Famous Book Awards: Who’s Giving Them and Who’s Getting Them

The Pulitzer Prize. The Nobel Prize for Literature. The Newberry Medal. Ring any bells? We were all forced to endure literature lists in primary school that included dozens of books with a shiny sticker on the front. Or, if you’re a literature snob like yours truly, you scour for these same stickers on books left woefully behind in the clearance section of Half-Price Books. But- why? What does a fancy award have to do with the quality of a piece of written work? Who gives these awards their prestige and power, and which books are being esteemed grand enough to receive them? Do these awards truly guarantee that their recipients are worth your time and attention? Let’s take a look at three of the most famous book awards to find out.

  1. The Pulitzer Prize

Provisioned by newspaper maven Joseph Pulitzer’s will in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize is an American award administered yearly by Columbia University in New York City. Pulitzer himself made a fortune as a newspaper publisher, and his award offers prizes every year to 21 different categories in literature, musical composition, magazine, newspaper, and (now) online journalism. Only written work that is entered into the competition is considered, as not everything published that year is automatically submitted. The 21 categories include things like fiction, poetry, drama, national reporting, commentary, and so on. 102 judges are selected each year for 20 juries, and each jury makes three nominations. The board then selects the winner by voting.

Critics of the prize claim that it has a “liberal legacy” and that winners often oppose conservative causes of the time, especially in the commentary category. While many people have won more than one Pulitzer Prize, only one person has won two consecutively: Nelson Harding in 1927 and 1928 for editorial cartooning. Robert Frost, for instance, won four Prizes for his poetry, and Eugene O’Neill won four for drama. Winners of the Pulitzer Prize offer pieces described mostly as “distinguished”- i.e., the definition for the winner of the fiction category in 2008 was “a distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

Pulitzer Prize Fiction Winner Examples –

  • Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)
  • Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind (1936)
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  • Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1967)
  • Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)


  1. The Noble Prize for Literature

Even older than the Pulitzer Prize is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been awarded to global authors annually since 1901. Alfred Nobel created the award with his will, saying that “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” should be the winner. The Swedish Academy is the declarer of the winners, and they can either choose to award the prize to an author’s individual work or their collection of works. Alfred Nobel’s will also set up prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology and Medicine, and, of course the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Swedish Academy receives nominations for candidates each year from members of the academy, members of literary societies, professors of literature, presidents of writing organizations, and former Nobel literature winners. Candidates are narrowed down by the Nobel Committee to only twenty, and then to five. The winner is voted on by the committee. The committee represents 13 different languages, but when a piece is nominated that is written in a language not of these 13, a translator is called upon. There is a good bit of controversy regarding the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature concerning its goal of awarding the work that moves in an “ideal direction.” For instance, in the early 1900s the committee defined the “ideal direction” as an idealism that caused work by Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy both to be rejected. The prize has also been scolded for focusing too much on European and Swedish work.

Nobel Prize for Literature Winner Examples –

  • Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)
  • John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
  • William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)


  1. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction

Otherwise known as the Booker-McConnell Prize or the Booker Prize, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction is awarded every year for “the best original novel” written in the English language and published specifically in the United Kingdom. The Booker, McConnell Ltd. Company began sponsoring the prize in 1968, and in 2002 the award was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation. Today the Booker Prize is one of the world’s richest literary prizes, and perhaps one of the most widely commercially coveted.

An advisory committee is created in order to determine the winner of the Booker Prize. This committee includes two publishers, a writer, a bookseller, an agent, a librarian, and an appointed chairperson. A judging panel is then selected with an alternating yearly membership. Judges are chosen from literary critics, leading writers, and so on. The Booker Prize is the youngest literary award on our list, and it too is rife with potent controversy. Many of the winning authors have drifted into obscurity and its influence on sales has made it somewhat of a joke in certain literary circles, with fingers pointed at the readability of the chosen books versus their actual intellectual worth.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction Winner Examples –

  • H. Newby: Something to Answer For (1969)
  • Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger (1987)
  • Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question (2010)
  • Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015)


No Guarantee

This is only to name a few of the literary awards most authors only dare to dream of. Among other names, there is also the Caldecott Medal, the National Book Award, the Newberry Medal, and the Faulkner Award. But, admittedly, we have yet to answer perhaps the most important question of all- are these books actually worth reading? Is the stamp of approval guaranteed? Most simply: nope. With awkward definitions of worthy champions including “distinguished work” and heading in an “ideal direction,” as well as biased committees full of their own narrow opinions and philosophical leanings, it’s unlikely every winner is truly a winner. Regardless, to be submitted, gleaned, and then finally selected is a tremendous accomplishment, no matter the award. Whether you hated The Grapes of Wrath or loved it, it certainly deserves to be on your shelf, even if for a short period of time. Does that mean it’s the end-all of all books? Definitely not. There are certain to be hundreds, if not thousands, of equally worthy texts waiting for discovery across the globe. Enjoy those laureled few, but don’t forget to do some book digging on your own, too.