Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction earlier this week. And there was much....indifference?
The novel sounds really interesting — it's about 12 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — but I'd never heard of it before it was nominated, and I'd guess most casual readers hadn't either. Such was also the case when the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced in September. Most readers glanced casually at the list, gave each other a shoulder shrug, and went about the rest of their days.
I don't know how big a deal the literary prizes ever really had been to casual readers, and if we put the debate over selection criteria aside (merit vs. popular, etc.), it still seems like interest is waning more and more. Earlier this year, Jeff at The Reading Ape wrote a piece ostensibly defending the literary prizes, explaining that readers still care about them because, for one, they vet novels for us that are probably pretty good. That's certainly true, and it's also true, as Jeff says, that they funnel an invaluable resource towards a novel: reader interest.
Sure, there's an overall bump in readership resulting from an award. There's no question about that. But I wonder if that bump isn't declining, as only dyed-in-the-wool word-junkie literature geeks put any stock in these awards anymore.
Frankly, I don't make any special effort anymore to pick up an award-nominated book I hadn't heard of before it was nominated...or awarded. I'm no closer to reading Salvage the Bones now than I was on Monday. Neither am I any closer to reading last year's NBA winner, Jaime Gordon's Lord of Misrule, or either of the last two Pulitzer winners, Paul Harding's Tinkers (2010) or Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.
And in some cases, an award may even be a deterrent for readers. When Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer this year, I heard several readers say they'd probably skip it now (and I'm paraphrasing here), as the Pulitzer, in their minds, is synonymous with pretentious, boring ficiton. I thought that was interesting. (For the record, I did try to explain that it's not, and they should read it!)
So all this brings us to the question, and I'm really interested to hear what you have to say. How much do you care about literary awards? Why do you care or why don't ya? Do the awards factor into your book-purchasing decisions?