And the winner isn’t: on the inherent stupidity of literary prizes

There has been no shortage of Australian critiques of literary prizes over the last few years. Giramondo’s Ivor Indyk argued that ‘no one is really suitable to be a judge of literary prizes’ and therefore ‘we should get rid of prizes altogether’. Terri-ann White, the director of University of Western Australia Publishing, announced in 2016 that the press would no longer enter its titles in literary awards, because ‘the expense (of entry fees, books and postage) and the time involved in . . . has exceeded our resources’. In what may be the most incisive and blistering recent critique, Maxine Beneba Clarke raised a series of pointed questions about prize-awarding practices, noting their ‘conservative shortlists’, the lack of diversity among awardees, and the absence of ‘a major book award for queer writing’.

But it’s worth acknowledging that prizes can be good at doing a small set of things, including:

  • generating publicity and media discourse, especially around announceables like longlists, shortlist, and winners;
  • increasing prestige for a small group of authors and their publishers; and
  • increasing book sales for a small number of authors and their publishers.

That’s pretty much it. But the value of increased book sales is not to be overlooked, either. John B Thompson notes that a Booker shortlisting can be worth an extra 25,000 sales, and a win can generate 200,000 sales. After AS Patric won the Miles Franklin Award, his publisher, Barry Scott of Transit Lounge, noted he would be printing another 20,000 copies of a book that had only sold 3,000 beforehand. To put this in context, an Australian novel considered to be ‘successful’ might sell around 6,000 copies. A prize win or shortlisting can thus be a windfall for authors and publishers. This kind of success is a big deal, since it can provide an author with significant financial support and cross-subsidise a publisher’s future releases.

But very few prizes actually produce this kind of impact in either sales or publicity. In Australia, only the Stella Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award seem to have a large effect on book sales. Similarly, only a few major overseas prizes, such as the Pulitzer, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award (USA), and the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) have a discernible effect on sales. The main remaining benefit of most literary prizes is both prestige and extra income for authors. This is not a small thing, and from my perspective, it is the main argument in prizes’ favour.

But prizes are also very bad at many important things, such as:

  • encouraging substantive criticism, analysis, or discussion of books;
  • engaging with or providing a sense of literary history;
  • generating useful, defensible, or coherent literary traditions.

The discourse around prizes rarely involves a significant discussion of the qualities of the winning or shortlisted books. There are occasional exceptions, like Michael Hofmann’s brutal critique of Richard Flannagan’s Booker-winning Narrow Road to the Deep North, but they are comparatively rare. Indeed, rather than encouraging discussion or seeming like a subjective judgment that’s open to criticism, prizes often present a mark of quality that ‘compels us to entertain the idea that this novel’s distinction should be regarded universally to be true’ (to appropriate Ben Etherington’s claim). Prizes, in other words, often shut down debate around books, which are now perceived as having been in some way objectively deemed to be worthy. Very few prizes even include lengthy statements about works that clarify why they were selected, and almost never place the awarded work in a larger context. Rather than illuminating novelistic traditions, prizes present a never-ending series of contests that are basically ahistorical.

Prizes are also not very good at equitably allotting resources or altering the existing hierarchies of the publishing industry. Prizes, for example, are also very bad at

  • distributing income across publishers and authors (since most prizes are still dominated by established authors and large publishers),
  • encouraging new voices,
  • encouraging diverse voices,
  • supporting literary innovation,
  • serving communities of readers and writers (who generally have no engagement with prizes).

There are exceptions, of course. Some prizes are able to push for certain kinds of diversity (the Stella Prize, the Orange/Women’s Prize). Some prizes support literary innovation (Goldsmiths). Prizes have occasional good runs – and I will note that Australia’s largest prizes have been more interesting (to me, anyway) in the last few years than they have for some time. The Stella Prize, in particular, has been remarkable in its push for recognition of women’s writing in Australia, and recent wins of the Miles Franklin by Melissa Lucashenko and the Stella by Alexis Wright are, from my perspective, fantastic. But the fact that some excellent individual works win prizes does not alter the larger structural issues with prizes. Similarly, counter-prizes, which seek to increase diversity, are still locked into this same problematic system of value, and relatively few prizes actually intervene in this way.

The reality is that prizes still represent a top-down manner of assessing literary merit. They are mostly beneficially to the ‘book industry’, which is to say booksellers and some publishers, but they don’t do much for literary culture, however one conceives of it. And – worse still – prizes are essentially technocratic in their organisation: a panel of experts engages in secret discussion to produce a ‘winner’, and the larger debate around this context is obscured from any broader public view. At least, for example, with a printed review, it is possible to argue substantively with a reviewer’s logic or taste. But a prize is usually presented as a judgment that says only ‘this is the best’. There is nothing to argue with, nothing to debate, beyond the flawed mechanism of such judgment itself.

