the complete review Quarterly
Volume V, Issue 2   --   May, 2004

Making the Initial Cut
The literary prize selection process

       Literary prizes attract attention, with the biggest ones considered among the most important literary events of the year. These receive considerable media coverage, and nowadays even the announcement of the finalists or the shortlist of contenders -- or, in some cases, even the longlist -- is a media-event, widely broadcast and discussed (and, at least in the UK, bet on). This recognition, and the publicity that comes with it, often also translates into dramatically increased sales.
       The media focus is invariably on the final cut(s), and then the award itself. Almost always missing from the discussion, however, is the really interesting question: who gets nominated in the first place.

       There was considerable controversy in the US last year when the National Book Foundation announced that its 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters would go to Stephen King, a bestselling author whom some apparently did not consider sufficiently 'literary' for such an honour. King himself addressed the issue in his acceptance speech, maintaining that: "Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction." He argued for inclusiveness, saying it wouldn't suffice if the award for him were merely a token gesture and popular authors continued to otherwise be ignored. Specifically, he challenged the National Book Award judges, "past, present and future", to read the works of 'popular' authors: "You don't have to vote for them, just read them."
       King also cited one specific example:
There's a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub. He's just published what may be the best book of his career. Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read it ? Have any of the judges read it ?
       Whatever the merits of the Straub-title, King failed to notice the most basic fact: it's not eligible for the 2004 award. As the NBA Entry Rules & Guidelines make clear: books have to have: "scheduled publication dates between December 1, 2003 and November 30, 2004". At the Straub book is listed with a publication date of 7 October 2003 -- a week before the title that won the 2003 National Book Award, Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire.
       Lost Boy Lost Girl was eligible for the 2003 prize, but didn't make the shortlist. The question, of course, is whether it was even nominated -- which it does not appear to have been. (In this respect, at least, King was correct in questioning whether the judges had read it -- but it seems they were neither required nor requested to do so.)
       Like many (but not all) fancy literary prizes, the National Book Award allows only publishers to submit books for consideration. The prize-judges can only choose from the nominated books (a minor exception being that the panel-chair can call in books that weren't originally submitted by publishers) -- and that turns out to be a far more limited selection than one might expect.
       The National Book Award's entry guidelines are actually fairly open -- theoretically, at least: the main restrictions are that both authors and submitting publisher must be American, only the publisher can submit works (except that the "Chairpersons of each panel may 'call in' titles, through the Foundation office, that have not been submitted by publishers"), and there's a $ 100.00 entry fee per title. Nevertheless, publishers don't submit a large number of titles for consideration. The reasons for this presumably range from the fact that they don't want to tick off the judges by overwhelming them with books, as well as the simple recognition that not all their products are prize-worthy.
       Entry restrictions vary from prize to prize. The Whitbread Book Awards must also be submitted by publishers, and there is also no limit as to the number of books that can be submitted. Among the most open is the American Pulitzer Prize, where the only restrictions for the fiction prize are, basically, that the author must be American and that the book must "be made available for purchase by the general public in either hardcover or bound paperback form" in the prize-year. There's also a $ 50.00 handling fee, but, significantly, anyone can enter a book for consideration (i.e. it's not solely at the discretion of publishers). The Commonwealth Writers Prize only allows publishers to enter books -- and only allows each publisher "four entries per region, per bona fide imprint: two for the best book prize and two for the prize awarded to the best first published book". One of the few prizes taking a very different approach is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, where "nominations are made by libraries in capital and major cities throughout the world", with each library able to nominate up to three titles.
       The Man Booker -- generally considered the most prestigious British literary prize -- sets a number of strict limitations: aside from the citizenship requirement (only Commonwealth citizens are eligible), only publishers may submit works, and each UK publisher may only submit two novels. There are a few exceptions: books by former Booker winners and some shortlisted authors get a free pass, and all publishers may submit a list of five further titles (along with "a justification for the submission of not more than 250 words") from which the judges must call in a total of between eight and twelve books -- and judges are allowed to call in books that were not submitted.

