Reflections of a Couple of Book Prize Judges

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An insider’s view of the passions, politics, and personalities involved in, well, singling out literary merit.

By Peter Conn and Wendy Steiner

THERE SEEM to be awards programs dedicated to every group from scientists to soap opera actors, and writers have a slew of them. What role do literary awards play in our culture — are they anything more than marketing tools? — and how are books nominated and chosen? What is it like to sit in judgment of what is “best” in a given year? For some answers, we turned to two Penn English professors who are veterans of book-judging panels.

Dr. Wendy Steiner is Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and chair of the department; she served this year as a judge on the National Book Critics Circle awards panel, and has also served on the National Book Awards panel. Dr. Peter Conn is Andrea Mitchell Professor of English and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate; he is serving this year as a judge for PEN’s Albrend Prize for non-fiction. At the Gazette’s request, Professors Steiner and Conn interviewed each other about their experiences.

Peter Conn: To begin with, it’s something of an eye-opener to see how these various prize committees work.

Wendy Steiner: Absolutely — even something as basic as the nomination process. For PEN and the National Book Award, it’s the publishers who nominate books. For the National Book Critics Circle, it’s the membership and the board of judges; publishers have no input at all, except for the gentle hint of placing unsolicited books in judges’ mailboxes.

PC: There’s more uniformity in the judging itself. Panels are usually composed of three or five judges who read long lists of nominated books. Note that it’s always an odd number of judges.

WS: Yes. In case no consensus emerges, the odd number guarantees a majority vote. Of course, the whole judging process is confidential, and the lack of information can lead to serious misconceptions about what happened in a given decision. In this year’s NBCC fiction award, for example, Publishers Weekly reported in an editorial that Don DeLillo’s Underworld lost to Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower because some of the judges who would have supported DeLillo voted instead for a third nominee, Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral. In fact, such a situation is impossible, given NBCC procedures. The judges hold preliminary ballots, eliminating the nominees with the fewest votes until the majority of the judges vote for one book. Even then sometimes, if more than two books are still in contention, another vote between the top two vote-getters may be held, just to be sure. Despite all these safeguards, though, it’s interesting how often the judges do agree.

PC: Nonetheless, the final discussions are usually lively and even contentious. This isn’t surprising, since the judges are people who care about books, and they tend to feel strongly about their preferences.

WS: They’re also hugely knowledgeable people. Most judges are practitioners — novelists, poets, critics — who’ve spent their whole professional lives thinking about what matters in writing. They put in a lot of time on the awards (with no remuneration), because they believe that books are important and that good books ought to be recognized.

PC: That leads to my next question. What is the significance of the prizes? If I may put it slightly more grandly: What is the cultural meaning of these awards?

WS: Literary awards are there to counter “the machine” that markets to popular taste. They’re like the “And Bear in Mind” section below the titles on The New York TimesBestsellers List. Literary success shouldn’t be merely a matter of the number of books sold or the royalties earned. The judges see themselves as discoverers of value in the midst of hype.

PC: There certainly need to be counter-statements to the cascade of promotional rhetoric we are subjected to every day. But I also see some irony here. I might argue that critics should do their job of sorting out high quality from low in their reviews and conversations. Prizes, on the other hand, may exacerbate our market-driven cultural economy by endorsing the idea that literature, like everything else, is best measured in terms of success and failure.

WS: Endorsing value — saying to the world, “Take note: this is a book that will force you to give your best as a reader” — seems to me just the opposite of the typical marketing promise of an easy, uncontroversial read.

PC: But surely the prizes themselves have commercial implications. Publishers love to festoon book jackets with gold award stars.

WS: Sure. And judges wouldn’t know about possible award winners if publishers didn’t print and market books in the first place. But literary and commercial judgments are still not the same thing. It’s rare that gold stars sell many additional copies of high-quality books in America. An endorsement from Oprah’s Book Club or an expensive PR campaign is worth far more. 

