Your guide to the major literary awards

As you noticed from my Oscars series, I love awards, and luckily there is no shortage of awards to be found in the book world. But what do these awards really mean?

While publishing companies will not hesitate to include any award that a novel received on its cover, some are significantly less prestigious than others. Today, I’m giving you a tour of the major awards for English-language literature. While many of the awards below have categories for nonfiction, poetry, and other forms, I’m specifically focusing on fiction and novels.

Pulitzer Prize

For American literature, this is the one, the most significant marker of prestige that can be bestowed onto a book. Established in 1917, The Pulitzer Prize honors the best of the year in newspaper, magazine, and online journalism, as well as literature and musical composition in the United States.

In the realm of letters, prizes are awarded in six categories: Fiction, Biography/Autobiography, History, General Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama. Since the Pulitzer is primarily a prize for journalism, with 15 of its categories in that field, it makes sense that there are three separate prizes for nonfiction books.

The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction is such a significant literary award that it is one of the only ones that results in a significant sales bump for winners and finalists. Iconic American writers like Edith Wharton (for The Age of Innocence), John Steinbeck (for The Grapes of Wrath), Ernest Hemingway (for The Old Man and the Sea), William Faulkner (for The Reivers), Saul Bellow (for Humboldt’s Gift), Alice Walker (for The Color Purple), Toni Morrison (for Beloved), Philip Roth (for American Pastoral), Marilynne Robinson (for Gilead) and Colson Whitehead (for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys) have all won this award in its 100-plus year history.

Recommended Winners
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (winner in 2001)
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (winner in 2005)
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer (winner in 2018)

Booker Prize

Calling the Booker Prize the “British Pulitzer” is reductive, and no longer all that true, but it does give an indication of the level of prestige this award has, especially internationally. The prize is focused solely on fiction, and when it was established it recognized the best English-language novel written by a Commonwealth, Irish, and South African author. In 2014, the Booker controversially expanded its eligibility to any English-language novel published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, opening up eligibility for American writers. Since the eligibility expanded, three novels written by American writers have won: The Sellout by Paul Beatty in 2016, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in 2017, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart in 2020 (though he holds dual American and British citizenship.)

While the Booker holds a similar level of prestige as the Pulitzer, its winners don’t always get the sales boost in the United States as they do in the United Kingdom. Even so, winners such as Salman Rushdie (for Midnight’s Children), Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day), Margaret Atwood (for The Blind Assassin and The Testaments), and Hilary Mantel (for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) all enjoyed significant international success.

Recommended Winners
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Nobel Prize for Literature

The only award on this list that recognizes the entire body of work of a writer, not a single novel, the Nobel Prize in Literature is certainly a major marker of prestige, but due to major controversies the award has lost some of its shine in recent years.

Each year, the Swedish Academy requests nominations, and a short list is created by the Nobel Committee. From there, the Academy spends the next few months reviewing the work of the shortlisted nominees before voting on a winner. One unusual quirk in the process is that no one can win without being on the shortlist at least twice, allowing many authors to reappear on the lists and have their work reviewed in multiple years.

As stated before, the award has been marred in controversy almost since its inception in 1901. Recipients of the award are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly European. As many authors are famous for never winning the award as those who have won it, and many recipients falling into obscurity even in their home countries. Since the award cannot be given posthumously, the list of those who have never won is long: Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, Roberto Bolaño, James Joyce, and Philip Roth never received the award. In 2018, a sexual assault scandal rocked the Swedish Academy, and led to the resignation of numerous board members and the postponement of that year’s prize.

Recommended Laureates

National Book Award

If the Pulitzer Prize is the popular kid in the literary world, the National Book Award is the arty, fashionable one with impeccable taste. Each year, the National Book Foundation awards the best books published in the United States across five categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Young People’s Literature, and Translated Literature.

