Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?
The Major Literary Awards
Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?
- The Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
- The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
- The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
- The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
- The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
- The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
- The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
- The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.
This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.
Booker Award Controversies
Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.
Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.
The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.
The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.
The most recent revelations about more Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.
And, lest you get the impression that the Booker is the worst of the lot, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)
It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…
Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time
The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)
Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.
The Martian (Andy Weir)
Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)
Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)
Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.
The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)
Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)
I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.
Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)
Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.
I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).