The Problem of Criteria: So What Makes A Book Award-Worthy Anyway?

October 14, 2011 § 18 Comments

The National Book Awards were announced this week, and a lively debate ensued about why 5 lesser-known novels were chosen over the front-running novels that many critics and reviewers were betting upon. The always trenchent Laura Miller wrote an interesting response about how the NBA has made itself irrelevant and why its stickers are now as “teacher-approved” (and thus unappealing) as those of the Newberry Medal.

I agree with many of Miller’s points, and that the NBA seems to be making statements of sorts with their choices of late. However, I find myself muttering the same comments this year as I did when a similar debate ensued after last year’s list was announced: Upon which criteria are the novels being judged?

I received a PhD in English in 1998; given the zeigeist of English departments then (as well as my own interests),  much of my graduate training revolved around the question of canonicity: what makes a masterpiece? Are there objective grounds or is it relative? What role do race, gender, etc. etc. play in which literary works are elevated to the ranks of the great? Who gets to make those decisions? Which formal attributes are lionized over others? (difficulty=good; sentimentality=bad).

So when I read about the NBA debates I wait, and wait, for this question to emerge. But it doesn’t. The discussion revolves around whether the nominees should have been nominated or not, and speculation on why the judges made the choices they did (or did not). But that next step–discussing upon what criteria do the judges base their decisions?  making explicit upon which criteria those unhappy with the judges base their critiques–seems left untaken.

So what is it that makes a book great (for critics, judges, readers, academics)? Formal experimentation (and of what sort)? Political acumen? Historical resonance? Suspense? Ratio of dialogue to description?

I had a discussion with a friend who sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. She was discussing whether she should cast her vote for a novel. She was leaning against voting for it, because, three months after reading it, “the characters are fading from my mind.”

To which I said: “So a great book, for you, is one that has memorable characters?” She looked at me, surprised, unsure if she agreed. But all I had done was to make explicit her implicit criterion.

She eventually agreed that yes, a great book is one with great characters. So if everyone had her criteria, we could all debate whether the five books the NBA nominated contained great characters or not, and we could discuss the great characters in non-nominated awards.

But nobody is stating what they think makes a great novel, so we can’t get traction on the debate.

Here’s the thing: memorable characters do not, for me, make a great novel. So I would not join in that debate. But at least I would know where everyone stood, and be able to articulate why I do not share their grounds for judgement.

We can agree or disagree on criteria. We can claim there are none, that it is all taste, or politics, or old white men in leathery studies drawing straws, or great characters (Huck Finn FTW?) . But we should at least address the issue of what we think makes a literary work great when we give awards for greatness and critique those who award them.


§ 18 Responses to The Problem of Criteria: So What Makes A Book Award-Worthy Anyway?

  • Laura Miller says:

    I sympathize with your frustration, Anne, but I don’t think you’ll ever get an answer to this. I’ve judged a few prizes in my day, and the criteria shift all the time. When the list has more than one title on it, often there’s an impulse to make sure it’s varied, or to use a more charged term, “diverse.” Some people prioritize innovative use of language. Others want “well rounded” characters. Still others want some kind of social commentary or a small press title, or a book by someone in their particular group (ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, region, etc.).

    When you’re on a judging panel, other judges’ criteria change over time. If their favorite gets eliminated, they might suddenly start advancing a different set of criteria that can be applied to the remaining candidates. (I’m sure my fellow judges have felt the same way about my positions!) As a rule, several criteria are in play at any given time, moving in and out of prominence. It is highly improvised.

    But even if we decided that “great characters” or “ambition” are the criteria we’re going to use, people will also never agree on which characters are great or what constitutes ambition. The most flummoxing thing about being on a judging panel is hearing people you respect describe a book as “so well-written” or “beautifully written” when you personally find it anything but. Yet that happens all the time.

    The customary thing to say at this point is that prizes don’t mean anything, but clearly to a lot of people they do, since we’re often arguing about them and many readers do regard them as a guide in buying books.

    • Anne Trubek says:

      Laura: Appreciate the response. I think I would be a testy grouch were I on an award panel…

      And doubtless you are right. What I would love, though, is to that a conversation, be it heated debate or no, about what critics, readers & judges think constitutes greatness in a literary novel circa 2011, even if it fluctuates. Criteria does not have to be for all times and in all places. It can be strategic as, I think, you are saying the NBA has become in its choices. Robust sales–or being overlooked by major media critics– may indeed be the (best) answers.

  • Gabe Brownstein says:

    I like both your arguments, Anne and Laura Miller–but I’m thinking, Anne, doesn’t a really good book kind of surprise you in a way that messes with the criteria you thought you had? And Laura Miller–how would the awards make themselves more relevant if they just concurred with the buzz business that precedes publication? I mean, the buzz-part seems the most insular and weird part of the publishing world, two or three books selected somehow for attention before they even get widely reviewed, let alone widely read. I think it’s natural and good that award committees be at least skeptical of that process. Also, I am grateful for these unorthodox choices by award committees, as they bring to my attention books like Tinkers by Paul Harding or Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon or (a nominee, not a winner) Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven.

