What Do You Want & Expect From An Award Winning Book?

This is a question which I have been asked rather a lot recently. Actually the exact question has been ‘what do you look for in an award winning book?’ So I thought I would open it up to all of you for all your thoughts on that very subject. We all do it, we judge the panel that judge the award and we always have opinions of why a winning book should/shouldn’t or did/didn’t win don’t we? (If anyone is saying no then you are fibbing!) I am also interested, as ever, in what you all think because I would like to see just how different or similar our expectations are with these books. 

I could easily think of some recent titles that show just how much discussion/controversy book winners can cause. The first that came to mind were these two both winners of awards in 2010.

First up is ‘Truth’ by Peter Temple, which I have now decided I need to get my hands on imminently, this book seemed to shock everyone by being a ‘crime/thriller’ that won the literary prize The Miles Franklin Award 2010. Why should that be so shocking, does the genre really matter? There seems some great surprise, like when Tom Rob Smith’s brilliant ‘Child 44’ was put forward for the Man Booker, that a crime book could be well written and yet they are well written (need I send you in the direction of Kate Atkinson or have I raved about her enough?) in fact I think some of the plots in some of the best thrillers published could put some of the more prose heavy contenders to shame yet you wouldn’t.

Also a shock winner this year was ‘The Lacuna’ by Barbara Kingsolver (which I gave up on and am giving to Gran at the weekend as she’s doing it for one of her book groups and a ‘guest review’ on here) which caused a lot of controversy for winning the Orange over what many believed was the better novel ‘Wolf Hall’. It appeared the judges couldn’t let the latter book win as it won the Booker the year before, which strikes me as slightly odd because surely if its won one award already it’s because its bloody good and deserves to win more? Or is it just me that belongs to that rare school of logic?

Turning to another subject on award winners I was interested that reviews of one of this years Man Booker long-listed titles ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue have suggested that despite the fact people think its absolutely brilliant they doubt it will be Man Booker winning material because its too accessible. I am not berating that because that’s what I thought too, why though? Shouldn’t the books that go on to win awards, not only by being very well written, be able to reach out to a mass of people and just be a cracking good read as well as everything else?

Really with most awards it’s down to a group of people rather than us and what they think makes a cracking read. They aren’t able to please everyone and yet we expect them to, which brings me nicely to my next point.  

Another question which I have been asked a lot is ‘what qualifies you to be a judge of what is a good book or not?’ My answer so far to that one has been ‘I read enough of them to know what I like, what makes a book special or amazing rather than just another good read, it’s a very personal thing too.’ Which left me wondering what my criteria is for an award winning book and I don’t think it would match some other peoples, and maybe people will be asking the question at the start of this paragraph even more after seeing what it is.

Though because we have sworn to secrecy I can’t tell you how many books have been submitted for The Green Carnation Prize 2010, which ones they are/might be or which publishers sent them… I do feel I can tell you what I personally will be looking for regardless of genre, length etc;

  • The writing has to be captivating. I don’t mean that it has to be the most beautiful prose that has ever graced a page – though that helps – I do need to be spell bound by it, every word should count without being calculated and together as a whole work have an effect on me.
  • It needs to be readable and accessible. I don’t want to be able to put it down (this doesn’t mean it has to be trashy books like the marvellous ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ by Maggie O’Farrell can be stunningly written and also page turning) yet I don’t want to enjoy it and forget about it as soon as its on the shelf.
  • I want narrators who I believe the whole way through no matter how lovely or vile or how reliable or not they may be.
  • It needs to be a book I would rush out and buy for anyone and everyone (hence why no thoughts on any of the long listed or short listed books of a certain prize will appear on my blog or be discussed by me in specifics in the real world until the winners announced) because because its a great story and one I want others to read asap.
  • Most importantly I want a book that stands out and etches itself in my brain in some way, it doesn’t have to change my life or world completely, but it does need make me think and linger with me for days, weeks and months after.  

