Confessions of a Book Award Junkie

There is always controversy over book awards.  Recently 30 publishers in the UK signed a letter to the organizers of the Man Booker Prize asking that the decision to include Americans  be overturned.  I’m neutral, though we do have plenty of American awards already.

So what better time to post “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie,” an essay I wrote in the 1990s?  Enjoy!


Those of us who grew up in the ’60s watching beauty pageants and the Oscars suspected early on that awards were arbitrary—a conjecture that never spoiled our enjoyment of the spectacle. My mother and I loved these shows. We huddled on the davenport and picked our favorites. Our criteria were self-evident and sound: Miss Alaska on the basis of cuteness! Julie Christie because of her British accent! The Sound of Music because we’d actually seen it! If the judges didn’t agree with our choices–and our odds were roughly as good as picking a winning horse in the trifecta–the evening was shot.

These days I lack interest in pageantry, and Hollywood glamour makes me cranky (the hair, the gowns, the shoes, the tearful speeches–where are the jeans-and-sweater types?).

No, my interest in awards is bookish. I confess, I am a book award junkie. I secretly wonder, Why can’t the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize do it up like the Oscars? Although I find book awards both silly and exciting (how can judges narrow the field to a single best?), I am enthralled each fall by the announcements of the winners. Even though I may not agree with the selections and sometimes dismiss them as politically motivated, it’s a good way to learn about the contenders on the literary scene. It is safe to give these books as Christmas gifts, because people are vaguely awed by awards, though many prize winners prove bloated disappointments, fated to be sold or traded at used bookstores.

In case you’re not an insider, the National Book Awards, sponsored by he National Book Foundation and selected by writer-judges for a single term, honor American works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. There is often grumbling about the choices, and this year (1996) was no exception, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Barbara Grossman, a senior vice president and publisher at Viking Penguin, commented, “Do you think the judges take a perverse pleasure in picking authors that no one has ever heard of?” And Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar Strauss & Giroux, called the list of finalists “almost willfully fugitive.”

I admit, the choices are a bit strange. The fiction award went to Andrea Barrett’s workmanlike but uninspiring Ship Fever and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about scientists, several set in the 19th century, reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, though without the brilliance and passion. In short, I was often bored. The other choices were also a bit obscure. For your Christmas shopping convenience, you may want to know them, though: they are Elizabeth McCracken’s overrated first novel, The Giant’s House, Ron Hansen’s Atticus, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Janet Peery’s The River Beyond the World. I was more impressed by this year’s non-fiction winner, James Carroll’s An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. This memoir about Carroll’s complicated relationship with is father is powerful, despite his dense style and tendency to pontificate. Carroll, a novelist, former priest, and the son of Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, documents his struggles to assert his own identity as a priest and anti-war activist during political and philosophical clashes with his father. Did I love this book? No. Would I recommend it? Yes.

There are some award-winning books this years that I whole-heartedly recommend. The Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, is a more reliable guide in terms of consistent quality and readability, perhaps because its field of contenders comprises English, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, and the entire Commonwealth. In the 1990s, two of the more breathtaking winners have been Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. The 1996 Booker nominees are also stunners. The prize was awarded to Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a moving novel about four friends who come together after a friend’s death to scatter his ashes at the seaside. These working-class men, the central narrator being Ray, a good-humored man who frequents the racetrack, have complicated relationships with one another and their late friend. Their relationships are explored through flashbacks, tricky shifts of viewpoint, and Ray’s account of their trip to the seaside, marked by frequent stops and quarrels. This would make a wonderful Christmas gift.

Some of the runners-up, however, are easier reads. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a historical novel, impressively researched and beautifully-written. It tells the story of Grace Mark, a Canadian convicted of murder in 1843 at the age of 16, and her relationship with Dr. Jordan, a young psychoanalyst who arrives at the prison in in 1851 to extract the details of the crime. Atwood, whose range is breathtaking, doesn’t let you down, though I prefer her novels about contemporary women. Be on the lookout for her twists and turns of thought and language.

I also enjoyed Sheila Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire, a novel set mainly in Kent, England, during the narrator’s ’50’ s childhood. Eight-year-old April and her best friend, the daughter of an abusive pub owner, have sometimes happy, more often puzzling encounters with other adults. And their observations of the world around them are often comical and always perceptive. And here my recommendations stop. Although I am eager to read the remaining nominees, I did not receive from the publishers my copies of the two available in the U.S. in time to read them for this article. They are: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.

So that’s the news on the award front, and I hope you can find the books!

6 thoughts on “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie

  1. Our is a prize-obsessed culture. It’s not only “all have won and all must have prizes,” and that these are marketing tools; prizes have become so ubiquitous that if you don’t win a prize, there must be something wrong. Woody Allen once quipped there are more book prizes in the US than authors 🙂 — of course he is now not someone to quote and many of these other prizes than Mann Booker or the Whitbread or National Book or the European ones do not gain the same prominence.

    It is beyond books too: in ice-skating (I know about that from Izzy) in the 1980s and 90s you could go to an ice-show just for itself for fun; now there are no shows where there is not a prize at stake. Much less fun, far more harrowing for all.

    There is even a book about it 🙂


    • Yes, there are so many awards. Now I am not saying they shouldn’t win The NBA or the Booker, and those are the two I try to keep up with (I’m behind). Writers like Julian Barnes, Hilary Mantel, and the great writers like Anita Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald certain deserved them. But it does seem to cause quarrels and contention. I used to read all the shortlists, but these days I am reading fewer “new” novels. I really should try the shortlists again.


      • Actually I am glad there is the petition. I taught Booker Prize book as a course twice and part of their value is to dramatize and examine UK and the commonwealth and their specific histories and values. The reason for extending to the US (which has so many prizes) is that American readers prefer strongly to read about America most of the time — among wider audiences — so the Mann people will make more money. The effect will be something something blander and yes far more conservative in outlook. There’s a formula to these that I enjoy and that will be Americanized and a sort of phony hybrid. In fact that’s what’s happened: the prize winners are UK Booker knock-offs with American settings and characters.


        • Well, it is going in a different direction these days, and the politics and pressure should not, I think, be apparent to us. People have very strong feelings about this in the UK.

          On Sun, Feb 11, 2018 at 6:46 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:



  2. When I lived in Boston, back in the 1980s, I was standing in line at the bookstore Lauriat’s, long gone, and realized I was standing behind James Carroll and his little son. Carroll had a stack of books, all on the same subject, which escapes me now. It was all I could do to keep myself from telling him I had enjoyed his book Mortal Friends and ask what he was researching and writing about next. I haven’t read the book about him and his father.


    • Oh, that must have been thrilling! Writers may be ordinary human beings, but somehow they always seem special. I have not read any of Carroll’s books besides the award-winning ones and should check them out.


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