We’re now about 40 years into the period where literary prizes have become the dominant means of literary taste-making, and they are basically terrible at it. Does anyone really believe that the winner of a major prize in a given year is the best book? What could ‘best’ even mean, given that most awards for fiction potentially span a wide array of disparate genres from the Menippean satire and the realist novel to the historical romance? The average literary award is thus less conceptually coherent than a Chili Cook-Off. How many historically ‘great’ works of fiction were recognised as such upon publication or even shortly after? The answer, as we know, is very few; many ‘great’ novels – like Moby Dick – are effectively rediscovered decades after their original publication. Contemporaries are very bad at judging what books are likely to stand the test of time, and even prizes like the Nobel Prize in literature are as famous for the living writers who didn’t win (James Joyce! Virginia Woolf! Leo Tolstoy! Clarice Lispector!) as those who did.

But prizes are now increasingly determining the way that contemporary works filter into tradition. Beth Driscoll and Sophie Allan’s analysis of the VCE Text lists for secondary education has shown that 71% of the works on the list published after 1957 have won a literary prize. This is not to say good books never win prizes, but how many prize-winning books are genuinely great? And how many winners are even the best book written by a given author?

Yes, prizes generate income for a few authors and publishers, but I am hard-pressed to think of any other aspect of literary culture that has been genuinely enriched by literary prizes. Worse still, we face a variety of challenges that literary prizes do very little to address. For example, recent analysis of Australian readers shows that younger readers are increasingly isolated from established literary cultures, and prizes typically do little to draw such readers in. Moreover, we live in a moment of an enormous overabundance of books, which makes it harder than ever to place value on new cultural works – and prizes do very little to sort through the broader mass of works, including self-published novels. Finally, literary criticism and history are being eroded on multiple fronts: not only are their fewer venues for paid book reviews, but also most Australian university programs have increasingly moved away from teaching literary history (in the way it was taught only a decade or two ago), because the system of student-driven demand makes period-specific courses a tough sell. Prizes, which pretend as if each year is a new contest, reinforce this sense of cultural amnesia.

I would argue that prizes have become dominant because, in an era where more and more demands are made on people’s time, prizes function as a convenient shorthand for quality. If I don’t have time to read literary magazines that might publish emerging writers, I can just see who has won awards. If I don’t have time to read book reviews about contemporary fiction, I can just turn to shortlists or, more likely, award winners. As Alex Dane said of literary prizes earlier this year: ‘Is it a perfect system? Not by any stretch. But it is the system that we have chosen? Well, no – it’s been chosen for us.’ Part of the response to this state of affairs obviously requires changes in the political economy more significant than anything that can be achieved through bookish activism.

But there are still opportunities for limited intervention that might help undermine the hegemony of prizes. We need community-driven initiatives that establish other hierarchies of meaning and value. This is a long-term project. Many good publishers and booksellers are already doing this. One can look at a publisher like Giramondo and its impressive involvement in community-based projects in Western Sydney, the local university, and, of course, in creating critical discourse through The Sydney Review of Books. Or one could look at an overseas publisher like Open Letter Books, which engages online communities interested in translated literature through podcasts, web reviews, and wonderful ranting blog posts about the publishing industry. One could point to many other such publishers – like The Lifted Brow, Overland, McSweeneys, and so on – that undertake this work in various ways.

I believe two things: 1) literary prizes are inherently stupid, and 2) literary prizes are here to stay. But here’s my modest proposal for already-engaged readers: don’t talk about prizes. Don’t discuss the longest or shortlist. Don’t buy books that are shortlisted or win. Go read some reviews instead. Go into a bookshop and ask for a recommendation. Buy any book, just not those books. There’s no shortage of good books, and most of the really excellent ones will never win the Booker prize.



Image: Jaredd Craig via Unsplash

Emmett Stinson

Emmett Stinson is a writer and academic who has taught at several Australian universities. His most recent book is Satirizing Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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  1. Ergo, books which don’t win prizes necessarily have more long time literary merit than books which do win prizes? Certainly, there are far-far more of the latter. What does that say about the temporal judgment of judges as opposed to the judgment of time? Take music, for example, in the absence of a regular beat pattern, listeners’ temporal judgments are not very precise, but with a beat they become so.

