Friday, November 18, 2011

Who Still Cares About Book Awards?

Jesmyn Ward's 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?


  1. Interesting post, Greg...and I probably agree that the average reader doesn't pay much attention. But there is a whole lot of book bloggers out there who pay a lot of attention (in fact, there are quite a few readers participating in reading challenges geared specifically towards the lit award winners and nominees - The Complete Booker, The Orange Prize Project, The Pulitzer Project, Read the Nobels, etc...). I for one, look forward to the award lists every year because I have found some amazing books on them which I might otherwise have missed (Tinkers comes to mind).

    By the way, I read Ward's book this year as part of a book tour...and I loved it. It is an amazing novel and I highly recommend it!!! I also thought that Elizabeth Strout was worth the read :)

    Thanks for a thoughtful post - I have a feeling it will generate some conversation!

  2. I care about them but I fear I am one of the "dyed-in-the-wool word-junkie literature geeks" you speak of ;) It doesn't necessarily mean I will read them but I do take notice and if something on the shortlists piques my interest I'll investigate further. I guess it's another book recommendation system I tap into, like reading the reviews and comments of trusted book bloggers such as yourself (I'm recommending Freedom for our Book Club in 2012 - thanks!) and other reading savvy types. I don't expect that the average casual reader will care too much though but keen to hear what others will say.

  3. I think it would help more people to connect with literary awards if there was more of a mix between mainstream and indie titles.

    Granted,you can't please all of the people all of the time but even those who follow the lit scene find themselves puzzled about many of the nominees these days. Oh,and I second the recommendation for Olive Kitteridge,a totally worth while read.

  4. I pay attention to nominations and awards, too. But then I pay attention to as much of the literary world as I can find time to. I consider myself an informed reader though, and tend to do my homework before buying a new work of fiction, or volume of poetry. I'd have to say that I have learned to put more of my trust and faith in the reviews and suggested of all of you in the book blogosphere over those of the various award committees. Good thought-provoking post, Greg. Cheers! Chris

  5. I do care because I hear about books that I wouldn't have otherwise. Also, I appreciate these awards lists in terms of posterity. The awards I follow the closest are the Newbery and Caldecott Medals for children's literature, and I love to read back through the years and see what was chosen at different points in history and to wonder why one was chosen over another in any given year. It's sort of a history of us through literature.

  6. I think literary awards are just another piece of advertising in an encompassing marketing strategy. Granted, that's not what they're meant to be or what they should be - but I think that's the way publishers look at them.

    The literary books I've read which won awards were hit or miss for me. I found that the foreign award winners were much more likely to appeal to me than the American winners.

  7. I think book awards do two things: get people to buy more books and, in general, highlight the "better" ones. I hadn't heard of Salvage the Bones before this week and I am hoping to read it at some point, mostly because I have an interest in post-Katrina fiction and non-fiction ever since I read Zeitoun. If it didn't win the NBA, I may have missed it.

    I think it's fun to follow book awards, but I typically don't put a lot of stock into them. Like you said, the Man Booker was a serious snore fest this year. However, the one award I do pay a lot of attention to is the Pulitzer. I have yet to read a Pulitzer winner I haven't enjoyed (yet).

  8. I don't think I pay a lot of attention to book awards, other than as a way to highlight books that I probably missed hearing about and deciding if I want to read them. I probably wouldn't have picked up Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy if it wasn't a finalist for a nonfiction prize last year... I can't remember which one, but before that it just slipped under my radar.

  9. I don't think I've ever been a casual reader, which explains why award lists rather dominate my reading life (seriously, I read: Pulitzer, Orange, Booker, NBA, NBCC, Independent Foreign Fiction, and usually the Giller winner). I think the biggest benefit to winning is actually for the next book. Whatever Jesmyn Ward's next novel is will be among the most buzzed about the fall (I'm assuming she's now safely entrenched in autumn book release season now) it comes out. Does the average reader care? No, but I bet the average reader who shops in a bookstore will now be aware of her next novel. Would there have been the same buzz for Freedom and The Marriage Plot if the author had not won the National Book Award or Pulitzer, respectively, with the prior book? It's tough to say, but I would argue no.