PC: I’ve also heard some concern that the prize results seem so arbitrary. The Pulitzers, PEN, NBCC, NBA, and LA Times awards identify quite different sets of “best books.” That’s pleasantly democratic, but it might suggest that standards are rather variable.

WS: Well, I think they are variable. We’re all searching for the next classic, the novel or book of poems that we can add to the canon. The fact that we find excellence of insight and expression in quite different texts is perfectly understandable.

PC: Nevertheless, the wild distribution of prizes should at least encourage us to be a little tentative. I’m tempted to make my point with a list of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels from the 1930s and 1940s that no one values very highly anymore. Presumably a similar fate lies in store for some of our more recent favorites. Still, it’s important to keep trying, and especially important at a time when serious reading seems to be in retreat. By making choices, and explaining their choices, critics play the role that most literary scholars have given up. Academics, who ought to be in the vanguard of literature’s defense, have too often made themselves marginal by opting for insularity and jargon. Most practicing critics, on the other hand, despite their differences, still share a love of good books and good writing. They may reach a diversity of conclusions, but most of them are searching for the same sorts of qualities: they measure a book’s conception and execution, the risks it takes, the emotions it provokes — what a friend of mine calls “the temperature a book gives off.”

WS: Yes, it doesn’t matter that our thermometers aren’t synchronized. That’s the least of our problems. There’s huge variance in the way that different awards divide up literature. Most use traditional areas such as “poetry,” but one will include “current interest” as a category, while another will have “young people’s literature,” or “first fiction.” Some combine biography and memoir; others separate them. The NBA gives only one prize for all nonfiction; the NBCC has separate awards for general nonfiction, criticism, and biography/autobiography. Do personal musings about art belong under autobiography, criticism, or general fiction? Can a mammoth biography stand up against a juicy memoir? Can short story collections ever seem as important as novels? Judges tiptoe through real literary minefields in the process of trying to decide what’s “good.” The meaning of categories created problems for NBCC judges this year, as it has throughout the time I’ve been a judge. John Brewer’s fine cultural history, The Pleasures of the Imagination, was nominated in the criticism category because it seemed a bit esoteric for general nonfiction. But since the book doesn’t really discuss literature as such, it lost out to Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves. By the way, Publishers Weekly mistakenly reported that it was Making Waves that caused the questions about category.

PC: The shifting categories don’t bother me very much. You might say that critics are just trying to keep up with the writers whose work they read. Novelists and poets and essayists are changing the rules all the time — and they always have. And let’s not get too sentimental about writers here. They also follow shifting fashions — as the recent proliferation of memoirs testifies. The labels we assign don’t matter as much as the books themselves.

WS: This sounds right. And yet the process is hard to keep pure. At some level, other factors enter the picture, most notably a surprising degree of national feeling. Every one of the awards we’ve mentioned except the NBCC is open only to books by Americans, and the NBCC expanded its field to foreign authors only this year. Of course, judges’ books can’t be nominated during their term on the board, but it’s an interesting anomaly that a non-American is permitted to judge awards but not to be nominated for them. Particularly with the fiction prize, which went to a UK citizen this year, some people think that the goal of these awards is to honor the best of specifically American writing.

PC: Nationalism provides the basis for a genuine debate. Another issue that concerns me is the practice and even the ethics of nonfiction. We’ve all outgrown what might be called a naive positivism: the notion that nonfiction can provide an objective or unmediated representation of events. All writing, no matter how scrupulously documented, involves the creativity of selection and structure and rhetoric. But there is still a line between the factual and the invented, and I am worried about the increasingly casual way in which writers have been crossing it: making up dialogue, or inventing the unknowable inner thoughts of historical figures, or supplying motives that are little more than speculation. On the other hand, dilemmas like this merely make a book judge’s job more interesting. So, in spite of the problems we face in deciding these awards, I will happily accept the assignment again when it is offered to me. The chance to have extended, even heated, conversations with knowledgeable people about books they love (or, indeed, about books they loathe) is a privilege.

WS: Agreed.

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