Three Questions: Judging the National Book Award

James English, John Welsh Centennial Professor of English and Director of the Penn Humanities Forum, chaired the committee that selected the National Book Award winner in fiction last November.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

By Susan Ahlborn

You wrote a book about book awards. Why do they matter?

Prizes often seem a crude and corrupting gimmick, unworthy of great literature and demeaning of the true literary artist. But for that very reason they make an ideal stage for disputes or scandals about pure versus impure aesthetic values; the relationship between popularity and artistic merit; the proper role of national, religious, sexual, or racial factors in the construction of a literary canon; and so on. I think the most fundamental purpose of prizes is to conjure, through their own scandalous impurity, the vision of a transcendent and impeccable form of literary worth. Of course, as instruments of commerce, promotion, and celebrity, they have also become simply indispensable to the book trade.


What went on in the award deliberations—how did you reach a decision?

We were confronted with more than 400 contending books. That was the hardest part, just reading so much so fast and having to make so many high-stakes decisions. Once we arrived at a focused cluster of about 25 contenders, things proceeded surprisingly easily. There were disagreements, but we all understood no book could move forward without consensus support, so we were looking for shared enthusiasms. When it came time to announce a short list, we reached almost immediate agreement on four of the five, but choosing the last one took a long, long while. I think by that point, however, we were already sensing a convergence on Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad as the eventual winner. It would have been tremendously frustrating without such a talented, thoughtful, and congenial group of judges to work with.


Did the experience give you new insights on literature or literary people?

Our panel of five judges included three women. We were all very conscious of the fact that literary awards have long favored male authors. Of the 112 Nobel laureates in literature, only 13 have been women. The National Book Award is less extreme, but women have won only 16 times in its 67-year history—three out of the last 10. It is a very persistent pattern, where women write most of the literary fiction in the country and constitute the vast majority of its readers, but somehow the works of men are consistently judged to be weightier, more important. It was disconcerting to me, and I think to the other judges, to find ourselves duplicating this tendency. The authors on both our long list and our short list were majority male, and in the end we chose a male winner. I’m not saying we chose the wrong book. But the experience made me realize how difficult it is when you judge a prize not to fall into patterns laid down by other judges in previous years. It made me feel the formidable inertia of the literary value system.