The Prize is Right, or Not

By Kathryn Comment

I just got around to reading the Washington Post‘s long piece on “literary prizes, and the near-impossible task of picking,” which asks — disingenuously, one hopes — why “different prize boards rarely crown the same title” when prizes are supposedly issued to “the best of the best.”

And, Yawn of Yawns: the eventual conclusion goes like this: The real problem in evaluating literature by committee, though, lies not in any particular process but in the inherently subjective nature of literary judgment. [Blah Blah Blah…] As much as people diss literary theory, one thimble’s worth of Derrida could inoculate book sections — for months to come — against the misguided presentation of “subjectivity” as a revelation.

To its credit, though, the article does have a couple interesting pieces of information: book critic John Freeman notes that all past winners of the NBCC award in fiction are still in print; and Margo Hammond cites Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower as an example of a “default win”:

“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.”