Prize Reflections

Tomorrow, I'm off to New York for a number of obligations, among them the deliberation of the National Book Awards. It's no secret. I'm on the nonfiction jury. Unlike the Pulitzer, the NBA divulges its jury members early on. The only surprise is that, as far as I know, not one of the judges on my jury has been rushed, lobbied or harassed. So the vote for transparency seems a wise approach.

Nonetheless, the prospect of making a final judgment has me thinking about past prizes and the difficult business of picking a winner. We all know that, too often, the process has been fraught with distractions and complications. For instance: William Faulkner was given the Nobel in 1949, when he was still a relatively unknown writer. Thereafter, his own country's award juries seemed to scramble to try to catch up. He received the National Book Award twice, once for his Collected Stories (1951) and once for a distincly minor work, A Fable (1955). And he was conferred the Pulitzer for the same A Fable and another fairly light work The Reivers (1962). But his masterworks -- The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), not to mention Absalom, Absalom! (1936)--were famously ignored.

A 1962 file photo of author Flannery O'Connor. (AP)

Hemingway, too, was awarded the Pulitzer in 1953 for, of all things, The Old Man and the Sea, a distinctly lesser work. And then he was given the Nobel the next year, in 1954. But he was never really honored for his best work, For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1939.

An then there's Flannery O'Connor, one of the most gifted American writers of all time, who was given the 1971 National Book Award posthumously for a collection of short stories, seven years after her death.

There are any number of interesting anecdotes and points of history that come to mind when one reviews our awards history. I was just reminded, for instance, that in 1972, everyone scratched their heads when The Whole Earth Catalog , a quirky record of the counterculture, was given the National Book Award. And yet, 35 years later, Steve Jobs credited that book as being the forerunner of Google and the worldwide Web.

So prizes can either recognize a vanguard or desperately try to mete out a late justice. Or, as I'm hoping, as I head into deliberations, make an enlightened and timely choice.

What are the books you think have unjustly eluded the awards? Fiction and nonfiction, alike.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  November 17, 2008; 7:01 AM ET Marie Arana
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"Prize Reflections" is an interesting piece--fun to see it within the context you laid out. One small thing: I wonder if Faulkner was "still a relatively unknown writer" when he received the Nobel in 1949. It is true, America was slow to recognize the greatness--the French existentialists were famously way ahead of us--but much of that changed with key publications like Malcolm Cowley's "The Portable Faulkner" (1946) which also contained the Yoknapatawpha map.
--"Lenexa, Kan."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 17, 2008 1:00 PM

Thank you for this comment, Lenexa. I suppose I could have been clearer. What I meant is that Faulkner was, at that time, something of a cult writer. Sure, he was a quantity, but he wasn't seen as a prizewinner.

Posted by: aranam1 | November 17, 2008 6:12 PM

I think "The Sun Also Rises" has stood the test of time better than "For Whom the Bell Tolls." That "earth moving" sex scene sounds incredibly cheesy nowadays.

Posted by: ronchar | November 17, 2008 10:22 PM

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