  2. I’ve been following the Not the Booker prize this year more closely than usual (I have had a book in contention) and I think it maybe addresses some of your issues. This is a lively and highly engaged community of non-professional experts (that is, keen but unpaid readers) going in to bat for their favourite books and providing rationales for why their chosen books should win the award. I don’t know whether the prize affects sales in any way, but it certainly raises the visibility of all kinds of low-profile books, and encourages passionate discussion of books and reading. It’s English though, and maybe Australia isn’t up for such a challenge.
    Other small points – the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize considers self-published books, and perhaps the MUBA encourages new and diverse voices and literary innovation.

    1. I was one of the co-creators of the MUBA, which I’d call necessary but not sufficient. I think counter-prizes are interesting but don’t really address the systemic issues with prize culture.

  3. John Forbes was constantly listed for prizes he never won. And he needed the money. There was always some member of the glitterati who edged him out.

    1. Hi Laurie,

      Would the history (and contemporary landscape) of Australian poetry shift dramatically if John Forbes ‘had’ been awarded prizes? ‘He needed the money’ seems like a particularly incisive comment in today’s literary culture, where so many writers of poetry are highly paid academics…

      Best wishes,


  4. Money and literary prizes … mmmmm … smacks of capital and commoditisation … rather than literary merit … guess writers have to eat though … and you can’t eat books (well you can, but they lack nourishment). Sometimes too, like paper and coin money in some situations, the value of the material (paper / metal, not bitcoin) exceeds that of the going currency.

  5. Laurie, some very good points, leaving me to wonder if there is more to fix up as well as our electoral system.

    Reading groups, prizes, social media, the way literature is taught, all circulate opinions about people’s published work. I’m wary of artistic effort being homogenised by the imperative to placate the marketplace. These days, I’m less inclined to explore bookshops, take more notice of comments and interviews, enjoy discovering publishers i’ve never heard of. What a joy is Transit Lounge. I came across The Town by Shaun Prescott, Brow Books, in The Guardian. What a treat to read someone who had clearly imbibed all of Kafka’s work that is available—- and to recognise the Central West NSW towns whose existence is so challenged — in the novel and in reality.
    I collect long lists and short lists of novels entered into the last rounds of winning prizes. Some are extraordinary, some are banal. All are invested with that peculiar human insistence that a story must be told. Shall love it until I die.

  6. It has always seemed to me that the problem with contests/prizes/awards is this: that each contest/prize/award must produce a winner consistent with the winners of other contests/prizes/awards, or risk losing its institutional credibility.

  7. The author does not weigh one important consideration–that of finances. Writers need an income, and a prize offers to alleviate the financial uncertainty of writers which is why they want to win them.
    Though Indyk’s position as a literary critic sounds respectable, when a book-publisher announces the disdain for prizes it also seems to justify how the publisher will make no effort to nominate any of his writers for prizes. A publisher has to handle the commercial reality of literature, especially for non-commercial writers, so that they can concentrate on art, and that means that a publisher should not take pride in not bothering with nominating authors for awards. Publishers should leave the romanticism to the artists rather than telling them they should risk obscurity.

    1. From the piece above: “The main remaining benefit of most literary prizes is both prestige and extra income for authors. This is not a small thing, and from my perspective, it is the main argument in prizes’ favour.” So, yeah, it does discuss author finances.

      Indyk’s Giramondo has won more major literary awards than any other small publisher in Australia (only the much larger Text has won more), so not sure I follow the second point. Indeed, Indyk criticises prizes despite the fact that his authors do well with them!

  8. This is a brilliantly crafted article. You wrote it incandescently. And perhaps its luminous quality rests in precisely that inherent incandescence. No bitterness, no sour aftertaste, no reader can mano in heart say otherwise. You gave us active polen in your piece. And after reading your essay when it first came out months ago, I have been thinking, dissecting it, so that I can get to the core of what I find so brilliant about it. In an introduction to a live performance of one of the most celebrated salsa songs by Ruben Blades “Pedro Navaja,” he cheekily muses on how his most famous song was originally dismissed and then he invites us keen dancers right before launching into salsa to think about how Cervantes would probably struggle to get anything published nowadays… “Cervantes Chico, Brother, take at least a couple of hundred pages out”…and Mr Blades and you have me thinking that excellence in our craft as writers can perhaps be best sharpened and even fortified by actively seeking rejection; by actively, not throwing, but cradling our work in the welcoming arms of rejection. Rejection is the only thing that can successfully lullaby our anxious dreams as writers. Aiming at a loss and actively seeking failure in this sense gives an indispensable kind of lustre to our craft. Let’s keep those submissions going! Thank you so much for your article.

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