So what makes the perfect award winning book for you? By all means mention a few titles but what I would love to get to the crux of, and am much more interested in, is just what those perfect award winning books had about them for you? What made them work for you personally? Which criteria would you be looking for if you were judging a book award? What would instantly stop you from wanting a book to go further through the process? Which book award winners have mystified you and more importantly why?


Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker, Orange Prize, The Green Carnation Prize

42 responses to “What Do You Want & Expect From An Award Winning Book?

  1. When I read the six shortlisted books for the Arthur C Clarke this year, I considered the possibility of each of them winning. And the one criteria I guess I really had, after reading all six, is that the winner feels as though you are reading a classic book – one that will be picked up down the ages, and discussed in book groups, and possibly even reach Eng Lit course reading lists. The City and The City was one such winner, in my eyes – a classic read, gripping, and hasn’t left me even after the months and months since I read it. Even now I find myself contemplating the book and its meanings. That, for me, is what you should look for in a prize winning book.

    • I had never thought about an award winning book feeling like a classic and agree it should be a possible classic of the future. My only concern with book awards winners feeling like a classic instantly is that maybe it means they feel like a previous book so are slightly less original? Food for thought for me there, thanks Amanda.

  2. I think a book has to be more than just captivating prose and one that is readable/accessible. What about plot? Character? Story arc? Good ending/bad ending? Subject matter? Surely it also needs to tell a story in a way that hasn’t been told before? Has to make you think, and see the world afresh, no?

    • I think I was trying to be a bit too broad with my initial responses as your right plot is important, though some winners have absolutely zilch they are more and observational read if that makes sense? I dont mind plot or obsrvational. I mentioned characters be they good or bad, likeable or not they have to work and come off the page.

      I have just noticed I missed the end of the sentence on bullet point four which is because its a great story and one I want others to read asap. will change that.

      Subject matters a tricky one actually, I hadnt given that much thought. Do you mean some subjects should be more worthy?

      Make me think was what I was getting at with my last bullet point. How could I miss out the ending as part of my criteria? We all know how a final sentence/page/chapter can make some books and completely break others.

      • What about experimentation? This could be changing viewpoints throughout (third person, first person etc), jumping backwards and forwards in time, using the author as the character etc etc

      • Oh Kim hahahaha! I was trying to do this in the most broadened way so as not to give too much away if you know what I mean, but yes experimentation too.Thats what I mean in response to Amanda and Jackie regarding the ‘classic’ tag, you want something that pushes writing forward.

        Maybe I shouldnt have limited by criteria as five and done ten instead. I will go away, head slightly hanging in woe, and think them over more ha.

  3. farmlanebooks

    I agree with Amanda – I expect a prize winning book to stand the test of time. I don’t expect to enjoy all prize winning books, but I like to see why it won. I want it to be original, thought provoking and well written. I don’t expect them to be accessible. Sometimes the best books reveal their brilliance after several readings. Books like The Sound and the Fury and Beloved are classics today, but not the easiest read.

    I have been reading the Booker/Pulitzer winners decades after they won the prize and most are still worthy reads today. All good prizes will produce the classics of the future.

    • I agree with it standing the test of time but then we don’t know what amazing books may come out in years ahead and completely change our perceptions of books and reading do we? It is also dependent on what each of us indiviually defines a classic?

      The re-reading aspect I think is spot on, I am not used to re-reading that often (apart from Sherlock Holmes which has never won awards and should have – ha) so this new process ahead of me will certainly be a learning curve in that respect.

  4. Tangent but I think the problem with a lot of awards judging panels is they let other people judgements get in the way of what they pick. The Orange panel obviously din’t want the Orange announcement to be greeted by ‘Oh not her again’ and the Man always seems to be letting the glowing critical reviews get in its way. That’s why I’ve always have so much hope when new awards appear, because for a brief while all that pressure to justify their decision can be cast aside in an ‘we’re non-conformist awards giving rebels and we will pick what we think is excellent’ way (although popular books should still get a look in).