Publishers submit works for the National Book Awards, and a panel of five is created for each award category, reading all nominated works, releasing longlists, shortlists, and finally winners in November. These panels are comprised of writers, librarians, booksellers, and literary critics, and they are refreshed each year which allows for new perspectives each awards cycle.

Over the years, the National Book Awards have earned a reputation for their offbeat, decidedly non-mainstream selections, with their winner for fiction aligning with the Pulitzer Prize only seven times since the National Book Awards were founded in 1936. After only white writers won the fiction honor from 2000 to 2010, the National Book Foundation received significant criticism and committed to changing up the process. In the past decade, the awards have highlighted marginalized authors, awarding works from Jesmyn Ward (for Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing), Colson Whitehead (for The Underground Railroad), James McBride (for The Good Lord Bird), Louise Erdrich (for The Round House), and Charles Yu (for Interior Chinatown).

Recommended Winners

Women’s Prize for Fiction

The seed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was planted in 1991, after none of the six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year were written by a woman, despite 60% of the eligible books being written by women. In 1996, the first prize would be awarded, honoring novels written by women or female-identifying persons of any nationality.

In the 25 years since, it has churned out the most consistently high-quality shortlists, and honoring some of our best living writers, regardless of gender. Winners include Ann Patchett (for Bel Canto), Lionel Shriver (for We Need to Talk About Kevin), Zadie Smith (for On Beauty), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (for Half a Yellow Sun), Marilynne Robinson (for Home), and Barbara Kingsolver (for The Lacuna).

Recommended Winners

Hugo Award

The Hugo Awards honor the best in science fiction and fantasy, awarding works in the genre across 17 categories, including awards for best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. First founded in 1955, the Hugos are the gold standard for the genre, and have catapulted authors to massive success in this popular, but self-contained genre.

One thing the award manages to achieve is it never misses the truly titanic-level achievements, as modern classics Dune, Stranger in a Strange Place, The Left Hand of Darkness, Nueromancer, Ender’s Game, Hyperion, American Gods, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire all won Best Novel the year they were released.

Recommended Winners
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Bram Stoker Award

The Bram Stoker Awards, aka the House that Stephen Built, award the best in horror each year, from novels to screenplays, and every form in between. Established in 1987 by the Horror Writers of America, the award for best novel has been dominated by the two titans of the genre, Stephen King and Peter Straub, winning it six and five times respectively, though Straub’s batting average is significantly higher with seven total nominations to King’s 15. King has also cleaned up in other categories, winning an additional seven awards.

The horror genre has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, and the Stoker’s have reflected that, with new guard writers such as Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, and Paul Tremblay winning, and Josh Malerman, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Alma Katsu, and Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) all being nominated for best novel.

Recommended Winners

Michael L. Printz Award

The newest award on this list, the Michael L. Printz Award was first given in 2000 to honor the best in young adult literature. It is also the award on this list that reflects the movement of the industry the least, primarily rewarding contemporary-set novels from the fantasy-dominated YA world. Even major bestsellers like The Hate U Give, Long Way Down, Scythe, Eleanor & Park, Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and The Book Thief all failed to win, settling for being named finalists in their respective years.

The Printz Award is one of many awards given annually by the American Library Association, and was originally created to counterbalance the Newbery Medal, with a focus on literary quality of the novels, in the hopes of building a young adult canon.

Recommended Winners
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  • We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal is the award most people have familiarity with, with school libraries around the country stocked with winners from past years. Like the Printz Award, the Newbery Medal is given by the American Library Association, honoring the best in children’s literature, and is regarded as the highest honor in that field.

The Newbery Medal has succeeded in creating and cultivating a children’s literature canon, but it has been criticized over the years for rewarding books that appeal more to adults than to children, and are too difficult for children to read. Their selection of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village in 2008 sparked an outcry, but positive changes led to a sea-change, with diverse stories and non-traditional storytelling forms being rewarded in recent years.

Recommended Winners
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg