given each year internationally. American writers are eligible for dozens of awards, but even countries with a relatively small literary output, such as Bangladesh and Luxembourg, honor their best authors. Prizes are awarded in different genres, such as science fiction and mystery, and there are also humorous awards, like the prize for the oddest book title.
With so many award-winning books announced annually (not to mention those works long- and short-listed for prizes), how can readers distinguish among them? Knowing a bit about the emphasis, reputation, and background of the most prominent awards can help you determine which winners to take note of.
Let’s go back to the National Book Awards. An interesting essay in the October 30 issue of the New York Times Book Review examines the controversial history of these awards, which began as a small group of prestigious prizes selected by a jury of writers, took a more mainstream approach for a few years as the renamed, expanded, and profit-oriented American Book Awards, and then returned to their original focus and format. Today, the National Book Awards are regarded as awards for writers’ writers. Nominated books tend to be obscure, and the judging is unpredictable.
While not a U.S.-based literary award, the Man Booker Prize is significant for Americans because it is awarded to an English-language fiction writer from a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland. Formerly known as the Booker Award, the prize was given its present name when a new corporate sponsor, the Man Group, was recruited. This year’s winner was Julian Barnes, for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The prize, judged by a panel of authors, critics, and publishers, is a highly coveted one, as it usually guarantees strong book sales. Literati questioned the standards of this year’s Man Booker judges when they announced that readability would be among their selection criteria.
The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is given annually for the best work of American fiction, as determined by judges appointed by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. This award was established by members of the literary community in response to the former commercialization of the National Book Awards. The recipient of the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award is Deborah Eisenberg for her collected short stories. Previous winning books include War Dances, The Hours, and Bel Canto.
The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) presents yearly awards for the best literature in six categories published in English (including translated works). The judging of the NBCC Awards is unique in that it is done exclusively by book critics and editors. This year, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won for fiction, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns received the prize for general nonfiction, and C.D. Wright was awarded the poetry prize for her book-length poem One with Others. Other awarded categories are biography, autobiography, and criticism.
Named for American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded in 1917. Today, prizewinners are selected from among over 2,400 entries submitted each year in 21 categories of journalism, literature, and music. Juries, appointed by the Pulitzer Board, nominate the three most distinguished examples of works in their judging category, and then the Board picks the winners. In earlier years, the Pulitzer Board was criticized for being too conservative, but more recently, some critics have accused the Board of having a liberal bias. Among the 2011 winners are Siddhartha Mukherjee for The Emperor of All Maladies and Ron Chernow for Washington: A Life.
For an archive of past literary prize winners and nominees, visit the web sites of the organizations administering the awards. They will give you some great ideas for books to look for at Sedona Public Library.