    As for what I’d pick, well language would be up there like it is for you. When I think of award winners I always think they should play around with language and possibly structure, or the authors should seem interested in working with words. Compelling is a word used too often (mostly by me), but I should want to return to the books no matter what else gets in the way. I want newness, something that triggers new trains of thought in my brain. Books that take a different approach to anyone else writing on a similar subject, yet make their choices seem organic to the suvbject so you don’t understand why no one ever thought of writing the story this way (Wolf Hall). Or books that take a familiar appriach but do it so well they outshine all their rivals.

    I do think reading experience while judging is important, but that award winners can’t be solely picked on that love feeling that readers get for their favourite books. It’s too unreliable, although a spark between a judge and the book is practically going to be essential.

    • The only time I have felt the Man Booker judges listened to people in a good way was last year with what the public thought, as everyone – well almost, loved Wolf Hall when they read it.

      I love your comment of “I should want to return to the books no matter what else gets in the way. I want newness, something that triggers new trains of thought in my brain” I think I need someone like you Jodie to reword what I write hahaha.

      Its interesting with the judging already, we have very different thoughts on one particular book only a week in!

  5. This has been something I have been thinking about for a while now, since I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett and further cemented by Room by Emma Donoghue (your comment on my post really resonated with me) but *sometimes* the most enjoyable books like The Help and Room (the ones you simply cannot put down, that you rush to recommend or buy for everyone you know) are not the most literary of titles. Both of those books were highlights of my year, both had great stories that pulled me in and emotional connections but my favourite read of the year so far is, without a doubt, Love by Toni Morrison because it had that but it also had amazing writing (I do agree with you that what Donoghue did with her sentences commuting big ideas was impressive but her writing didn’t wow me; Toni Morrison’s writing makes me breathless) and I enjoyed it but in a completely different way. I didn’t devour Love but savoured it slowly… we are definitely speaking of different “types” of books here but they have all been longlisted for literary prizes (and probably all the Orange by 2011).

    It’s such a tricky concept to get one’s head around and I admire your attempt to raise it and try to make sense of what we look for from prize-winners. I need to be impressed -by whatever means- and that is entirely subjective, whether it be the superb prose of Midnight’s Children, the originality of Life of Pi or the sheer scope of Wolf Hall.

    I have been reading some extended dialogue on this year’s Man Booker (I won’t mention where here but if you’re curious then contact me privately) and it’s made me realise that I look at the Man Booker and books differently from the people discussing. Perhaps I am too pedestrian in my tastes or they are too erudite but I find most of the abhorring Room and loving another title from the longlist that hasn’t made much of an impact on me. It confuses me; I think I’m fairly well-read and eclectic in my reading but perhaps my choices are too mainstream and “popular”. Ultimately though I read what I want to read and I look for a prize-winner that I can see the value and longevity in.

    • I sometimes wonder if books like Room and The Help are popped in the longlist as they are good but also so at least they get a nod if you know what I mean?

      I think a long list should be accessible but not at the cost of being throwaway by any means. I love your idea of ‘being impressed by whatever means’ and have just stuck that phrase up above my desk!

      I think sometimes we need pedestrian readers in a list of judges, maybe that’s my role in The Green Carnation Prize for the next few years to come?

  6. I think a book can both stand the test of time AND be accessible! I find myself bewildered by some of the books that have actually won awards…you can’t tell me that some of them will hold up 30 years from now. Maybe I’m just dense, I don’t know. What the hell happened to The Help? You can’t tell me that book won’t stand up over the years. Is there something so wrong about everyone actually being able to get through it, and love it?

    • I think my key focus is a mix of bloody well written, completely engrossing and yet accessible to all. Surely thats what all the best books are?

      I do interestingly, whilst loving it, think The Help might get swept away a little in years to come. I can’t quite explain why though.

