Awards Introduction: 6 Literary Prizes and a Few Winning Books We Love

Awards Introduction: 6 Literary Prizes and a Few Winning Books We Love

Earlier this year the Nobel Prize Committee announced it wouldn’t be awarding a prize for literature this year due to an internal sex scandal within the Swedish Academy, which oversees the prize. So readers who look forward each October to discovering new international writers – or cheering for the victory of a beloved favorite – will have to wait a year, until fall 2019, to find out who the winner is. The Academy plans to award two prizes next year. (While you wait, though, consider the book by the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl.)  In the meantime, there are plenty of other literary contests to watch (or, in the case of a rich award like the Man Booker, bet on.) Read on to get a sense of what the prizes are and who’s won in the past.

  • Nobel Prize

    Established in 1901, this prize awards the entire body of a writer’s work, with the goal of celebrating “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” in the field of literature. Widely considered the most prestigious literary award, the Nobel has received some criticism for being arbitrary, overlooking deserving writers, and being biased against writers from countries outside Europe. Nevertheless, the only writer to turn down the honor was Jean-Paul Sartre, who said thanks but no thanks in 1964. Some other winners:

  • The cover of the book Never Let Me Go

    Never Let Me Go

    Kazuo Ishiguro

    The 2017 winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, may be best known for his novel of quiet British heartbreak The Remains of the Day, but he’s written many others in a variety of styles, including this spooky and affecting 2006 novel that blends futurism and mystery to tell the story of children who are not what or who they think they are.

  • The cover of the book The Unwomanly Face of War

    The Unwomanly Face of War

    An Oral History of Women in World War II

    Svetlana Alexievich

    In this monumental work of journalistic reportage, Alexievich spoke to scores of women who had fought in the Russian Army during World War II about their experiences both on and off the battlefield. The writer won the Nobel in 2015 for her unique blend of journalism, history, and biography.

  • The cover of the book Dear Life

    Dear Life


    Alice Munro

    Alice Munro, who won the award in 2013, has devoted her life to what seems at first a simple form: the short story. But as this collection and all of Munro’s work attests, at their best, short stories can contain entire universes, and steal readers’ breath with their impact and grace.

  • National Book Award

    On November 14, this year’s National Book Awards will be announced. The $10,000 award’s stated goal is to “enhance the cultural value of good writing in America.” American writers are eligible in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young peoples’ literature. Here are a few of this year’s nominees, as well as recent winners:

  • The cover of the book The Friend

    The Friend

    A Novel

    Sigrid Nunez

    In this stealthily heartbreaking novel, a writer grieves the death of a dear friend and copes with caring for an unlikely inheritance — the friend’s massive Great Dane. Both funny and wise, the book will change the way you think about death and dogs.

  • The cover of the book The Great Believers

    The Great Believers

    Rebecca Makkai

    Set partially in Chicago during the AIDS crisis and partially in contemporary Paris, this novel plumbs the enduring power of love and friendship in the face of a health crisis that stole a generation’s future.

  • The cover of the book The Future Is History

    The Future Is History

    How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

    Masha Gessen

    The 2017 winner in nonfiction, this angry and elegiac book traces the lives of several Russians as their country grapples with — and fails to achieve — democracy in the decades following the end of the Cold War.

  • The cover of the book Between the World and Me

    Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    Ta-Nehisi Coates won the 2015 nonfiction prize for this deeply personal, impassioned examination of the experience of being a black man in today’s racially fractured country. Coates argues that America is anything but “post-racial,” and that the wounds of slavery continue to fester in ways we’ve yet to even begin coming to terms with.

  • Costa Award

    Formerly known as the Whitbread Awards, this annual £25,000 award is given to British and Irish writers in the categories of novel, first novel, biography, children’s book, and poetry. Generally considered less “literary” than the other major British award, the Man Booker, the Costa Award aims to celebrate books intended for a wide readership. Awards are announced in January of the following year. Here is a list of past winners.

  • The cover of the book Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

    Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

    A Novel

    Gail Honeyman

    This first novel won last year’s Costa for its tale of ordinary, extraordinary Eleanor, a woman whose tightly controlled life is thrown into chaos by a simple act of kindness.

  • The cover of the book Days Without End

    Days Without End

    A Novel

    Sebastian Barry

    The 2017 Costa-winning novel, this book tells the story of the American Civil War and the Indian Wars, and was praised for its lyricism and evenhanded retelling of a still-painful period in America’s bloody and tragic history.

