Literary Awards: Behind the Scenes

Often in the literary world, the names of awards are tossed about to commend certain books. “You absolutely have to read this book – it won the Man Booker Prize last year!” one might hear. Alternatively: “I don’t know what all the fuss was about that novel. I don’t think it deserved the Pulitzer Prize at all!” We can see then that winning these awards often lends these books a certain prestige that impresses readers – and more importantly, their wallets. Bookstores, for example, often have specific bookshelves for ‘Award-Winners’ placed prominently at the entrance, proving that winning literary prizes sometimes pave the way for commercial as well as professional success. So, what exactly are the differences between some of these literary awards, and what merits do they evaluate? Here are some examples:


  1. Nobel Prize in Literature

Arguably the most prestigious award on this list, the Nobel Prize in Literature has, since 1901, been awarded annually to an author of any nationality who has, in the words of founder Alfred Nobel, produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Unlike some other awards, this prize is awarded for an author’s body of work as a whole, instead of a specific one. A Literature Nobel Prize laureate wins a gold medal, a diploma and a sum of money, the amount of which depends on the income of the Nobel Laureate Foundation that particular year. It is, however, the richest literary prize in the world by a large margin, awarding a total of US$990,000 to the 2016 winner.

Past winners include: Orhan Pamuk (2006), Alice Munro (2013) and Bob Dylan (2016).



Nobel Prize in Literature medal

Image source: MSU Billings


  1. Pulitzer Prize in Literature

Established by prominent newspaper-publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1917, this prize is awarded not only to books (“distinguished fiction”, as the website pronounces), but various other forms of art such as journalism, poetry and photography. In terms of the award for literature, only U.S. citizens are eligible to apply, and the winners should, ideally, comment on and write about American life. Winners receive a certificate and a cash prize of US$10,000, although this will be raised to US$15,000 in 2017 (how the entrants of this year are cheering!)

Past winners include: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (2000), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2014) and Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See (2016).


  1. The Man Booker Prize

This prize, arguably the most prestigious UK literary prize, originally awarded £50,000 each year for a full-length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe. Since 2014, however, it is open to any novel originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.

Past winners include: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002), Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013).


Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for 'The Luminaries'

Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for ‘The Luminaries’

Image source: New York Times


  1. The Man Booker International Prize

An offshoot of the aforementioned Man Booker Prize (MBP), this award – as its name suggests – is open to fiction writers from across the world. It differs from the MBP  in three other ways as well: it is awarded every two years instead of the MBP’s annual endowment, winners receive £60,000 rather than £50,000, and it is, like the Nobel Prize in Literature, based on a writer’s entire body of work rather than a single novel.

Past winners include: Chinua Achebe (2007), Philip Roth (2011) and Lydia Davis (2013).


  1. The Newbery Medal

Children’s literature is not overlooked when it comes to literary awards, either. Named for the English bookseller John Newbery, this award recognises the author who has made the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children for that year – restricted as it is to U.S. citizens. Unlike the other prizes on this list, there is no cash prize with the medal, but library and bookstore shelves are set aside specifically for Newbery Medal Winners.

Past winners include:  Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread (2004), Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2009) and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (2010).


Winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, Neil Gaiman's 'The Graveyard Book'

Winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book’

Image source: Allen & Unwin Book Publishers


Of course, these awards have not been without their controversies. In 2011, for example, the judges of the Man Booker Prize came under fire for a shortlist many deemed to be too “readable”. Former poet laureate Andrew Motion, in particular, was scathing in his remarks in the Guardian that their focus on “readability” had opened up “a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one another.” Another example of the Man Booker Prize’s flaws would be in 1991 when none of the shortlisted authors were women, prompting backlash and subsequently the creation of the Bailey’s Woman Prize for Fiction.

Other awards are not immune to criticism either. Most recently, the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016 was one that was heavily decried. Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley may have taken it a bit too far with his (eerily prescient) assertion that “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president”, but it is true that many questioned the Board’s decision which prompted debates as to what literature really is, exactly. Slate writer Stephen Metcalf argues that Bob Dylan’s words are lyrics, not poetry, saying “You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan.” It’s worth noting, though, that Dylan has his fair share of defenders as well. Among them is acclaimed author Salman Rushdie, who tweeted his support for Dylan by saying that he was a “brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.”

To summarize, while literary awards are often seen as extremely prestigious, it should come as no surprise that they come with their fair share of criticism as well. Awards on any creative works are always going to be controversial – how, after all, can one judge art when enjoyment and appreciation of creative works are entirely subjective? In the end, perhaps it would be prudent to remember Pablo Picasso’s words, “Art washes away the soul from the dust of everyday life.” If the art that does that for you takes the form of a critically acclaimed tome, that’s great. But if it also takes the form of a light-hearted romantic comedy – well, that’s just as good too.


Featured image source: Literary Hub


By Atia Hanna


your friendly neighbourhood grammar nazi

Comments are closed.