What 35 Years of Data Can Tell Us about Who Will Win the National Book Award

What 35 Years of Data Can Tell Us about Who Will Win the National Book Award


We are not the cultural consumers we used to be. Data, streaming, and Web 2.0 have remade how we read and how we watch. Platforms are the new publishers. But although we consume culture differently now, much of how we talk about and study it remains lodged in the analog world of the 20th century. It’s time for our methods to catch up with our objects. Born digital culture requires a born digital approach. Hacking the Culture Industries showcases the power of data-driven cultural criticism, and reinvigorates cultural studies for the 21st century. These five new essays move between book culture, streaming TV, social media, and online writing platforms: Squid Game and streaming hits; Goodreads and romance fiction; Twitter and hive-critique; Tik Tok and cultural attention; and who gets to decide who wins book prizes in the age of social networks. This series takes up a call we issued a year ago: to hack the culture industries. To challenge their dominance by using their data to study them and their stranglehold on cultural production. To tell new stories about culture in a time of ubiquitous data.

—Laura B. McGrath, Dan Sinykin, and Richard Jean So


Toni Morrison got snubbed. Or at least that’s what nearly 50 Black writers and critics suggested in an open letter in the New York Times after the 1987 National Book Award passed over Morrison’s Beloved for Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, Paco’s Story. From the very moment it was announced in the grand ballroom of New York’s Hotel Pierre, the decision sent shock waves through the American literary scene. “You couldn’t have cut the collective astonishment with a machete,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “nor dislodged it with a thermonuclear explosion; that’s how startled were the assembled illuminati. Truman over Dewey was nothing as to Heinemann over Morrison.” Over at the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani opened her review with just two words (reminiscent of another November upset, nearly three decades later): “What happened?”

Of course, part of the reason critics like us keep telling this story is that it shocks us still. Beloved is the single most canonical contemporary American novel—among the most widely read, written about, and admired works of the last half century—and Paco’s Story is, well, the winner of the 1987 National Book Award. How could the prize have gotten things so wrong?

Well, to start, it wasn’t the National Book Award that bungled things in November 1987, nor the Pulitzer Prize that got it right when Beloved won a few months later in April 1988. Rather, it was the prizes’ juries: the writers, critics, scholars, journalists, and booksellers tasked with elevating one work over all the rest. These arbiters of aesthetic taste are often invisible, hidden behind the gilded seal of the awards they administer.

What’s more, prize juries tend to make news only in the midst of scandal. And that’s precisely why the three judges of the 1987 National Book Award—the critic Richard Eder and the novelists Gloria Naylor and Hilma Wolitzer—were in the spotlight. It was a split decision, the literary press reported, the result of a two-to-one vote. So who tipped the scales? Wolitzer went on record calling the process “an agonizing down-to-the-wire deliberation.” Eder had given Paco’s Story a positive review in the Los Angeles Times and written on Beloved only briefly at the end of a piece on “Magic Realism in America,” but he was also a member of the Pulitzer jury that shortlisted the novel soon after. Naylor, the only Black judge on the panel, was rumored to have voted against Beloved. And this rumor resulted in June Jordan, one of the signatories of the open letter to the Times, withdrawing a creative writing fellowship at SUNY Stony Brook, on the grounds that it would be “embarrassing and morally elliptical” for Naylor to take it up. Still, no one knows for certain who voted how. “A fair number of people have asked me,” Naylor said at the time, adding that the three of them had taken a “blood oath” to keep their deliberations discreet. It was not, the judges agreed, a story to pass on.

Among other things, the scandal of the 1987 National Book Award emphasizes just how little we, as readers, know about how literary distinction is doled out, and by whom.

Whether we like it or not, prizes matter. Even books that reach only the shortlist are far more likely to be read, taught in university classrooms, and studied by scholars—and the ones that actually win get an even bigger boost.

Part of the magic of major literary awards seems to lie in their ceremonial mystery, the way that authors are anointed like popes, with a puff of white smoke emerging from a literary conclave. We are quick to point out that this book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, or that that author is a Booker Prize winner, but the people who draft those shortlists and select those winners are forgotten long before the gold and silver medallions are even pasted to the covers.

We may never know exactly what happened in the room where literary history was being made. But, thanks to new data on American literary prizes, we now know exactly who was there.

Last spring, the Post45 Data Collective published the extensive work of Claire Grossman, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young, which includes information on winners and judges from nearly forty awards (worth $10,000 or more) between 1918 and 2020. Pairing this with data that we’ve gathered—on the demographics of fiction prize judges, winners, and finalists over the last 35 years—reveals broad trends about how the composition of prize juries influences the works and authors that they celebrate.

