Book Award Season - The Logic Behind the Big Winners

Every year a new set of novels is chosen as the best for that year. With the sun behind rain clouds, what better time than fall to start reading up on the biggest novels of the year.
The end of the year is starting to draw nearer and while the slew of "Best of…" awards are still far off, the early runners are already gearing up to give out their top honors, especially within the publishing industry. Every year, these publishing standards look at the most honored and revered books of the year and make a judgment of the entire industry based solely on that sample size. It is a closeted view, but it is occasionally effective, assuming that the sample size taken is of the best books on the market.

This year’s top honors are only a few short weeks away, including the Booker Prize being awarded on October 16 and the shortlist for the National Book Award being announced the week after. These awards, along with the eventual awarding of National Book Critics Circle Award at the end of the year.

In truth, awards have very little bearing on which books we read initially or how good they are. However, when the lists are published and the fancy gold medallion is printed on the cover of each year’s winner, there is a spectacular rise in sales and attention, not quite on par with Oprah’s endorsement, but very near.

What makes a book award worthy then? It is a variety of things. The first of those things is often the amount of attention a book has received in the early months of the year. In the case of the Booker Prize, the English Commonwealth’s most prestigious annual award, the opposite is often true. A book that has flown in under the radar but that provides a brilliant new take on literary fiction is often given at least the attention of the award’s short list. Take for example Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Many award winners are early novelists, enjoying their first international success with their Booker Prize winning works.

Another common factor to see in the shortlisted award books is that of tradition. While many award juries are interested in giving attention to under appreciated books, writers who have traditionally been highly respected but have not won awards are often considered for a new book. In some cases, this can actually result in an inferior book by an incredible author winning an award. Take the 1956 win of the Pulitzer Prize by Faulkner for Fables or his 1962 win for The Reivers. Both novels are considered to be minor ones in his canon, while his major works such as The Sound and the Fury were snubbed for lesser works in their publication years.

Often, especially for awards such as the Pulitzer or the National Book Award where tradition runs deep, this can be the case. This is why awards such as the Booker are so interesting. With only 38 years of winners, the goal of the prize has always been to award the most original novel, one that pushes the boundaries of the English novel. It is not without its share of controversy as such a perspective can occasionally result in a book being chosen that skews so far as to be unworthy of an award. Many people dispute the choice of the 2003 award winner, Vernon God Little for this very reason.

Regardless, as the Autumn stretches on and weather dictates that there is much more time to read than normal, the question of who the big winners will be in 2007 start to be asked. For the Booker prize, the shortlist has long since been announced and the consensus has the favorite as Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. However award favorites such as Ian McEwan and Nicola Barker have also published new books this year that have become favorites for a chance at the award.

The National Book Award is another matter altogether as it handles American literature and takes a similar approach to its selections. Michael Chabon won once before and his newest book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union could do well this time through. There have been any number of outstanding releases this year though from writers like Don Delillo, new comers such as Joshua Ferris or any other number of writers who have impressed with their new novels.

The end of the year is a very special time for anyone who is an avid reader. The excitement surrounding the final selections for the biggest prizes in literature, including the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize (October 11) can make anyone who is looking to fill their newly found free time when the sun hides with dozens of short listed novels and books.
By Anthony Chatfield
Published: 10/6/2007
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