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 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.
An Oral History of Women in World War II
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.
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:
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.
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.
How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
Poverty and Profit in the American City
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.