  • Anne Trubek says:

    Gabe: perhaps your criteria for a great book is “something that surprises me and messes with what a thought made a great book” ?

    Part of me thinks this debate has to do with who are the tastemakers, or canonizers, today. Book review critics, editors, publishers and booksellers who want to think they helping prop up, laud and sell the best literary fiction would probably want the awards to go to the ones they reviewed, helped produce and sold.

    Judges may come from a different reading-sector–say, academia. For them, a book that seems to be carrying on a specific tradition (modernism, say, or the small domestic novel, or “diversity”) would care less about which books got the most ink in the major media.

    Then again, there may be an “indie” sector of folks who are cultivating the overlooked, the non-big house titles and may be de facto prejudiced against the most-reviewed titles.

    Another reason why I think taking one step back when we have these debates would lead to really fruitful discussions about the general lay of literature land today.

  • Ann MG says:

    Not just for awards–in debates about the consequences of giving a book a bad review, there’s no awareness of criteria (and not just questioning that a book is called either “good” or “bad,” but that it’s rare that a review is unequivocal). The premise of the field of cultural studies doesn’t seem to be known outside the academy.

  • Laura Miller says:

    Gabe, there’s a big difference between “concurring with the buzz business” and eliminating a great book from the competition because you’ve decided it’s already gotten “enough” attention. (I’d argue that no literary fiction gets enough attention these days.) That seems dishonest if your brief is to recognize quality irrespective of the book’s “success.”

    But I’m curious about how you got from my statement that already-acclaimed books shouldn’t be automatically ruled out to the conviction that I think the list should consist of only those books? I don’t think that, and I’m pretty sure I never said that, yet everything I have said on the subject keeps being heard that way. I don’t want to sound accusatory; I’m just trying to figure out why this happens and hoping that you (an apparently friendly reader) can tell me why.

    Anne’s point about the different communities battling for tastemaker status is well-taken. But many books are well-reviewed and publicized (book biz types call that being “well-published”) and yet never take off with the people who buy and read literary fiction. Other books do well despite a lack of publicity and reviews. In truth, people outside the publishing industry think those factors are much, much more powerful than they actually are.

    No literary novel sells “well” (say, more than 10,000 copies) these days without strong word of mouth, which means that general readers are recommending it to their friends. If your award is supposed to speak to those readers, what are you saying if you refuse to even consider the books they like? I don’t actually believe most of the judges are motivated by contempt for those readers, but it does seem like a lot of the people commenting on this issue are. Sure, they’re not always right, but they’re not always wrong, either. All I’m asking for is more balance.

  • Anne Trubek says:

    You know what I would love to see? A list of the best-selling literary fiction of 2010. If Laura is right that word of mouth is powerful, and people buy based on it, then sales figures would be eye-opening. (We’d have to figure out what makes fiction literary, but that would be easier than what makes fiction great).

    This discussion is also reminding me why I find The Morning News’ Tournament of Books so charming:

    Laura, I think people do not so much misread your argument but simplify it for the sake of argument (then again, I have not read the comments on your post. Reading the comments on Salon posts should never be not done lightly).

    A.M.—I do think reviewers strive to articulate their reasons in negative reviews, though it’s true that by writing a negative review they show they believe there are criteria for judgement.

    • Laura Miller says:

      PW does a long list of the bestselling books every year, Anne, with very general numbers. you can find it here, though you will have to search through it for “literary” fiction.

      Of course, the fiction that sells the best — commercial fiction like thrillers — is not reviewed at all. 98% of the books on that list fall into that category.

      I think my argument is pretty simple to begin with! But I hope Gabe will weigh in to say as much if that’s what he did.

  • Gabe Brownstein says:

    Hey Laura, I totally did not think that you were saying anything of the kind of thing that you said I thought you were saying. I didn’t for a second think you thought the lists should only be composed of books that were already being discussed. And I think there’s a tremendous merit to your argument, and I think it’s likely that awards panels do rule out successful books out of spite and schadenfreude. But I also think some award panels have done some good work in recent years sussing out worthy books that had gone unnoticed.

    Anne, touche–I’m not sure if my criteria is “something that surprises me and messes with what I thought made a great book” but if it is, I better go searching for some better criteria . . .

  • […] Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at […]

  • I’ve thought long and hard about what my personal aesthetic and how it corresponds to what I perceive as the “quality” of a book, at least as it pertains to “literature.” Some of this also comes out of being a writer, and how I test my own moves while I’m working on a project, in order to keep myself honest to my own intentions.

    To me, the great books, the ones that burrow into my marrow and take root somewhere inside are the ones that seek to illuminate the world “as it is,” as opposed to the world “as we wish it to be.” My professor in graduate school, Robert Olen Butler, used to say that we’d “flinched” in a story, that at some point we (okay, me) didn’t have the guts to stay true to itself. Over the years, I’ve come to think of that flinching as a move away from “as it is” and toward “as we wish it to be.”

    A couple of examples because I know that’s a little vague. I think THE HELP is a very entertaining and engaging book, but ultimately, its portrait of race relations, and the way it glosses over the thornier aspects of such in order to saint its “good” characters and condemn the “bad” ones limits it in terms of its artistic achievement. The “as we wish it to be” aspect of THE HELP is, I think, exactly what makes it so popular. It’s not entirely non-threatening, but whatever threat it presents is ultimately soothed over by the end.

