Opening Up Literary Prizes: What Do They Really Stand For?

By Lily Miniken

Literary prizes were initially created to celebrate and congratulate notable writers on their work and achievements, and they’ve been around since the dawn of the twentieth century. Since their establishment, prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction have begun to transform into a piece of objectified symbolic capital; in fact, it almost seems that there are now more prizes than there are writers. These prizes can have a huge impact on the perceived legitimacy of writers in the literary sphere. But do awards really reflect quality? Or have they become just another example of power structures that support the elite few?

As coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, the theory of cultural capital has been used to analyse how power structures within classes and society are transferred and maintained. It also seems that cultural capital has begun to inform how we perceive literary prizes. Yet when we begin to look more systematically at the function of prizes through a variety of lenses, they represent more than just cultural capital; the history of these awards is a direct example of the exclusive and classist trajectory of the literary world. The underrepresentation of different kinds of writers from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, different genres, as well as marginalised groups, particularly women, is unfortunately clearly evident. For women of colour in particular, the hurdles multiply.

For example, eligibility requirements for the Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Stella Prize all exclude works originally published outside of their founding country. They also all require their submissions to be written in English and not be translations of works originally written in a foreign language. This immediately disqualifies any writers who may be of an eligible nationality, but do not use English as their first language – which is the case for many authors.

For self-published works, the eligibility criteria are also prohibitive self-published works for which only self-published online versions of the text exist. The fact that many prizes place restrictions on self-published titles means that authors who aren’t traditionally published are excluded. Novels, plays and film scripts are eligible for the Miles Franklin Award, but children’s books, short stories, biographies and poetry are not. While the Stella Prize does allow collections of short stories and biographies, it also excludes poetry, children’s books, film scripts and plays. By refusing to include these genres, the judging panel is suggesting that such works are considered lesser forms of fiction – that they don’t hold the same literary value.

Entry fees also present a considerable barrier. The Pulitzer Prize requires each applicant to pay $75 (USD) per title. The Miles Franklin Award requires $90 (AUD) for regular entries with each work that you submit, while the Stella Prize charges $77 (AUD). If an author wants to submit more than one piece of work to many different awards, these costs really start to add up – especially when you consider that Australian authors make an average of only $12,900 per year from authoring works. Furthermore, depending on the size of the publisher, each title shortlisted for the Stella Prize is required to contribute somewhere between $500–2000 (AUD) towards marketing costs. Literary authors simply don’t earn enough from sales of their titles to be able to cover these costs and are therefore unable to even consider themselves as potentials for the rewards – both symbolic and economic – that come with literary prizes. These entry fees and eligibility requirements mean that only certain types of authors and publishers are in the running.

The histories of the Miles Franklin and the Pulitzer Prize further emphasise the imbalances. Since it was founded in 1957, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has been awarded to 21 women, eight of which were awarded in the last ten years. Only one Indigenous man, Kim Scott, has won, and only three women of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) ancestry have won: Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Michelle de Kretser. Similarly, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded to only three women of colour since its conception in 1917: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri. More than 50 per cent of winners have been white males; for an award that wants to represent stories about American life, they are inherently giving more space, weight and importance to this specific male perspective. The Booker Prize has been awarded to 36 men and 20 women since 1969, of whom only Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai were BAME writers. If you continue to look at the history of older literary awards, you’ll see the same pattern emerge.

Conversely, in the last five years, we have finally begun to see more female authors receive proper recognition for their work: the Stella Prize, which can only be awarded to female Australian writers, was conceived in 2012 and promotes and gives recognition to the literary achievements of female authors, while also encouraging a more equal environment for women in the wider publishing industry.

But Natalie Kon-yu asserts that awards that intend to promote female writing are still problematic. Kon-yu refers to Evie Wyld’s book, All the Birds, Singing, which won the Miles Franklin in 2014. In a review of the book, Wyld’s writing was even compared to Ernest Hemingway’s due to its similar masculine style and tropes within the text.

Indeed, the Stella Prize has also been criticised for failing to feature stories by women of colour. In an attempt to shift this imbalance, the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize was founded in 2016. The award honours Meriwether, who famously wrote Daddy Was a Number Runner: one of the first novels to feature a Black female protagonist in contemporary American fiction. The award focuses specifically on publishing debut works by female or non-binary authors of colour. Similarly, in 2017, the Jhalak Prize was created, which celebrates books by British/British resident BAME writers. Its sister award, the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize, was founded in 2021.

Literary prizes are supposed to be judged according to quality and ‘merit’ rather than popularity, and this poses many of its own inherent problems about deciding what literary values are more important. Will the judges choose a work of fiction that will be very popular, accessible and relatable? Or a piece of literature that is deemed prestigious and a dependable representation of high culture?

Looking at prizes with a bit more of a critical eye and from a contemporary perspective makes me wonder why literary prizes and awards still exist. Yes, they’re the perfect promotional material for publishers and bookstores to use for publicity when they announce longlists, shortlists and winners. Prize-winning books generate ‘booktalk’ and popularity and notoriety in the media. There are also financial benefits for authors; most award recipients receive anywhere between $1000 (AUD) for making the Stella Prize shortlist to £50,000 (GBP) for winning the Booker Prize. For a struggling author, this money could be the difference between being able to work full time on their latest novel or postponing it for years due to financial stress.

Winning a literary award also gives an author a very special kind of credibility in the eyes of readers; yet even if an author wins such an award, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their work will be loved by all or even translate to massive sales of the book. It simply means that a particular set of judges admired their style. It’s also worth reiterating that hundreds of literary awards exist, and that the sheer number of them can cause people – particularly authors themselves – to devalue them. So what should the future of literary awards look like?

By all accounts, it appears that literary prizes are here to stay. However, to move away from the problems that they present, it has been recommended that we avoid talking about these prizes so much. Instead of buying shortlisted books, read reviews and take personal book recommendations from local bookshops to help shift some of the focus from literary awards. After all, there are so many wonderful books in the world that haven’t won any literary awards – and that shouldn’t make them any less important.

Lily Miniken is a 23-year-old Publishing Communications student at the University of Melbourne. Lily has previously been published in Farrago and is currently our website editor and co-editor of the Publishing and MZ blogs.

Cover photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.

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