Like It or Not, Book Awards Matter

orphan master's son hardcover

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Writing for Book Riot has shaped my reading life tremendously (by giving me a TBR stack taller than I am, for instance), but the greatest effect that this site, its writers, and its readers have had is that they’ve combined to make me much less of a book snob. It’s true. There was a time, not too long ago, when Amanda’s “Shit Book Snobs Say” post read much more like my personal manifesto than I’m comfortable with.

Thankfully, I’ve shed a good deal of that snobbery. I’ve started reading more outside of my lit-fic wheelhouse (and found books I love along the way – fancy that), stopped worrying so much about what kids are reading (picking up The Hunger Games instead of Moby-Dick is not a symptom of the End Times), and finally hopped aboard the ereader bandwagon (turns out they are real books, you guys). Read and let read, say I.

Mostly, anyway.

There is one bastion of snobbery, still defending itself viciously against my every conceivable approach, that probably won’t soon leave me: I love book awards. Medals, plaques, trophies, you name it. I track the longlists, the shortlists, the finalists, and the winners. Pulitzer, PEN, NBA, NBCC, Booker, so on, so forth. I read as many as I can. And yes, if I see a boastful sticker pasted across the front cover of a book as I peruse the shelves of my local, I am more likely to pick up and purchase that book. Call me shallow, but it’s the truth.

I hear the objections to such a focus on award winners (especially of the prizes listed above). There are so many great books, and so few receive those boastful stickers. Those awards essentially ignore everything but literary fiction. Aren’t these awards just an extension of the same snooty critical establishment that basically goes out of their way to make reading as much of a chore as possible?

Yes, I hear them. And I appreciate them. But still I love book awards. I love ’em. And what’s more, I think they actually matter.

Now, some caveats before I complete that thought. We should always take awards with a grain of salt. In no way do I think that book awards or critics’ “Best of X” lists represent what you, I, or the mailman should read, nor do I think reading prize-winning or critically adored books rather than those “regular” books milling about with the unwashed masses is somehow the right choice.

That said, I’m always interested in the attempt to define excellence in a medium through a single work, even as I know that such a goal is foolhardy. It’s while I still love watching the Oscars even though I (A) frequently disagree with the nominees and winners, (B) understand that the Academy’s definition of greatness is laughably narrow, and (C) acknowledge that the whole ceremony is an enormous exercise in self-congratulation as much as anything else. But despite all that? The Oscars (even when people are griping about them) get people talking about movies and what makes them great, and that’s a conversation I love to have. The same holds true for the major books awards. Remember the reaction when the Pulitzer committee couldn’t/wouldn’t decide between Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a couple years ago? People went to bat for their favorite of the three, they put forth other books that should’ve joined those under consideration, they complained about the committee’s indecision. In short, they talked about books and what makes them great. Count me in.

Because when I say that book awards matter, I don’t mean that they always get it right (like I said, there really isn’t such a thing) but rather that they are a picture of what’s valued by at least some (important, like it or not) segment of bookish culture. If we start from there, then we can ask some important questions of the bookish world (about why these prizes value what they value, for instance, or whether or not what they value lacks something – in terms of representing genres, genders, writers of color, etc.).

So sure, we can complain about the Bookers and Pulitzers of the world serving as elitist gatekeeping mechanisms, or we can even ignore them altogether, but if we do, we cut ourselves out of some conversations that have no small impact on the world of books. Let’s face it: prize-winners (and, it’s important to note, the kinds of books that tend to win said prizes) are covered and discussed more intensely than most. Publishers take note of what wins, as do a large number of readers (prizes often equate to a bump in sales), which means that the bookish landscape, the one in which we’re all wandering around, changes when awards are doled out. Those effects are worth being tuned in to, no matter what you feel about book awards in general or the winning books specifically.

‘Read what you want’ is great advice, and if that means you never go out of your way to read an award-winner, so be it. But the more voices we have in the discussion about the books that our culture has lifted up, the better off the bookish world.

Speaking of discussion, let’s have one. Do you make a habit of reading award-winning books? Do these awards matter to you at all? Let me hear it in the comments.

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