  10. Interesting post, I'm looking forward to reading all of the responses.

    For me, it depends on the awards. I've read quite a few Booker winners and have never really loved any of them, so I don't rush out to buy from the short-list. But I usually enjoy the Orange Prize winners and the short-listed books, so I do use that as a guide for buying books.

    I think there are too many prizes, which dilutes the impact of each individual prize.

  11. Each time I've picked up an award-winning book (or had one sent to me via Bookcrossing), I've found them a great disappointment. I don't know exactly what they've won the award for, but it's not keeping me interested, that's for sure.

    So, when I see that little sticker on the front informing me of this award or that, I avoid them like the plague; knowing I'll most probably be bored out of my head.

  12. I read prize winning books. I think I consider it like a good review. Some people liked it, so I might as well. I pay special attention to the Pulitzer and to the Orange Prize, although I'm not sure exactly why.

    I was surprised to see Ward win the Book Award, although the book is quite good. Sometimes I expect books that are already getting buzz to get more attention, but I'm happy that other books end up in the press as well. Whatever it takes to get people reading.

  13. @Wendy - You're right in that many book bloggers do pay attention to the awards - me included. But I guess my philosophy on reading challenges (I don't do them) would also apply to my philosophy on award winners - unless it sounds interesting, an award alone won't be enough to get me to read it. You recommending Ward's book, though, is a push in the right direction. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    @Kathmeista - Key sentence there: "It doesn't necessarily mean I will read them." I take notice too, but probably won't read them either unless they'd already been on my radar. Good point about it being another source of recommendations - or as many commenters voice below, it's a way to expose yourself to fiction you may not have otherwise discovered.

    @lady t - Agreed on the mix of mainstream and literary indies. That's where the NBA seems to have gone off the rails the last few years. Hardly anyone's hard of any of the shortlist and therefore don't give it much attention.

    @Christopher - I'd agree that someone whose opinion I've read consistently garners more weight for me than a nameless, relatively faceless (what I presume to be stuff, pretentious) awards committee.

    @Sara C - That is a good point - and one I should've done a better job of pointing out in the post. Even if you don't necessarily care about the awards themselves, the lists are a new source of recommendations; a way to get a list of vetted books outside your comfort zone. I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders a few years ago, only because a friend recommended it very highly and because it had been on the NBA shortlist. Those two factors in tandem were enough to convince to me to read it - and I'm glad I did!

    @Man - That's a rather cynical view. ;) Interesting that you liked the foreign ones more than the American ones.

  14. @Brenna - I suppose you're right - I also, after reading Zeitoun, am more interested in Katrina novels. And the fact that this is about Katrina - probably moreso than the fact that it's an NBA winner - is what's gotten me interested in it. The Pulitzer is generally good, but I've definitely read some snoozer Pulitzer novels - The Known World is at the top of that list.

    @Kim - Funny that you remember the book, but not its award. I'm with you on that - and I think you're definitely right, that the awards, if nothing else, highlight books we even avid readers may have missed otherwise.

    @nomareader - That's a good point about the name recognition an award brings being important for the next book. However, Freedom and The Marriage Plot would've been just as big without their NBA and Pulitzer, I think. I didn't even remember that either had won those, to be honest - I just remember how much I loved The Corrections and Middlesex, and how long the wait was for the follow up.

    @Sam - I'm with you on the Booker - I don't even know how many of its winners I've read, but I do know that I read The Inheritance of Loss because of its Booker win, and was bored out of my skull. And good point about the sheer number of prizes anymore - it's tough for casual readers, even if they do care, to tell which they should put stock in.

    @Mozette - I wonder if there's something to the idea of higher expectations and subsequent letdowns with an award-winning book. It may be dangerous to be so sure you'll hate EVERY award winner, though. Haven't you read a book you loved before it won an award? ;)

    @LBC - That's true, an award is definitely a validation that "some" people liked it. Just tough to tell who those people are - and what criteria they're judging on. It is nice to see the small guys get attention, I agree!

  15. Actually, Greg, I've read books that should win awards. They did get onto the shortlist and then another book won it (that was also on that list). When I read the book that won the award, I've wondered how it won it at all... weird but true.