  7. gaskella

    I agree with those that said it should promise to stand the test of time, to be a potential modern classic.

    A key for me would be that the book is sustained throughout its length – of whatever type, style, genre. No flabby middles, loss of interest in characters, cop-out endings etc etc etc spoiling something that starts really well.

    • Hahaha I love the ‘no flabby middles’ thats going up on my pin board too!

      I am also going to really try with books I don’t initially love, you can easily misjudge a slow burner that way.

  8. In my world a prize-winning book would be one that is accessible, well-written, unafraid to try something new or experimental, and displays a love of and feeling for language, while still telling a compelling story. Irrespective of genre. Ideally, it would also stand the test of time and not purely tap into the current literary fashions or trends.

  9. Personally I think a prize winning book should be intelligent, profound, contemporary, and yet timeless. Beautifully written, well plotted, with real characters that come alive off the page, and that are human, and relatable, and that move you. Prize winning books should be able to be picked up 100 years after they are written and still speak to the reader. Style is not enough.

    I’m not that bothered by literary prizes though, to be honest, Simon – they’re just the product of a bunch of random people’s subjective opinions and are no measure of whether I will love a book or not. Also, the cynic in me says that the outcome of a literary prize will usually reflect how much money the winner’s publisher had to market the book rather than the worthiness of the content. Rather like the Oscars. Not that I’m saying prizes are pointless -I think it’s wonderful to honour people’s work – just that I don’t think they’re the standard by which a book’s worth should be judged.

    • Very vallied point Rachel with regards to the publishers commiting money to some awards meaning that some publishers simply cannot do it. I would like to say that ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ has asked for no money whatsoever from publishers, its a prize of passion.

      What I do like and think is positive about book awards is that they do put the focus, when the long lists are good (but then whats good to each one of us is different) is they can highlight some debuts and some neglected authors with a big back catalogue.

      • I didn’t mean to imply that about YOUR prize, Simon. I love the idea of your prize and that it is born out of a passion for seeing work in this genre given its due attention. Prizes such as yours that are not about publicity and TV book clubs are to be applauded! 🙂

      • Hahaha I was joking Rachel, though I did want to clear up there is no money. I do find the money think is a bit excessive, mind you how do they pay the big judges every year thats what I want to know? Not for my prize again either hahaha.

  10. Though I agree with what has been said thus far, I can’t help but feel frustrated by the “book awards” process. I must admit that I have a tendency to avoid books nominated for prizes; I’m not sure why, but for some reason I lose interest once it has been publicized to a certain point. I find myself drawn to unusual books, written by new or never-heard-of authors. Maybe I’m bias because in Canada, the same writers win the same awards every single year, so it’s for this reason that I’ve come to have this opinion of book prizes.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love all books, and I certainly will read a book if it looks good or captivating, regardless of how many awards it has won (or not won). This may sound a little contradictory but I guess the best way to describe it is I like to follow my instincts. If a first sentence or paragraph grabs me and pulls me in, then I’ll continue.

    Perhaps I’m missing out on some great books… I’m tempted to read some of these nominations as an experiment, and challenge my own impressions. I might be surprised. You never know.

    • Another interesting comment, I have never thought that the publicity about an award can back fire and put people off… oh dear thats a new bit of food for thought there too.

      I find if a book wins an award it raises my interest, if I havent read it, though I will wait a while to read it unless I give myself a longlist challenge or the like. I don’t feel the need to read every book award winning novel every year as they win them if that makes sense?

  11. Ti

    I am reading The Lacuna right now for book club and it’s not pulling me in. However, I typically feel this way about Kingsolver. It takes a bit for her writing to click with me so I will plug along and hope for the best.

  12. I think there can be an interesting comparison made between “small” and “large” books (not just physically, obviously). It seems like when we get to award season, we hear about books that are written perfectly, are engaging, feature great characters, etc, but don’t seem prize-worthy or “ambitious” enough. Is this is where the element of experimentation that Kim mentioned comes in?

