In catching up on my magazine and newspaper reading, I ran across an interesting article in the Post's Book World by Marina Krakovsky. Part of the continuing Making Books focus, this article looks at literary contests; why we have them, how they work, who they benefit. Although a little cursory, it takes a pretty good look at this side of the publishing industry.
I have mixed feelings about contests. They certainly provide exposure for writing that often wouldn't get it otherwise. The article mentions Richard Russo and how the Pulitzer transformed his writing career, and he's definitely not the only one. And readers often need guidance to break out into reading authors different from their normal staples. But the general arbitrariness of dubbing one book "the best" really is pretty ludicrous. But we, meaning readers, always want to know. We have to know.
Unfortunately, anytime you judge art by committee, there's an unavoidable middle ground that's found or created. Work that's controversial, either by technique or by subject matter, is likely to have some avid fans, but also some rabid opponents. It gets pushed aside for work that all can agree on. This little snippet from the article says it best:
"It happens all the time in prize committees," says Freeman, "where two books that have a lot of supporters split the vote, and a third book comes in from behind." One such upset occurred in 1998, according to the NBCC's Hammond. "There was a huge contest" between Don DeLillo's Underworld and Roth's American Pastoral. The winner? The Blue Flower, by British author Penelope Fitzgerald. "We can say it, now that she's died," says Hammond. "It wasn't the book that people felt passionate about."
Personally, I get more from the end-of-the-year lists by various critics. We all have our favorite critics and magazines, and I'm more willling to take a chance on a suggested book from Michael Dirda than I am from the National Book Award commitee.
But would I turn an award down if one came my way? Hell, no!