Why Literary Prizes Still Matter

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The institution of literary awards has been shaping readers’ choices for decades, modeling the canon and altering, year after year, the cultural landscape in both academic and commercial environments by promoting certain texts while overshadowing others. Whether such action has produced positive or negative effects is debatable, but what cannot be questioned is the need for the reader to make a choice in the first place. Not only it is physically impossible for an individual to read all the literature available, it is also highly unlikely that a selection will be made without external influence.

Literary awards, review systems, bestsellers lists and book clubs all compete in providing such guidance, often determining the success of publishers and authors. Considering that the quality of any form of creative expression cannot be measured on an objective scale, literary awards still maintain a prominent role in determining what should and should not be read. Organizations such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize may be criticized for their (perhaps) elitist and non-democratic approach, but, as I will argue in this short essay, are still the best tool at our disposal to find orientation in the vast realm of literature.

Literary Awards vs. Bestsellers Lists

Bestsellers lists are an exception when it comes to literary ranking. While other systems rely solely on the judgments of readers, bestsellers lists classify books based on hard data, using presumably reliable statistics to show what people buy and like. Although both publishers and media make use of the position acquired by authors and their works in such lists to reinforce literary value, by understanding how bestsellers lists function it becomes clear that assuming sales figures to be somehow correlated to quality is misleading.

Bestsellers lists work in a circular manner: books reach the top by selling more, but they sell more by reaching the top. Readers influence lists, just as lists influence readers, provoking a distortion in numbers on both sides. Literary prizes, on the other hand, do not take into account the number of copies sold in order to create their longlists and, later, shortlists, but aim to classify texts based on their content or on what they represent in the context in which they have been written.

While it might be tempting to rely on statistics rather than a restricted group of highly educated critics to determine which books are culturally relevant, bestsellers lists appear to be more prone to corruption than the judges employed by literary awards organization. The most recent case of cheating the New York Times bestseller list concerns the YA novel Handbook for Mortals, which succeeded in gaining the first position by allegedly faking sales. As The Guardian reports, Geek Nation, the publisher of Handbook for Mortals, had obtained confidential information regarding the New York Times-reporting bookshops and had subsequently placed bulk orders which led their first book to be catapulted to the highest spot. A study conducted by Professor Alan Sorenson has shown that for a first-time author the appearance the New York Times list could signify a 57% increase in sales, therefore it is not surprising that publishers employ ethically questionable strategies in order to obtain the sought after “bestseller” title.

It has to be said that established lists, such as those published by The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, are aware of the tactics one may employ in order to cheat and actively interpret all incoming data, thus, although the occasional controversy arises from time to time, they are generally considered reliable. However, with e-commerce websites such as Amazon taking over the book market, there has been a proliferation of automated bestseller lists and becoming a top rated author has never been easier than it is today. Self-buying has become a common practice, especially for self-published writers, and becoming a bestseller in genre-specific categories is now so cheap that the term “bestseller” itself has lost all of its connotative meaning.

Literary Awards vs. Review Systems

Review systems, like bestseller lists, are often seen as a more democratic way of establishing the value of a text than literary prizes and with the growth of social media platforms dedicated entirely to literature such as Goodreads or Anobii, readers have found spaces where opinions not only can be shared but can also influence what others buy. When comparing review based platforms to literary awards the first issue lies again in the reliability of the users. While it is true that judges might have ulterior motives in awarding a book over another, if such plot was to be discovered their careers would be compromised and a scandal would surely arise. The internet, on the other hand, allows for anonymous scoring and does not always require any knowledge of the product reviewed in order to review it.

Almost any good or service marketed online today relies on the positive experience of past consumers to convince potential customers in buying. Public scores and reviews might not have the same impact of a high position in a renowned bestseller list, but they are much easier and affordable to fake. A prime example of this is the experiment conducted by journalist Oobah Butler, who made an imaginary venue the top-rated restaurant in London on TripAdvisor thanks entirely to false reviews.

Obviously, the internet is not just a nest of scammers. Most users leave genuine opinions about the books they read (and products they use), however it seem rather difficult to claim that in judging an abstract art such as literature every opinion has the same value. Even when reviews are truthful, they originate from people with different tastes, backgrounds and expectations, a condition which appears unsuitable to establish a comparative scale. While it could sound snobbish to say that democracy is not the ideal system to assess the worth of artistic production, it also true that experts operate in all fields of study for the simple reason that enjoyment does not equal quality and vice versa. In this sense, those who reward authors with a prize, while still relying on their subjectivity, are more likely to make their decisions taking into consideration a wider set of variables. Readers’ reviews and mass scoring systems might be useful in confirming whether a book will match one’s tastes, but are not effective in establishing whether one title is qualitatively better than another.

Literary Awards vs. Book Clubs and Influencers

Book influencers existed long before social media became part of people’s daily life, with Oprah Winfrey standing at the forefront thanks to her highly praised book club. Winfrey has been credited with “revitalizing the book-selling industry” and has been seen as a “literacy sponsor” for promoting literature as a tool of self-discovery and transformation. In more recent years, similar clubs have appeared, with Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf acquiring a large following. Book clubs are only partly created to discuss literature; more often the aim is to shed a light on social issues and allow people to widen their worldview through the voices of minorities who are not always reserved the same amount of attention in traditional literary circles.

Many similarities can be found between popular book clubs and literary awards — both often have a political aim, both reward the authors selected with an increase in readership — but there is one key difference that separates the two: while literary prizes are awarded by a selected group of critics, book clubs are run by singular individuals who, by promoting books, are also promoting themselves. Genre-specific book clubs do play an important role in connecting lesser-known authors to the public and can be useful to gain insight into a specific subject, but with a selection process that cannot be checked, discussed or modified it is impossible for an outsider to establish whether the reasons behind such promotion are genuine or not. If bestsellers lists and review systems are too democratic, book clubs, on the other hand, may be too autocratic.

Conclusion

With hundreds of thousands of new books published each year the necessity of some form of guidance to help readers choose what should and should not be read is self-evident. External influence in consumer choices is unavoidable, therefore it is important to look at how it is channeled, rather than asking if a form of promotional activity should or should not exist. The question here is not whether literary award organizations are the optimal system to decide what can be considered the best of today’s literary production — given the subjective nature of such selection, the potential bias and political aims, plus the possibility of human error, they are obviously not — , but if an independent institution, separated from the publishing industry, can be considered more reliable than other competing entities and if the picking process can be said safe from cheating attempts.

As we have seen, literary awards, bestsellers list, review systems, and book clubs can all have a profound impact on the success of authors and sales figures. In this context, literary awards appear to be the only form of organization inaccessible to those who would have a conflict of interest. Clearly, not all awards are the same and attention should be given to the workings behind the selection of each winner, but while established institutions can be easily questioned, rankings based on information obtained from the masses may hide marketing strategies put in place with the sole purpose of altering the data.

While a foolproof system built to objectively establish what books are the best from a literary perspective will (likely) never exist, a desire for unadulterated advice on the side of readers will always be present. Viewed in this light, literary awards may not be perfect, but are still the best tool at our disposal.