Whom or What Are Literary Awards For?

When the National Book Awards modified its nomination processes in early 2013, I was concerned about some of the reasoning behind the changes—in particular, the effort to make the awards, in the words of one board member, “a little more mainstream.”

Personally, I think it’d be great if the National Book Awards were as prominently celebrated in our mainstream culture as, say, the Oscars or even the Tonys—but that would require making books more “mainstream” than they are now, which would be a pretty big project, beyond our present scope. Unfortunately, the takeaway from the initial discussion was that the NBA judges were being chastised for “recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors,” when they ought to be putting forward books more in alignment with the serious reading public’s sensibilities, as reflected either in the critical appraisal of mainstream reviewers or in actual sales, or in the place on the Venn diagram where those two circles overlap.

(I was about to say “the greater reading public’s sensibilities,” but you can imagine how the literati would react to the books that would emerge from that approach.)

I take the exact opposite point of view. I would never presume to describe myself as a “well-read” person, so, for me, the National Book Awards shortlist has always been about the insights of five people who’ve been given the opportunity to spend a year (roughly) cultivating as close to a comprehensive perspective on contemporary American literature as anyone is likely to possess. What have those five people seen that I and other readers have missed?

In that sense, literary prizes serve roughly the same function as literary criticism itself—a celebration of the experience of reading, what Harold Bloom calls “the reception of aesthetic power,” rooted in specific examples. If you want to know “what literary prizes are for,” there’s your answer: Literary prizes are for acknowledging the power of reading.

I could have said “the power of books,” but I think that leads us towards a trap into which many critics, particularly among those who self-consciously consider themselves “literary gatekeepers,” have fallen. Once you talk about “the power of books,” it’s easy to start talking about the power of specific books, and to start believing that just because reading one book was more profound an experience for you than reading another book, that first book must somehow be “better” or “greater.”

On some level, of course, that’s the usually-not-so subtle implication of any literary prize; sometimes it’s as blatant as designating the award as going to the “Best Novel.” Even the National Book Awards, though it doesn’t put “Best” in the prize names, describes its intention “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.”

Yet the book upon which the NBA judges bestow the annual award isn’t “the best.” We shouldn’t even say the five books that make it to the shortlist in each category are “the best.” Instead, if we look at these books—or the books put forward by other juries for other literary prizes—as representative of the best, they serve as touchstones. Not in the way some would like to cast them, that whole “if you only read one book this year, this is the one that counts” things. Instead, literary awards can tell us, here are books to remind you how awesome reading can be, and that will make you want to read more books.

I don’t know if it’s ironic or not, but after all that initial hoopla, the 2013 National Book Award shortlists struck me as very similar to those of previous years—perhaps more “mainstream” in its selections, but not by much. As is often the case, I haven’t read most of the nominees, though I’ve heard good things about several of them and seen a few of them around. I’m looking forward to finding out who wins, especially in the fiction category, as that’s probably the book I’ll read first—not to validate my own literary tastes, but to expose myself to a new way of seeing things.

Because, I’m beginning to think, literary awards aren’t for the writers, they’re for the readers… all the readers.

in response to “Whom or What Are Literary Prizes For?

19 November 2013 | better bookends |