The Controversy Behind Literary Awards

Awards like the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and the Newbery Medal not only pay homage to the great authors/poets of the past, but they also confirm the status of the great works while exposing readers to works that they may not have been exposed to prior to the award. Given the secrecy of how winners for these prestigious awards are selected, controversy and speculation arise. Many question if some awards may have been based on political agendas and not on merit. Do some authors and poets get rejected based on the personal bias of the judges? These are only a few of the controversies that follow these awards but in order to understand all that went into deciding the finalist, we need to take a look into the history, selection process, and take a closer look at some of the controversies.

Newbery History

The John Newbery Medal was established in 1921 by Fredrick Melcher, who was the editor of Publisher’s Weekly, when he proposed the medal to the Children's Librarians Section of the American Library Association (ALA). In the formal agreement between Melcher and the ALA, Melcher said that the purpose of the award is to encourage original creative work in children’s literature and that contributions to children’s literature deserves the same recognition as books, novels, and plays.

Frederic Melcher named the award after the 18th century English bookseller, John Newbery, who is considered the “Father of Children’s Literature,” for being credited with being one of the first to create and publish books specifically for the education and enjoyment of children. Newbery marks a dramatic change in the 18th century when children no longer would be seen as miniature adults, but as having interests and attention spans of their own. He is also credited for basically creating the field of children’s literature as we know it today.

By being a prestigious award that is highly competitive, the Newbery award has succeeded in changing how children’s literature is viewed, encouraging authors to test their limits in creativity and writing, and it also made children’s literature more widely known and accepted. The award is a guarantee for a high quality novels that get librarians, teachers, and parents to introduce high quality literature to their children.

Newbery Selection Process

The Newbery is selected by the Association for Library Service to Children. The selection criteria on the official Newbery website states: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”

Every year when the Newbery winner is announced, libraries around the world help to promote the author and their book but before that, the book has to go through an intense selection process. In the course of the year, the fifteen committee members choose from five-thousand books which get narrowed down to the top one-hundred and by the time the members are ready to vote, there is only about thirty-five titles left. Prior to the vote, members discuss the titles with one another via confidential emails or with friends, family members, and most importantly, children. The winning title is chosen by process of elimination, the titles with the leading amount of votes make it to the next round. The Newbery Medal is given for the first place, and the Newbery Honor is given to the one or more runner-up titles to give them notable distinction.

Newbery Controversy

Publisher Weekly’s article, “And the Winner is…” written by Shannon Maughan’s briefly gives a summary on the history of the Newbery and the Caldecott medals, the success of the medals by becoming the most prestigious awards for Children’s Literature, and the biggest controversies. Maughan describes how a winning book’s author can be “plucked out of obscurity” like what happened to two time Newbery winner Christopher Paul Curtis, a Michigan native who worked on the assembly line. The Newbery helped expose his talent to the world and he went on to become one of the many respected authors in children’s literature.

A common critique of the Newbery is that judges may sometimes be too conservative with the selections and not consider worthy children’s books simply because they are popular like Captain Underpants. Another instance, which is also one of the biggest controversies the Newbery had, was the fact E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web did not win the Newbery Medal. While the book did win the Newbery Honor, some say, the reason it didn’t win the highest award was because Charlotte dies and at the time, that wasn’t considered an appropriate theme for children to read. The book that did win the Newbery Medal was, The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. While many of us probably have heard of Charlotte’s Web, maybe thanks in part to Walt Disney, few may have heard of Ann Nolan’s The Secret of the Andes about a boy in Peru who learns about his Inca ancestors.

Another criticism is that the judging may favor experimental books that may not really interest most children. This was the criticism of the 2008 winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik, where every other page in the book is told through a pen and ink full-page illustration, and was not seen as what might normally be considered literature because some judges saw it as a graphic book, instead of it being a pure work of literature. According to an article by Nina Lindsey for School Library Journal, the controversy over selecting experimental winners reappeared with the selection of The Crossover and El Deafo as Newbery winners in 2015. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is a novel told entirely in verse and El Deafo is a graphic novel. With El Deafo, the question is how can a graphic novel be judged based on its text when it so much depends on illustrations?

Some have criticized past winners for unsuitable content for children, such as the 2007 Newbery winner, “The Higher Power of Lucky” by Susan Patron, which includes the word ‘scrotum’ in the first page of the book which led to it being banned in school libraries. The word is overheard by Lucky when a neighbor is talking about his dog being bitten by a rattlesnake in the scrotum. As The New York Times Julie Bosman explains, Patron’s book was “banned from school libraries in a handful of states in the South, the West and the Northeast” (Bosman). Bosman continues to quote Pat Scales, former chairwoman of the Newbery selection committee: “The people who are reacting to that word are not reading the book as a whole,” she said. “That’s what censors do — they pick out words and don’t look at the total merit of the book” (Bosman). For Patron, “The word is just so delicious…The sound of the word to Lucky is so evocative. It’s one of those words that’s so interesting because of the sound of the word” (Bosman). In the book, the narrator describes 10-year-old Lucky Trimble thinking, “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much…It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

Pulitzer History

Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born journalist, established the Pulitzer Prize, its thirteen awards, and the Graduate School of Journalism in his 1904 will. In his will, he also established a board that will oversee the prize and to, “suspend or to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however, others in their places, if in the judgment of the board such suspension, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities, or by reason of change of time." From the initial thirteen awards, the board has increased the number of awards to twenty-one.

The Pulitzer Prize’s high acclaim and its prestigious status come from the acts of Joseph Pulitzer prior to his death, beginning with him getting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1878 and being able to achieve popularity and increased circulation by content that appealed to the public like government corruption, tax-dodgers, and investigative articles. Five years later, he bought the New York World for about $300,000. He used the paper to “expose fraud, fight all public evils and abuses, and battle for the people with sincerity”( and he did that creatively. One of the approaches was having one of his artists draw cartoons depicting the life in the slums, which made the paper extremely popular and in turn, made it the largest-circulating paper in the country. In the years after that, Pulitzer war with fellow journalist Hearst led him to be an example of yellow journalism, a form of journalism that focuses more on the headlines than on accuracy. Pulitzer’s passion for showing the readers the government corruption and injustice led him to be one of the most respected journalists and it was his life ventures that served as a promotion for the Pulitzer Prize.

Pulitzer Selection Process

The Pulitzer goes through an intense selection process to screen over two-thousand entries annually to end up with one finalist for each of the twenty-one categories. For the 21 awards, there are 20 juries that focus on each award and the jury consists of five to seven members. Each award has its own judging period, as in the case of the journalism which starts in March and lasts two days while the arts and letters start much earlier. After all the juries for the different awards receive the work and judge it, they have to present the board with the three unranked finalists that they chose. After that, in December, the board casts their final vote. The board’s voting process for the winner takes weeks before they decide on the one true finalists. Usually their decision matches with one of the three unranked finalists that the jury chose and on other occasions, they disagree. The board has a right to cast a ‘not vote’ or to award an entry that has not been nominated.

Pulitzer Controversy

Although, The Pulitzer Award publicly releases who is on its board and who the jurors are for each award, that doesn’t mean it lacks controversy. On the contrary, the Pulitzer might be considered to be more at risk for awards that serve an agenda whether the agenda is political or financial. The fact that the Pulitzer is a highly respected award, especially in the journalism world, it’s gotten its fair share of drama ranging from awarding works for political reasons or not awarding a winner at all.

One of the most recent controversies is the lack of a fiction winner in 2011. After reading about 300 novels each in six months, the three jurors, Maureen Corrigan, Suzan Larson, and Michael Cunningham chose three winners: David Foster Wallace’s – The Pale King, Karen Russell’s – Swamplandia!, and Denis Johnson’s – Train Dreams. The three jurors handed the finalists to the board with a recommendation on who should win except, from the 20 people that are on the board, they announced that no one won. The bigger problem is that what goes on during the board discussions is classified which means that no one knows why there was no winner. The three jurors believed that all their hard work came to naught and Corrigan was quoted to saying that she is no longer going to serve on the board, not until the rules change.

In 2011, the board had three finalists for the Fiction Award but chose none and in 1974, the board did choose a winner, a novel by the name Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The board vetoed the judges’ decision because they thought the depiction of sex and drug use were too graphic. Although Gravity’s Rainbow wasn’t appreciated when it was first released, but it has since been mentioned by Lawrence Buell along the great classics such as The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, and The Scarlet Letter on “The Dream of the Great American Novel” a Radio Boston program and it was listed in TIME magazine’s 2010 list of America’s greatest 100 novels. Some of the Pulitzer nominees believe that they have been unfairly rebuffed as in 1926 when Sinclair Lewis was recognized and won the fiction award for his book Arrowsmith but he didn’t accept the award, instead he sent a refusal letter to the board. Lewis believed that didn’t win the award he truly deserved which was in 1921 for his nominated novel Main Street, which was critical of provincialism in small town America. In 1923, Lewis was again nominated, this time for his novel Babbitt, but the Pulitzer Board did not award him. (Note: In 1930, Lewis went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

Although Lewis didn’t win in 1921, Edith Wharton did for her novel Age of Innocence. At the time, the fiction award was for the book that stands for “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” After finding out that she won and for what the award stood for, Wharton wondered if the board truly understood her writing. She is quoted in saying to a letter to Sinclair Lewis that, “when I discovered that I was being rewarded – by one of our leading Universities – for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair”.

