She’s No Prize

Posted on 11 March 2011

I don’t have much time today, so I thought I’d share the link to Alice Sebold’s essay about literary prizes, “Eyes on the Prize.”

Some writers view literary awards with a healthy dose of skepticism, which I totally get. Or, as Sebold said after winning an award — and after more than a few cocktails — “You know this is bullshit, right?”

On the other hand, I’ve been entering writing contests of some form or another since I was 13 years old. I looked forward to the Scholastic Writing Awards every year as a teenager (not cool, I know, but I’m apparently not afraid to embarrass myself here). Then I won Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize, which was amazing, and my first book publication is the result of the Chandra Prize. So I’m not exactly about to knock contests, even if I acknowledge that they’re imperfect.

And as Sebold writes, literary awards “are a necessary crapshoot from which, on balance, all of us benefit.”

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of her essay. Full version is available here.

A few years ago, I was nominated for an award. Awards are nice; I don’t blame people for taking joy in receiving them, or for becoming teary and/or inarticulate if they are forced to give an acceptance speech. I now think that’s preferable to being loaded to the gills on a generous friend’s anti-anxiety meds.

The ceremony was long, and many awards were given out that night. The occasion was videotaped, as everything now seems to be. As each category was announced from the stage, the nominees’ names were read out, and each of us was expected to stand at our place at various groaning tables, flanked by our spouses and friends and those in the publishing industry whom I always think of as having drawn the short straw at the office that day. I had had two vodka martinis before the ceremony, and bottles of red and white wine surrounded each table’s floral centerpiece. Although I was too nervous to eat, my thirst was endless. My husband recalls my having an unerring sense of when a camera was anywhere near, for in those moments I would heave a glass toward my mouth while he fruitlessly attempted to stay my hand.

Some time later, I won in my category.

How much weight do you put into contests/awards? Are you more likely to read a book if it has won an award? Do you enter writing contests? What would you say during your acceptance speech?

Photo: Telstar Logistics


4 responses to She’s No Prize

  • lisahgolden says:

    Because handling awards was part of my old career, I’m a horrible cynic about them. That’s not to say I wouldn’t jump up and click my heels were I to win one. And the results that you’ve seen from your awards speak for themselves – you’ve been published!

    That to me is a prize in itself.

    As for award winning books, I don’t pay much attention but when I look at children’s books, I’m very likely to pick up a Caldecott winner. I have no explanation except that the winners I have read have always been quality and I take it as a stamp of approval I believe in.

  • Teri says:

    I, too, am an awards cynic. Maybe it’s that the chances of “winning” are so slim, or that it often seems like the same people keep winning all the awards. I don’t know. I remember reading once that committee members for some of these awards (Pulitzer and NBA) don’t even read the books in their entirety. If true, how sad is that?

    On the other hand, the day the National Book Awards are announced, I run to the bookstore as fast as I can and buy those books. Sometimes I’m thrilled with their choices — like OLIVE KITTERIDGE, for example — and sometimes I’m terribly disappointed and puzzled.

    • I loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, too. I don’t always make a point to grab the National Book Award or Pulitzer winner immediately, but I do try to get around to it soon. I still have TINKERS sitting on my bookshelf, waiting…

  • Lyn Hawks says:

    Writing contests keep me focused, give me deadlines to shoot for, and give me an audience. I’ve won some and finalized in others, and that feedback has really helped me along the journey. And I don’t mind the entrance fees; I’m glad to know we’re funding judges and awards and others in this writing community.

    All I can say about a potential acceptance speech is I’d advise my lightweight self to go easy on the alcohol prior to speaking. :-)

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