Coffeehouse

Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

What’s in a Book Award?

Christina Milletti and Cecil Foster

Christina Milletti (left) and Cecil Foster. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

In recent years, literary prizes have come under heavy criticism from various sources. For example, controversy has flared over a rule change that made American authors eligible for the once Commonwealth-centric Man Booker Prize, which some say has turned the honor into an advertising mechanism for big publishing houses in the U.S. Many readers use these awards as a guide to shape their literary diet. We asked Cecil Foster, a professor of transnational studies who has served on several major prize juries, and Christina Milletti, an associate professor of English, whether readers should take literary prizes at face value or look elsewhere for advice.

Cecil Foster: I think awards are good in the sense that they reward people for the craft. I don’t necessarily think that the best book wins. When I’ve been in those rooms, the dynamics can be fraught, and very often the book that wins isn’t necessarily a unanimous choice. But I think the beauty of these awards is that they encourage writers who may dream of someday winning the prize. Being a fiction writer is usually a moneyless task. The guy who won the Giller last year said it’s wonderful to go from something like $100 in his bank account to $100,000. In that sense, awards are worth something.

Christina Milletti: The prizes that I find the most interesting are the ones that award authors as opposed to a single book, like the MacArthur “genius grant” and the Windham-Campbell Prize. Those two are doing a really good job advocating writers’ projects as opposed to one specific work, which can get contentious. Who can say which book is the book of the year? It’s also important to look at who’s judging them. A few years ago, the National Book Awards changed the nomination process to include nonwriters on the committee. Since then, the perception of the awards has changed; the literary critic Tom LeClair published an article calling the winners “commercial lit.” Whether you agree with that or not, I think certainly the books they’ve chosen appeal more to the general public. That may go too far. But the winners are usually books that are visible to the general public. Books with curb appeal. You rarely see a publisher nominate a deserving book that hasn’t caught fire with a broad readership.

CF: I think it becomes commercial lit when a publishing house decides which books to enter based on what is likely to sell rather than the quality of the writing. If you are a young writer and you don’t have a name, you might find that your book has not been submitted, even if it’s a great book. Meanwhile, someone who is established might be considered even if the publisher knows it’s not that person’s best work. The question of representation is also very important. It is a problem that is more symptomatic of the greater structure. The publishing industry is still very much a white man’s, and maybe white woman’s, world. When you look at the actual number of nonwhite-authored books that are published per year, it is not representative of the wider population. Additionally, the marketing people seem to market all books the same way. When I talk to other minority writer friends of mine, we tend to feel our books don’t ever quite get to the market that we are writing to because the marketing team has a certain idea of who is the ideal book-buyer.

CM: I think that’s exactly right. I did, however, notice that this year, the National Book Awards as well as the PEN/Faulkner seemed to be trying to put together a much more interesting and diverse range of books. The question is, Will they keep doing that? How long this current trend toward diversity will last is something I think everyone’s got to keep their eye on.

CF: But there’s still the chicken and egg, because if the books aren’t published, you can’t award them.

CM: I absolutely agree with you. People often say that books are mostly marketed to white women. This is also part of that chicken-and-egg cycle in the sense that editors, mostly men, have expectations of what white women read. Pretty easy, flat books. So that’s what they keep producing, and that’s what people keep reading because that’s what’s available. As someone who teaches more experimental, weird books—I’ll happily call them “difficult”—I would like to see a lot more risks being taken.

CF: But the main thing is that people are reading. One of the attractions of the literary prize is that it puts the focus on the writers and the industry for that 15 minutes. To me, it’s the equivalent of going to a baseball game because you hear of Aaron Judge who is hitting the ball out of the park, and you don’t know much about baseball, but in going to see Aaron, you get to appreciate baseball.

CM: That’s true. And if for some reason, as a reader, the award-winning book isn’t appealing to you, talk to your friends who read a lot of books. You might find that the book you’re looking for isn’t the one that’s going to win the prize.

How do you take your coffee?

Christina Milletti and Cecil Foster

Christina: I take espresso with as much steamed milk and sugar as is humanly possible.
Cecil:
I don’t drink coffee. I will drink tea.