       Setting restrictions on what books can be submitted is an effective way of keeping the number of books that must be considered manageable -- though it is not clear that the restrictions are always necessary. The list of Booker nominees appears to generally hover between 100 and 150, but the far more open Pulitzer reportedly only had 800 nominations for all five letters categories (an average of only 160 titles per category (Fiction, Biography, General Non-Fiction, History, and Poetry)). But in some prize-categories the numbers can be close to overwhelming: Michael Kinsley (in)famously complained about having to read (or at least look at the covers) of the 402 titles submitted for the National Book Awards in 2002 -- though that was in the non-fiction category (in which far more titles are published annually than in fiction).
       It is a difficult balancing act. The 402 NBA-nominated non-fiction titles make for more than practically any judge could conscientiously handle (unless this is their full-time job that year), and judges consistently complain even when there are far fewer books to consider. In 2002 Man Booker chair Lisa Jardine complained "the judges were prevented from making the best decision by the sheer number of books they had to read" -- though there were a mere 130 to deal with.
       The difficulty is in limiting the number of titles to be considered, while still ensuring that worthy books don't fall through the cracks. Limiting submissions to those made by publishers does not seem an ideal way of doing that; further limiting the number of entries by only allowing publishers (regardless of size) to only submit a small number of titles makes it even worse.

       The Man Booker is a leader in restricting the field of entries, and it's a wonder its reputation has not suffered because of it. As Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape noted in 2002, Yann Martel's prize-winning Life of Pi probably wouldn't have even been nominated if it hadn't been published by a relatively small press:
"If Martel had been published by one of the big houses, I guarantee the book would never have been entered." Franklin has such literary giants as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan on his list. "If you have a lot of established authors and they find out you haven't entered their books you will soon discover you no longer have them."
       Similarly, Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog was apparently rejected by over 50 British publishers before being brought out by tiny Polygon in 1992. It made it onto the Booker shortlist, but was surely only submitted for the prize because Polygon had few other fiction titles on offer. If a major house had purchased it, chances are it wouldn't have been one of the books they'd have chosen to submit.
       What safeguards the Man Booker offers against overlooking a masterpiece aren't very impressive: publishers are allowed to submit a list of five other titles, for example, complete with 250-word justification. While the judges may be familiar with some of the listed titles, or might even seek out actual copies of the books when making their final call-in selection, this is surely no way to decide whether a book is worthy of being considered or not. And while judges are free to call in any other eligible title, it seems unlikely that that is much taken advantage of (as they have little incentive to add to the hundred-plus titles already set before them).
       Possibly the best eligible books are all considered for the Man Booker year after year, but it seems unlikely. (It would appear the Man Booker folk are aware of the problem (that they aren't getting all the best books): they assure publishers: "All submissions are made on a confidential basis", and the public is kept in the dark about what books were submitted (beyond those eventually named on the longlist).)
       As David Baddiel observed in 2002, a not-surprising consequence of the submission-restrictions is that:
There are far too many with an obvious gravitas -- heavyweight books that are written with the clear agenda of "this is going to win a prize". It's like a formula. They attempt to grab big themes, and have a vulgar, obvious seriousness, yes, even a kind of pompous pretentiousness about them.
       Baddiel blames the writers (and they are fundamentally at fault), but it's no surprise to find specifically these books to be the ones submitted for the Man Booker: it's the publishers that decide which ones to submit, and they naturally choose not the best ones, but the ones that appear most likely to nab the prize. If you only have two shots at it, then it's better to play it safe with prize-likely books, rather than the truly good ones.

       The problem of books written (or submitted) with the agenda of "this is going to win a prize" isn't restricted to the restricted Man Booker. Stephen King's complaint about the National Book Award has some merit -- but the blame doesn't lie with the judges (who can pretty much only judge what is put in front of them), but rather with the publishers who are very selective in the choice of titles they submit. King does not speak about his own experiences, but it does not appear that his publishers ever submitted any of his fiction for NBA or Pulitzer consideration, for example.
       All of this suggests a more or less unspoken conspiracy. The value of an NBA or Man Booker (among many others) is in being selective from the outset, publishers committed to preserving it as a distinctly "literary" prize by not even submitting any books that don't meet certain expectations. Publishers have other prizes for which they can submit, for example, their genre titles (Edgars and Hugos, etc. for mysteries and science fiction), while presumably books by the likes of Stephen King, John Grisham, and Peter Straub sell well enough under any circumstance not to need the validation of any literary prize.
       (One can argue that most of the popular authors who generally aren't even considered for the more 'literary' prizes wouldn't stand a chance in hell of winning one anyway, but it would be interesting to put that to the test. While it is hard to imagine authors like John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark ever being honoured for the quality of their writing even discerning readers would probably prefer the pick of Stephen King's voluminous output over any of at least half a dozen Booker winners.)
       Interestingly, this prize image-maintenance is apparently even practised voluntarily by authors, who don't seem to exert much pressure on publishers to enter their books (something Stephen King and the like could easily have written into their contracts), nor do they take the initiative themselves where possible. The obvious candidate is the Pulitzer: four copies, an author-photo, and a $ 50.00 handling fee is the entire required outlay, and yet very few authors take advantage of this opportunity. There seems no good reason why Stephen King does not submit all his eligible work; indeed, there seems no good reason why all American authors don't submit their work for consideration (and we strongly urge them to). (The Pulitzer is one of the few prestigious fiction prizes that admits to looking for a specific kind of book -- works "preferably dealing with American life" -- but this is practically an invitation for a chronicler of American life such as King to submit his works.)