Nobel History

The Nobel Prize was established by Alfred Nobel, the man who invented and perfected the use of dynamite and explosives. After his brother Ludwig died, the obituaries thought it was Alfred that died and when he read that obituaries that described him as a “ war profiteer who became rich by inventing new ways to kill and maim people,” he wrote his will to establish the Nobel Award and for it to use all his wealth to sponsor it.

Nobel Selection Process

The selection process for the Nobel Prize is a fairly straightforward process. It begins in September when the Nobel committee sends out the nomination invites to over 600 individuals and organizations with a set submission deadline for the last day of January. After the committee receives the nominations, they screen them and submit the list to the Swedish Academy for approval. In April, after long deliberations, the committee selects a preliminary list of 15-20 candidates to be considered by the academy and a month later, the committee sends the top 5 finalists for the academy to consider.

During the summer months, the Academy members read the works of the finalists’ and the committee prepares their individual reports. By the time September comes again, the Academy is ready to confer and analyze the works and decide on who’s winning the award. In October, as long as the candidate received the majority of the votes, they choose the Nobel Laureate in Literature and the names are finally announces. On December 10th, the Nobel Laureates receive their Nobel Prize.

This eight step process insures that the Academy and the Nobel Committee does its best to award the best candidate but unfortunately, where there is power, controversy will find its way.

Nobel Controversy

One major criticism of the Nobel is that it seems Eurocentric, tending to award mostly Westerners. While the Nobel has seemed to become more diverse of late, it does seem to be dominated by Western authors. There are factors that the Nobel selection committee maybe is still working to overcome like language and culture, perhaps lacking resources to have readers in every language where worthy literary works may be otherwise considered.

Another criticism is that politics plays more of a role than literary merit. Frans Sillanpaa who won in 1939, is thought to only have won because of Finland’s brave resistance against the Soviet Union. Finland, a country that had a small army, barely any working weapons, and a small army was preparing to fight the Soviet Union, with its strong army, modern weaponry, and large army used their terrain to their advantage and put up a strong battle against the Soviets.

In Burton Feldman’s “The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige” calls these Nobel awards, “Old Age Pension Prizes”. These are prizes that were awarded to the greats after they became so famous that the award was an author in the twilight of his or her career. T.S Eliot described the award as a nail in an author’s coffin. Another side of the Old Age Pension Prizes is awarding the ‘stand-ins’. When Juan Ramon Jimenez became a laureate, the citation said by awarding Jimenez the award, they pay homage to the greats of 1898 since he is the last survivor of that generation. So, did he truly deserve the award or is it because the others died and he was the last survivor?

In 1938, Pearl Buck won the Nobel for The Good Earth and her biographies on her missionary parents, Fighting Angel and The Exile. Her winning caused an uproar since amongst the nominees were Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos. Burton says, “Buck’s heart was in the right place, though her prose remained as flat as ever, with the moral complexities flattened as well”(Burton 73). If Buck’s prose wasn’t as good as the other nominees, why did she win? Was her winning specifically a political award disguised as a literary one?

In his article, “Why Doesn’t Pearl Buck Get Respect?” James C. Thomson, Jr., explains that Buck, an American author who won for writing on China, hurt Chinese ego, especially since the committee added a person who can read Chinese. Buck’s books and award helped China when Japan invaded the mainland by garnering American support and it also gave way for American aid to the poor peasants in China. Thomson also explains that, even though the popularity of Buck’s book got the US to help China with Japan’s invasion to its mainland in 1937, she was still disliked by the Chinese government because of a rivalry between Jiang Qing – Moa Zedong’s wife- and Wang Ying, an actress that Buck supported who later stole a leading role for a play from Jiang Qing.

The article “Why Don’t More Americans Win the Nobel Prize?” by The New Yorker explains that Americans don’t often win the Nobel because of its economic and political stance in the world and also, according to British novelist Philip Hensher, the Nobel committee tries to speak to a global audience and it is impossible for literature to connect with every reader. Another argument is that the United States rarely translates books into English or explores literature that isn’t somehow connected to the country.

An opposing argument is that it may be a good thing that Americans don’t win the Nobel often. In “No American Author Should Win the Nobel Prize” by Radhika Jones, it explains that the Nobel Prize is the greatest and most prestigious award and it is a chance for Americans to escape the ethnocentric bubble. Jones also explains that the books that do win the Nobel can easily be accessible to Americans to read for a humbling experience and to be able to experience a different side of literature.


These Nobel, Pulitzer, and Newbery awards are highly respected and are meant to be a physical reminder to how great a piece of work is. It could be said that the awards are moving further from what their founders intended and the critics and journalists of today are trying to bring integrity back to them. While the influence of these coveted awards continues to grow, what they may ultimately shed light on are the many brilliant authors who have not won and who are just as deserving of recognition.

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