Literary Prizes Essay - Critical Essays

Literary Prizes


Literary Prizes

Literary prizes have been awarded for centuries, but in the twentieth century they proliferated and became more global in nature and scope. They are awarded on various levels, from local and national to the international Nobel Prize in Literature; judges are usually prominent writers or professionals in the arts who are asked to choose from a field of prestigious nominees. Groups such as publishers, writers' associations, and foundations like the Pulitzer usually award prizes for works written during that year, whereas the Nobel Prize in Literature is intended to recognize lifetime achievement. Although a literary prize can be an economic boon to the publishers and writers involved, winning a major prize like the Pulitzer or the Nobel is especially significant because it enhances the reputation and career of the individual writer. In the last several decades, however, critics of literary prizes have raised questions about the fairness of selection criteria, the objectivity of the judging process, the judges' openness to and acceptance of diverse styles and minorities, and their susceptibility to literary fashions and cultural trends. Kjell Espmark has argued that the Nobel Prize in Literature has reflected a greater tolerance for new literary styles and movements in the last several decades, and Ralph Gunther has pointed out the multinational and multiethnic character of Nobel winners. On the other hand, William Pratt and Burton Feldman have explored possible reasons for what they consider some notable omissions among Nobel nominees over the years. Pulitzer Prizes have been similarly scrutinized by critics, especially in regard to their criteria and the influence of individual judges on controversial decisions. Thomas P. Adler has written about the treatment of such themes as politics and race relations in Pulitzer-winning plays.

Representative Works

Samuel Beckett
Molloy (novel) 1951
En Attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1952

Pearl Buck
The Good Earth (novel) 1931

Ivan Bunin
The Village (novel) 1910
The Well of Days (novel) 1933

Albert Camus
L'Etranger [The Stranger] (novel) 1942
La Peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947

T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land (poem) 1922

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

Hermann Hesse
Siddartha [Siddartha] (novel) 1922
Der Steppenwolf [Steppenwolf] (novel) 1927

Juan Ramón Jiménez
Platero y yo (poetry) 1914

Rudyard Kipling
Captains Courageous (novel) 1897
Kim (novel) 1901

Selma Lagerlöf
Jerusalem [Jerusalem] (novel) 1901-02

Sinclair Lewis
Arrowsmith (novel) 1925

Thomas Mann
Buddenbrooks [Buddenbrooks] (novel) 1901
Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (novella) 1912

Gabriel García Márquez
Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (novel) 1967

Arthur Miller
Death of a Salesman (drama) 1949

Gabriela Mistral
Sonetos de muerte (poetry) 1914

Eugene O'Neill
Anna Christie (drama) 1921
Long Day's Journey into Night (drama) 1956

Luigi Pirandello
Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore [Six Characters in Search of an Author] (drama) 1921

Jean-Paul Sartre
Huis-clos [No Exit] (drama) 1944

George Bernard Shaw
Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama) 1902
Man and Superman (drama) 1905

Henryk Sienkiewicz
Bez dogmatu [Without Dogma] (novel) 1891
Quo Vadis? [Quo Vadis?] (novel) 1896

John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937
The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939

Thornton Wilder
Our Town (drama) 1938
The Skin of Our Teeth (drama) 1942

Tennessee Williams
A Streetcar Named Desire (drama) 1947
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (drama) 1955

William Butler Yeats
The Wild Swans at Coole (poetry) 1917
The Tower (poetry) 1928

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John W. Sahn (essay date 18 December 1987)

SOURCE: Sahn, John W. “What Are Book Awards For?” Publishers Weekly 232, no. 25 (December 18, 1987): 9.

[In the following essay, Sahn comments on the characteristics and purpose of book awards in general, and on the National Book Awards in particular.]

The recent surprise win of the National Book Award for Fiction by Larry Heinemann, author of Paco's Story, has made us think once more about the whole philosophy and purpose of book awards. The flurry of astonishment caused by Heinemann's win, in the face of such contenders as Toni Morrison and Philip Roth, was perhaps understandable, but hardly flattering to Heinemann, whose book was a remarkably eloquent...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Marc Aronson (essay date May 2001)

SOURCE: Aronson, Marc. “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes.” The Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 3 (May 2001): 271.

