“I am convinced that it is almost as immodest to refuse a high distinction as stubbornly to strive to attain it.” – Goethe

We’re more than a week into 2012 but I feel I’m only just catching up with last year’s “best-of” lists for music, television shows, movies, and of course, books. Instead of feeling annoyance or validation if my personal favorites respectively miss or make the cut, I look to see what I might have missed. I tend to do the same with annual awards, especially when it comes to literary prizes.

The National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Man Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – and that’s only concentrating on fiction! I’ve noticed that there is often little overlap between the winners of these awards. I tend to only focus on the winning titles, but lately I’ve been wondering what books I’ve been missing. Have I neglected nominees I may have enjoyed more? Or wonderful books that didn’t make any lists due to the whims of judging panels? While browsing previous years’ award winners, I noticed that in 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird and Rabbit, Run were both up for the National Book Award – but neither won. It’s hard to imagine, especially knowing either of these titles could easily beat certain winners from other years. One of my favorite books from 2010, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, was shortlisted for at least three awards but never selected as a winner.

I came across a Salon article that argues that the National Book Award in particular doesn’t focus on the best or most important works of the year, but rather books that might be overlooked. Miller states that the nominees “exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.” While Miller is certainly not advocating a dumbing-down of selections, I think it is valid criticism to say that a constant stream of “good-for-you” books might cancel out the award’s influence on many readers. So, should award committees look for slightly more populist titles? Should we readers take a closer look at nominees and non-winners?

While you’re deciding, check out the Readers’ Corner on our website. We have staff picks, reviews, bestsellers, and of course, award lists.  

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