As recently as a few decades ago, both prizewinners and the juries that chose them were overwhelmingly white. But this year, the jury for the National Book Award is the most racially diverse in the prize’s history and its shortlist is among the most as well. Every panel of judges is idiosyncratic, and every decision all the more so. Still, the data not only helps us put this year’s selections in context, it may also point to which book is favored to win.


 

The first thing this data demonstrates is just how much influence over the literary field has rested in so few hands. Over the last 35 years, just 25 people have served as judges more than 700 times for over 30 unique prizes. These 25 people make up 25 percent of all jury positions in that period.

Among these, Joy Williams—short story writer, novelist, and Pulitzer Prize finalist—is the single most prolific prize judge of the last century. Williams has served on committees that have awarded more than 75 literary prizes to more than 150 writers, doling out, in total, millions of dollars in award money. (Almost all of this has to do with Williams’s work over the last 15 years as a prize judge for the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which hands out 15 to 20 awards annually.)

We were curious what Williams might say about holding such a title, so we contacted her agent to ask what all this jury duty means to her. Though Williams was “unavailable to comment,” her agent added that “she did wish me to pass along that this fact about her judging the most literary prizes is not correct.”

Of course, far more interesting than how Williams might know whether she was or wasn’t the most prolific judge is how eager she was not to be seen as such. For a writer’s writer like Williams, being cast more as an award administrator than an award winner may appear as a kind of demotion.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps this is why the vast majority of the National Book Award’s judges serve only one time and why so many of the Pulitzer’s most frequent judges are book critics. Indeed, over the last 35 years, a mere five people—four of whom are professional reviewers—have constituted more than a fifth of all jury positions (22 percent) for the Pulitzer. Add the next five names and it’s more than a third (35 percent).

The names of many prizewinning works and authors are well known to readers of literary fiction. But it is these few names—this shortlist—that comprises what we might call the unacknowledged legislators of contemporary literary prestige.


Apart from the fact that many of these repeat judges are critics, it’s also worth noting that nearly all of them are white. We were curious to what extent that reflected the larger jury pool for major prizes, so we developed our own dataset that included how the judges and writers for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction self-identify in terms of race. What this data reveals is that the juries for these two awards have grown considerably more racially diverse over the last several decades.

In the five years after Morrison’s Beloved was published, only around 15 percent of judges for the two prizes were people of color. Moreover, in 16 of the last 35 years, the nominating jury for the Pulitzer did not include a single person of color. (The same is true of the National Book Award in only 4 of the last 35 years.) But fast forward to the last five years, and judges of color constituted more than half of the jury pool for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award (52 percent and 56 percent, respectively).

 

 

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transformation has coincided with the writers celebrated by these two prizes becoming significantly more diverse as well. According to data drawn from Alexander Manshel’s new book, Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, 27 percent of the prizes’ finalists and 30 percent of their winners between 1988 and 2022 have been writers of color. In the last decade alone, those figures are higher still: from 2013 to 2022, racialized writers comprised 56 percent of the finalists and 65 percent of the winners for these two prizes.

While the fact that the juries and the shortlists of these awards have both grown more diverse is important and interesting, it’s not necessarily surprising. But here’s where things get wonky. On the scale of the individual year, a more diverse panel of judges doesn’t necessarily yield a more diverse group of finalists.

Over the last 35 years, whether the five-member jury for the National Book Award was composed entirely of white judges, or whether it included a single judge of color, did not make much of a difference when it came to the composition of the shortlist. In both cases, only one out of five finalists (on average) was a writer of color. It is only when a majority of the judges in the room were people of color—which has happened just five times, and all in the last decade—that the shortlist becomes significantly more diverse (including, on average, three out of five writers of color).

When it comes to the Pulitzer, the same is largely true. When all the judges on the nominating panel were white, half the time they selected three white finalists. Yet whether there was one, or two, or even three people of color on the jury didn’t significantly alter the average shortlist. In each case, only one of the three finalists was a writer of color.

Moreover, even when writers of color are shortlisted for the National Book Award by a jury with at least one BIPOC judge, half of the time (49 percent) the writer and the judge do not identify as being of the same race. That is, when a Black or Asian American writer has been named a finalist, there is often not a Black or Asian American judge on the committee. In the case of the Pulitzer, this is even more true (68 percent of the time). In other words, a diverse jury may eventually lead to a diverse shortlist, but that process is far from an exercise in identification.

In March, the National Book Foundation announced the jury for this year’s fiction prize. The five-person panel includes crime writer and critic Steph Cha, bookseller Calvin Crosby, novelist Silas House, writer and University of Oregon professor Mat Johnson, and Cornell professor and novelist Helena María Viramontes. With only one white judge, this year’s jury is the most racially diverse in the history of the National Book Award for Fiction. Their shortlist is among the most diverse as well, featuring work by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Aaliyah Bilal, Paul Harding, Hanna Pylväinen, and Justin Torres.