    It’s a tricky one. I think looking for these ambitious or “big” books is how we end up with winning books that a lot of people didn’t enjoy reading or had a lot of problems with. Smaller, yet “perfect” books are dismissed. I agree that writers need to be striving for something, but I worry that we have preconceived notions about what makes an ambitious book that have nothing to do with writing talent. For example, books with current, domestic subject matter are often considered less ambitious. Which often puts female writers at a disadvantage for big prizes.

    • I think thats a very interesting about the size of books. I remember everyone saying that The Drivers Seat was too short to win The Lost Man Booker… but size shouldnt matter, or so they say hahaha. Maybe some judges feel you need a massive volume to win because its made the effort worth it?

      I can confirm there is a nice mixture of sizes in the Green Carnation Submissions.

      I think some political books will get lots of notice, those that shock etc whereas a beautifully written book which simply has a story to tell can be deemed ‘not ambitious enough’ its hard to write the ordinary.

  13. winstonsdad

    not sure i agree with test of time people meantion how many of the early bookers are still read by people nowadays ,think on whole winners are refelction of the judges on said prize or award ,to me a good prize winning book is readable and relevant at time prize awarded ,taste change so may not need to be classic in 10 years ,I ve the temple as well interested to see what drew miles frankil jdges to it over the other books this year .hopefully thr GC prize will refelect a little bit of each of the judges involved ,all the besty stu

  14. I think for me a prize-worthy book would be a good mix of experimentation/originality and readability. It should be doing something new, whether with its style, structure, subject matter, characterization, or language. It shouldn’t be ordinary or the “same old thing,” even if the same old thing is very, very good. But it should also be readable and compelling. All the originality and creativity in the world does no good if an intelligent reader can’t get through the book!

    As for standing the test of time, I don’t know. I think most books that meet these criteria will have some lasting value, but whether they’ll end up classics, that’s just too hard to say, really.

    • I like the mix of readability and experimentaion Teresa. Not sure about something new as it depends on what is new to the judges and thats quite difficult, mind you it shouldnt be the same old same old either – again subjective.

      Oooh this subjectiveness is a pain lol!

  15. Ah, the dreaded awards…. I don’t pay attention overmuch to awards, but I think this is because I have become so disenchanted with the whole process and its seeming prestige. First, that “The Road” won the Pulitzer was nothing short of a wow moment for me (a book I liked and admired won something?!). Another book that won the Pulitzer? Not Without My Daughter. It was an informative book, exposed a culture I knew little about, and did it all through the style of a hit piece against Iranian and Islamic culture (not that there aren’t/weren’t plenty of problems with Iran but the woman seriously couldn’t get over her ethnocentrism to report this in a manner that didn’t leave me disgusted) while being some pretty notably poor writing. Another book I tried to read recently had received the Pen Hemingway and, uh, I got to page 70 (out of 750+) before putting it down.

    Your criteria, Simon, is something I agree with. In my own irritations with the industry at large it seems as though there is too much cronyism that goes into these picks and are not necessarily indicative of quality.

    • Correction: Not Without My Daughter was apparently nominated for the Pulitzer but didn’t win it. Many categories a book can win in for the Pulitzer, but shouldn’t good writing be a rather important bit of criteria for even being nominated?

    • I just had to look up cronyism hahahaha!! I am hoping in being a bit of a layman I will add a real twist to the judging panel of the GC. Mind you the whole panel is very down to earth but all very different which will be interesting.

      • A diverse panel of judges is definitely best. I don’t always agree with you in taste, but I have absolutely no arguments against your analytic skills. How could you not be an asset to this process? 🙂 In order to not be such an ethnocentric twit I feel the need to look into more literary prizes around the globe now. Thanks for that bit of inspiration as well and good luck with your judging!

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