    FREEDOM is clearly a book working in the world “as it is” mode, and is a book I quite like but I also think it has some flaws, most specifically the relationship between Walter and Lalitha, which to me, was a bit of a contrivance, something that got past the “as it is” filter. I think it stands in stark contrast to the section on Patty’s assault, which is, I think, a brilliant piece of writing.

    Don Winslow is one of my favorite authors. His Boone Daniels series (THE DAWN PATROL, THE GENTLEMAN’S HOUR) is as much fun as I’ve had reading books. They also deal with very dark subject matter, and have more than their share of grit. However, they don’t make it to “as it is” level because Boone Daniels is a classic hero who we know will win out in the end. One of the reasons I love them so much is because there’s a safety in knowing Boone is going to save the day, and a deep satisfaction when he does so. But that’s much more “as we wish it to be,” since justice only rarely prevails. In contrast, Winslow’s novel SAVAGES, is very much an “as it is” book, and deserves to be compared to other books in that category.

    I could go on and on, like why OLIVE KITTERIDGE qualifies, but BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY doesn’t. (Two more books I like, but only one of which I’ve looked at since I read it.) For me, this framework moves me away from what I’d say or symptoms (memorable characters, lyrical prose, etc…) to root causes, when I discuss quality. As Laura points out in her Salon piece, those elements of story can combine in infinite ways, (David Markson) so it’s a mug’s game to try to figure things out that way. Often, the books that give me the biggest kick are the ones that show me the world “as it is,” but I didn’t recognize the world as this way until I read the book. (LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, for example.)

    Lastly, I also think it’s important to not ascribe some kind of absolute value to these categories, i.e., “as it is” is “literature” and is therefore “good.” I think different readers look for different kinds of books at different times. I know I do.


  • As an addendum, I also should say that “as it is” doesn’t mean I think writers need to confine themselves to some kind of realist aesthetic. I certainly don’t do so in my own work. “As it is,” can be manifested in infinite ways. Gary Lutz shows me the world “as it is” almost entirely through his off-kilter language. I’m not entirely clear how he does this except I know the feeling when I read his work. In fact, sometimes I think the present world we live in may require a departure from realism in order to really get at the world “as it is” since the times are too strange to render in straightforward fashion.

  • Laura Miller says:

    Thanks, Gabe! From now on, I’m going to remind myself of your response whenever I’m feeling misrepresented. Could be I’m just misinterpreting.

    Hi John. As a lover of fabulist literature, I’m reminded of that old C.S. Lewis observation that art doesn’t have to be realistic to be true. I think that in a way, what you’re saying is that you want to feel that a literary work is telling you the truth, however it chooses to tell it.

    The more discussions I get into on this subject, the more I find myself singing the praises of the Tournament of Books. You guys are awesome.

    Also, my editor says it’s his dream to be a judge in the ToB. Just want to put that out there.

    • That’s right, “truth” is the thing, and the “as it is” designation has just become my way of identifying what is true. Often, I get more page-turning enjoyment out of “as we wish it to be” books, but it’s the “as it is” ones that really get to me at a different level. There’s a rather big “literary” release of this season that’s probably my most enjoyable read of the year, but I think is clearly in the “as we wish it to be” category. Time is a good test for this for me, namely, what do I recall about a book months (or years) after I’ve read it. If it’s mostly action, it’s usually a “as we wish it to be book,” if it’s the sensation I had while reading it, it’s probably a “as it is” book. As much as I liked this one book at the time, most of it has faded from my memory, and it’s only been a couple of months.

      The decision on judges is entirely in the hands of my TMN overlords, but I have dutifully passed the information on to them.

  • Anne Trubek says:

    John: These are really interesting thoughts, and I thank you for posting them. I often describe my fave books and authors as “ambitious” (think Richard Powers), and I think what I mean by that aligns with your “world as it is.”

    Another reason why l love ToB, to refer to Laura’s post of today, is that it admits, playfully, the random-yet-thought through reasons for its selections. And adds in reader input.

    Finally, I’m sure Laura’s editor would bring fine criteria to bear, but let’s remembered who put ToB out there first, shall we?

  • Powers is great example of this for me as well. I think that ambition is a product of his desire to search out “truths” and wrestle with the sorts of meaningful things that are almost impossible to pin down, and the fact that these things can’t be pinned down creates the very deep and enjoyable tension in his work.

    I just met him the other day (I did a reading at U. of Illinois, where he teaches), and I can also report that he’s the most generous, kindest person as well. He wanted to talk with me about my book, which was a pinch me moment for sure. I’m just glad I didn’t say so to him at the time.

  • Tom LeClair says:

    I have been worrying this issue of importance for a long time and devoted a book to it–The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. The last two years I’ve written an essay/review on the NBA fiction finalists for the Barnes and Noble Review. I’m doing it again this year and will, as you wish, devote some words to my criteria for importance. The piece will appear a few days before the NBA has its awards ceremony.

    Tom LeClair

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