October 21, 2015

What You Need To Know About Every Major Literature Award

By Tayla Burney

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry looks a lot like the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry looks a lot like the Nobel Prize for literature.

Last week brought a flurry of announcements for shortlists and wins in already narrowed fields –literary award season is officially in full swing!

But how to keep track? It’s easy to feel adrift in a sea of lists, nominees and titles. And, really, there are many, many more awards out there than we can possibly cover here. But here’s a quick and dirty guide to a selection likely to cross your radar:

Kirkus Prize

Who’s Behind It: Kirkus has been a name in books since the 1930s when former Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) department head Virginia Kirkus started reviewing books prior to publication. Her vision has grown into a reviewing powerhouse that helps book buyers and readers find their next read.
What’s At Stake: Self-described as “one of the richest literary prizes in the world,” each of the three winners – in fiction, non-fiction and young readers – is awarded a $50,000 purse.
Who Can Win: Kirkus finalists and winners are chosen from the pool of books that receive a starred Kirkus review. For 2015 the eligible titles had publication dates between November 1, 2014 and October 31, 2015.
Who Picks The Winners: A panel of three – a writer, a bookseller or librarian and a Kirkus critic – select the finalists and winner in each category.
Who Has Won: This year’s winners were: Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’ for non-fiction; Hanya Yanagihara, ‘A Little Life’ for fiction; and Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova, ‘Echo’ for Young Readers’ Literature. The prize just got started in 2014. Last year’s winners and finalists can be found here.

Man Booker Prize

Who’s Behind It: From its start in 1969 up until 2001 it was just the Booker Prize. Then starting in 2002 the Man Group – billed as “one of the world’s largest independent alternative investment managers” – got in on the action and it’s been the Man Booker ever since.
What’s At Stake: Significant prize money – the lone winner gets a  £50,000 check, worth about $77,000 at today’s exchange rate. Everyone on the shortlist for the prize – including the winner – also get some cash, £2,500. The winner gets to keep a special bespoke volume of their shortlisted title, displayed at the festivities. This is also a prize that toots its own horn when it comes to translation to sales. From the Man Book website: “The real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book… that will to some extent be shared not only by the authors who have been shortlisted, but, in the long run, by authors all over the country.” If that wasn’t enough, The Royal Mail also issues a congratulatory postmark featuring the winner’s name, applied to UK stamped mail for four days after the announcement. Which is just neat.
Who Can Win: Anyone who has written a book in English published in the UK. So, you know, it’s a small pool (NOT). The main rule that guides the selection of a winner is that prize go to the author of “the best novel in the opinion of the judges.”
Who Picks The Winners: A more unusual hallmark of this prize is that you don’t have to have literary bona fides to be a judge. The panel might include other writers, critics, poets and academics. But they’ve also included politicians and actors. If you have a passion for “quality fiction” you qualify. (Ahem, I’m AVAILABLE. Call me.)
Who Has Won: This year Marlon James made history as the first Jamaican winner when his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” earned him the prize. Is it a coincidence that he won less than a week after joining Kojo in studio? We think not. Previous winners include: Sir V S Naipaul, Anne Enright, Salman Rushdie, and Dame Hilary Mantel.
What Else: Man Booker also administers an International Prize for works in translation and several other “special prizes” as well.

National Book Award

Who’s Behind It: The National Book Foundation has been giving out this award since 1950.
What’s At Stake: Winners -one each for fiction, non-fiction, poetry and young people’s literature- receive $10,000 each. Finalists -five in each category- also receive a prize of $1,000, and a medal.
Who Can Win: This is an American award, so to be eligible a book must be written by an American citizen and published by an American publisher. The foundation addresses the sticky question of self-published works noting they “are only eligible if the author/publisher publishes the work of other authors in addition to his own” Note: There is an entry fee for this contest, which I would imagine means publishers submit the books they figure have the best chance at winning. A shortlist for each category is announced about a month before the winners are announced. And for the last two years that announcement has been made on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which as a public radio producer, I think is FABULOUS.
Who Picks The Winners: Up until 2013 this was an award for “writer’s writers,” as the panels were limited to, well, writers of renown in each category. Since 2013, though, the group of five judges for each category has been broadened and may now include critics, librarians and booksellers.
Who Has Won: This year’s winners will be announced Wednesday, November 18. So study the 2015 shortlists and make your picks now. 2014 winners included Phil Klay for “Redeployment” in fiction; Evan Osnos’ “Age of Ambition” for non-fiction; Louise Glück’s “Faithful and Virtuous Night” in poetry; and Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” in young people’s literature. 
What Else:
The organization also picks an annual group of  “5 Under 35” to watch and awards a “Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” as well as a “Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.” Say THAT three times fast.