But if the data suggests that the connections between judges and their picks are often unpredictable, what can it tell us, if anything, about which of these writers is likely to win?


On the one hand, the statistics above demonstrate, in quantitative terms, what the rumors about Gloria Naylor’s vote for the 1987 National Book Award already made clear: namely, that a judge’s identity will never wholly dictate which book or books they prefer. To assume otherwise would constitute a kind of progressive essentialism about the relation between readers and their aesthetic judgment, or at the very least, about the relation between aesthetic judgment and political commitment. It’s a good thing when national literary awards reflect the diversity of the nation they claim to represent, and a good thing when the juries for those awards do too—even, and perhaps especially, when those two things don’t happen at the same time.

On the other hand, these figures remind us that the work of a prize jury is like any other committee work: it is less a quantitative average of the individuals involved, and more a qualitative record of their social dynamics. Perhaps the reason that an all-white jury and a predominantly white jury tend to end up with similar slates of finalists is not so surprising after all. “For people of color, double consciousness is second nature,” writes Viet Thanh Nguyen in an essay on diversifying the literary canon, “something I am reminded of whenever I am the only nonwhite person in an academic or literary setting, which happens often.”

When the jury was composed only of white judges, they selected a white winner every single time.

In fact, this is precisely the plot of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, which follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a professor and writer, as he drafts a parodic and highly offensive novel under an assumed name. The book culminates with the awarding of a thinly veiled National Book Award, where Monk is installed as a judge, and his monstrous creation is selected as a finalist. Here Everett’s satire of the judges’ suspect deliberations is made all the more biting by the fact that in 1997, just a few years before Erasure was published, Everett himself served as the lone black judge on an otherwise all-white jury for the National Book Award. “I detested awards,” Monk declares, “but as I complained endlessly about the direction of American letters, when presented with an opportunity to affect it, how could I say no?”

At the end of the novel, despite his fierce objections, the four other judges, all white, vote to give the prize to the horribly racist parody that Monk himself has penned—an instance of double consciousness if ever there was one! One of the more egregious judges remarks: “I should think as an African American you’d be happy to see one of your own people get an award like this … I would think you’d be happy to have the story of your people so vividly portrayed.” Of course, as the novel suggests, the racial politics of contemporary literary prestige are far more complicated than mere representation. But as Everett’s own experience—as both novelist and prize judge—testifies, representation still matters. Erasure never won a prize, nor appeared on a shortlist, but in 1997, when Everett was the only Black judge for the National Book Award, the finalists were entirely white and the winner was Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s tragic love story about a Confederate soldier and a Southern landowner.

We cannot know for certain whether Everett voted in the minority in 1997 (though, come on). But if he did (he did), it reminds us that a prize committee’s final decision doesn’t have to be unanimous, and often isn’t. Francine Prose, prolific writer and former judge for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, told us as much in an interview. “People get quite attached to their choices,” Prose said, and things can get “a little contentious at the end.” The vote could be three to two, and the “two never forgive you,” Prose added, laughing.

Interestingly, the area where more diverse juries have had the most significant effect is in the selection of a winner. While the Pulitzer’s fiction panel hands over the final decision to the organization’s larger board, the National Book Award is decided by the same five judges who draft the shortlist.

When the jury was composed only of white judges, they selected a white winner every single time. When the jury included a single judge of color, they gave the prize to a writer of color only three times (out of 15). But in the 12 instances where two judges of color were on the panel, a racialized writer was selected half of the time. In the four years when white judges were in the minority, three of the prizes went to writers of color. And yet, as we have already argued, this may tell us less about who voted how, and why, than it does about the dynamics in the room—a room where one could not help but recognize that their perspective is one of many.


So what will happen next week in the ballroom of Cipriani Wall Street when the winner of the 74th National Book Award for Fiction is announced?

“All literary prizes are necessarily a mixture of oversight and whimsy,” Richard Eder wrote in the Los Angeles Times in the wake of the Beloved prize scandal. “There is usually more than one candidate who should win, and the choice, at best, is personal taste.” Elsewhere, Eder was quoted as saying that there was “not the slightest racial consideration at any point” in the jury’s deliberations.

The statistics above seem to refute both explanations. And yet the best way to put the question to rest—by which we mean to both answer and avoid it—is to see what happens when the arbiters of literary prestige are as diverse as the writers they are evaluating. icon

This article was commissioned by Laura B. McGrath, Dan Sinykin, and Richard Jean So. Featured image: Tess Gunty accepting the 2022 National Book Award in Fiction.



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