  • The cover of the book How to be both

    How to be both

    A novel

    Ali Smith

    Jumping between an artist living in the 1460s and a child living 500 years later, in the equally tumultuous 1960s, Ali Smith’s free-spirited and unconventional novel won the Costa in 2014 for its ingenious blending of two stories into one.

  • Pulitzer Prize

    Established by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the $15,000 Pulitzer Prize is awarded for achievements in a range of journalistic and literary categories, including fiction, drama, poetry, biography, and nonfiction. The award is targeted to works dealing with American figures, history, and American life. Read work by some of the winners:

  • The cover of the book A Visit from the Goon Squad

    A Visit from the Goon Squad

    Jennifer Egan

    Jennifer Egan’s 2011 winner for fiction uses the device of a linked set of stories to describe our American present — and possible future. Told in a variety of techniques, including one chapter written as a Powerpoint presentation, the book is playful, inventive, and moving.

  • The cover of the book Evicted


    Poverty and Profit in the American City

    Matthew Desmond

    Desmond’s 2016 nonfiction award winner is an impassioned and compassionate look at the struggles of families around the country to pay the rent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Desmond considers the issue from all sides, and concludes it is an American tragedy with no happy ending in sight.

  • The cover of the book The Underground Railroad

    The Underground Railroad

    A Novel

    Colson Whitehead

    Whitehead’s 2016 fiction winner also won the National Book Award. It reimagines the slavery-era network of underground abolitionists who helped runaway slaves on their journey to the free North as an actual, physical railroad, and tells the story of one family’s flight toward freedom.

  • Man Booker

    This literary prize, which includes a £50,000 cash award, is one of the richest awards for a work of literature, and only recently became open to English-language works by writers outside the British Commonwealth, Ireland, and South Africa. Because of the large amount of money involved, bookmakers set odds each year for the nominees’ chances of winning: last year’s winner, George Saunders, was the 6:4 favorite to win. Here are some nominees for the 2018 award as well as past winners:

  • The cover of the book Washington Black

    Washington Black

    A novel

    Esi Edugyan

    This sweeping novel on the shortlist for the 2018 Booker traces a slave and his master from a Barbados sugar plantation, across America, and all the way to the Arctic. Along the way, Edugyan asks questions about friendship, love, and the meaning of freedom.

  • The cover of the book Lincoln in the Bardo

    Lincoln in the Bardo

    A Novel

    George Saunders

    Saunders was just the second American to win the award. In this, his 2017 novel, he blends history and fantasy to describe the harrowing and tender hours President Lincoln spent visiting the crypt of his young son, Willie, who died of typhoid while the country was engaged in the Civil War.

  • The cover of the book The English Patient

    The English Patient

    Michael Ondaatje

    This novel won both the 1992 Booker Prize as well as this year’s Golden Booker, which celebrated the best novel from the prize’s fifty-year history. It combines the stories of a bomb defuser, a nurse, and the horribly burned ‘English patient’ of the title in a moving saga of love and loss during World War II.

  • Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize)

    This prize honors the best full-length work of fiction written in English by a woman. With a cash award of £30,000, the prize was initially created in response to an all-male list of nominees for the 1991 Booker Prize; despite being the award being based in Britain, nearly twice as many North American writers have won as British writers. Read a few recent winners:

  • The cover of the book Home Fire

    Home Fire

    A Novel

    Kamila Shamsie

    This epic novel by Kamila Shamsie won the prize in 2018. It describes an immigrant family’s attempt to rise beyond its troubled past and forge a new path, while at the same time remaining true to itself. The book moves between Britain and America, telling a global story from an intimate perspective written with wonder and love.

  • The cover of the book Half of a Yellow Sun

    Half of a Yellow Sun

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Set in the 1960s during Nigeria’s Biafran war, this 2007 novel recounts a significant moment in the history of modern Africa as seen through the eyes of several witnesses for whom the political and personal are tightly entwined.

  • The cover of the book A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

    A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

    A Novel

    Eimear McBride

    This debut novel won the prize in 2014, and Irish writer Eimear McBride won comparisons to Joyce, Woolf, and Edna O’Brien. In her book she tells the furious, unsparing, and relentlessly determined story of her young female narrator’s attempts to navigate adolescence, sexuality, and the reality of being a woman in the modern world.

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