The Pulitzer Prize

Who’s Behind It: Way back in the 1800s Joseph Pulitzer was a hard-working, respected journalist who came from a family with a whole lot of money. In his will -written around the turn of the 20th century before his death in 1911- he left money to establish annual journalism awards and several in “letters” including one for “an American novel.”
They’ve been administered by the Columbia University School of Journalism since 1917. In 1948 the award was switched from “novels” to one for “fiction” joining the already established literary awards for history, biography or autobiography, drama and poetry. General non-fiction was added in 1962.
What’s At Stake: $10,000, a citation and BRAGGING RIGHTS. Contrary to popular belief, you do not get a medal. Only one really great, super news organization gets that, not any individuals.
Who Can Win: It’s….sort of complicated. Check out the complete guidelines  for entries in letters if you really want to know the nuances, but in most categories in letters the author has to be a U.S. citizen and their book has to have been published in the U.S. within the calendar year.
Entries must be submitted and anyone can submit an eligible title with a $50 fee and four copies of the book. Now I kind of want to nominate someone, don’t you?
Who Picks The Winners: Decisions are made by the Pulitzer Prize Board. How do they decide? Well, according to the Pulitzer website, “there are no set criteria for the judging of the Prizes.” The criteria for each category steer them somewhat, but it’s up to these folks to decide what “distinguished” means and who makes the grade.
Who Has Won: The 2015 fiction winner was Anthony Doerr for “All the Light We Cannot See” which has been a stalwart on bestseller lists since. In 2014 it was Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and in 2013 Adam Johnson took the prize for “The Orphan Master’s Son” a year after the board declined to give an award in 2012 causing much consternation. See the entire back-list for fiction here. And full lists in every category here.
What Else:
Say it with me, “PULL-it-sir.”

The Nobel in Literature

Who’s Behind It: Like our old friend Joseph Pulitzer, Alfred Nobel was kind of a big deal in the 1800s. He only lived to be 63 years old, but he was a chemist, engineer, entrepreneur and author who spoke five languages by the time he was 17. And, as the inventor of dynamite -and holder of 355 patents overall- he had a boatload of money. When he died, he stipulated the prize’s creation and left an endowment for it in his will.
Awards for science and the uber-famous Nobel Peace Prize are handled by separate institutions. The literature prize is overseen by the Swedish Academy.
What’s At Stake: For this one, you do get a medal, which is pretty cool. You also get money and the amount varies depending on the year. This year the 2015 winners in each category received 8 million Swedish kronor – which is also a lot of U.S. dollars – about $960,000. Also, it’s *kind of a big deal*.
Who Can Win: Well. To be eligible, you must be nominated by a qualified person. Who’s qualified? According to the Nobel website:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges
  3. Previous Nobel Laureates in Literature
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries

Still with me? The whole process is shrouded in secrecy. Imagine Papal conclave but minus the smoke. “The statutes of the Nobel Foundation restrict disclosure of information about the nominations, whether publicly or privately, for 50 years. The restriction concerns the nominees and nominators, as well as investigations and opinions related to the award of a prize.”
Who Picks The Winners:  A group of four to give people, known as the Nobel Committee for Literature, reviews the nominations from the group mentioned above. They then send those to the aforementioned Swedish Academy, made up of 18 members, to select the Nobel Laureates in Literature.
Who Has Won: The 2015 winner was Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich. The full list of literature winners is here and the last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993.

So…there we have it: a, by no means exhaustive, list of literary prizes. Which do you watch and add to your TBR* pile from?

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*”To Be Read” What? You’re not a hyper book nerd?

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