       The considerable number of titles published annually makes for a potentially huge field for many prizes, and clearly there must be some process by which the number of theoretically eligible titles can be winnowed to a reasonable few that the jurors can then properly consider for the ultimate honour (a total of under a hundred titles seems desirable). Unfortunately, there seems no easy yet also effective method of separating the worthy titles from those which aren't: the logistics remain a nightmare. Leaving it to publishers to decide which books to submit -- and, even worse, only allowing each publisher, regardless of size, to submit a handful of titles -- is obviously far from ideal. For a prize-committee to select the best title of the year (as it understands it) the jurors must be more involved from the earliest stages, if possible, and certainly not allow other interested parties to make decisions regarding which books can be considered and which can't.
       As things stand, it's hard to take many of these prizes seriously (though the media -- and much of the public -- nevertheless do) -- and presumably they only are because the organisers manage to shroud the decision-making process in such secrecy, so that the general public is unaware that far from choosing the best book of the year a prize is awarded to a representative example of a few carefully (or otherwise) selected titles. Outrageously (but, given this situation, understandably), most leading prizes don't even acknowledge what books have been submitted for consideration (and, more importantly: which haven't). (An admirable rare exception is the Kiriyama Prize, which, despite considerable restrictions (only publishers can enter titles, and each may only enter up to three full-length books in each of the two categories of fiction and nonfiction) at least makes public what books were submitted.)
       (A clearer explanation of what sort of excellence is being rewarded would also be helpful. Many prizes leave it entirely up to the jury -- which generally changes year to year -- and while some are refreshingly honest about the criteria (most notably the Pulitzer: "There are no set criteria for the judging of the Prizes. (...) It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work 'distinguished' ") it is difficult for outsiders to judge what has been judged.)

       It's no wonder Stephen King felt a bit out of place at the National Book Award, an ostensibly literary (as defined by the (publishing) powers that be) sort of prize from which he and many others have long been excluded. Unfortunately, he did not address the root of the problem: his publishers (in whose hands most prize-submissions lie) and an industry-wide literary conspiracy that's neither in the best interest of readers or authors (with a few exceptions). Book prizes should -- within their chosen parameters (US or Commonwealth citizens only, women only, first or second novels, or whatever other ridiculous restrictions the prize-givers insist on) -- not only be open to all but should welcome all. The playing field should be level, like at the big city marathons, where elite and commoner race together -- and it currently is not. This isn't to say that quality should be in any way compromised; only the best should win (and so the truly talentless -- James Patterson, say -- would never get very far), but everyone should be considered.

       In his acceptance speech, King said:
For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding.
       Readers -- real readers, who care about the book and not the label and the headshot or reputation of the person who wrote it -- presumably couldn't care less how and which writers stare at each other. But this tension, between so-called literary or serious or high-art fiction and so-called popular fiction, is something that the NBAs (and the Man Booker, and most of the other prestigious literary prizes) in their current states foster, making for a bizarre sort of elitism (in which quality is only a secondary concern) that appeals to a few and seems to alienate far more. The industry appears desperate to maintain this divide; perhaps some of the authors on each side of it are too (as some, no doubt, do benefit from this arrangement). What purpose this serves -- beyond for the select few -- is unclear: better, surely, to embrace all and allow these books and authors to go head to head in the prizes (and elsewhere). It would have been interesting to have seen how Straub's Lost Boy Lost Girl would have fared in last year's NBA field .....

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© 2004 the complete review Quarterly
© 2004 the complete review