[In the following essay, Aronson comments on the many prizes for children's literature now available, notes several problems with their criteria and administration, and suggests some ways to improve them.]

I'm sure that nearly every reader of this magazine is in favor of supporting a more diverse children's literature that is in tune with the increasingly multi-ethnic environment in which we and our children live. I am equally convinced, though, that [American Library Association, hereafter ALA] ALA's sponsorship of three awards in which a book's...

(The entire section is 2899 words.)

Criticism: The Nobel Prize In Literature

William Riggan (essay date summer 1981)

SOURCE: Riggan, William. “The Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize in Literature: History and Procedure.” World Literature Today 55, no. 3 (summer 1981): 399-405.

[In the following essay, Riggan presents an overview of the background and method of the committee for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.]

In presenting separate essays on the ten literary members among “The Eighteen” of the Swedish Academy, the Spring 1981 issue of WLT [World Literature Today, hereafter WLT] (55:2, pp. 197-256) was an attempt to introduce “The Swedish Writers Behind the Nobel Prize” as the ten prominent, engaging and highly individualistic authors that...

(The entire section is 6427 words.)

Kjell Espmark (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Espmark, Kjell. “Intended for the Literature of the Whole World.” In The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, pp. 131-44. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Espmark explores the Nobel Prizes in Literature awarded after World War II, concluding that the committee's choices during that period reflect a new tolerance for different writing styles and literary movements.]

The Nobel Prize in Literature seemed for a long time to be a European affair. Nobel's will indicated that the prize was to have an international aim, but in cautious wording: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no...

(The entire section is 7120 words.)

William Pratt (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. “Missing the Masters: Nobel Literary Prizes in English, 1967-1987.” World Literature Today 62, no. 2 (spring 1988): 225-28.

[In the following essay, Pratt speculates on the reasons why some of the most famous writers in British and American literature have not been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.]

What do Mark Twain, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell all have in common? They happen to be...

(The entire section is 3271 words.)

Ralph Gunther (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Gunther, Ralph. “If a Traveler Comes to Florence—” In Giants in Their Field: An Introduction to the Nobel Prizes in Literature, pp. 1-25. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Gunther presents a biographical survey of some of the Nobel Prize in Literature winners, focusing on their diversity.]

If a traveler comes to Florence, to the graceful city in the hills of Tuscany where the poet Giosuè Carducci first went to school, he may simply stroll along a riverside street and wind up in a café, unaware of the artistic treasures around him. Or he may visit a priceless collection of paintings by Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and...

(The entire section is 7757 words.)

Burton Feldman (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Feldman, Burton. “The Nobel Prize in Literature.” In The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige, pp. 55-113. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Feldman presents a detailed overview of the winners, criteria, and limitations of the Nobel Prize in Literature.]

For a portrait of what the Nobel Prize in Literature is not, one can't do better than Irving Wallace's novel The Prize. Published in 1962, it quickly became a best-seller and a hit movie, and no wonder, considering its sensational plot. The young, “lanky” author is dead drunk when he learns he has won the Nobel Prize. Embittered since his wife...

(The entire section is 22029 words.)

Criticism: The Pulitzer Prize

W. J. Stuckey (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Stuckey, W. J. “Joseph Pulitzer and His Prizes.” In The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look, pp. 3-25. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Stuckey provides biographical and historical context for Joseph Pulitzer, the founder of the Pulitzer Prizes, and for the award itself.]

The life story of Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer prizes in journalism, letters, and music, fits beautifully into a familiar pattern of American success. Pulitzer arrived in this country in 1864 at the age of seventeen, without money and with almost no competence in the English language. By a combination of hard work, shrewdness,...

(The entire section is 6378 words.)

Thomas P. Adler (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Adler, Thomas P. “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse—Race.” In Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama, pp. 68-84. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Adler discusses some Pulitzer Prize-winning plays that dealt with the subject of race relations, noting how the plays reflect their historical context.]

It would be over fifty years after the establishment of the Pulitzers and well over forty years after the first Broadway production of a work by a black writer (Garland Anderson's Appearances in 1925) before a black playwright would receive the drama award. Racial issues,...

(The entire section is 8350 words.)

Thomas P. Adler (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Adler, Thomas P. “The Political Animal.” In Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama, pp. 85-95. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Adler analyzes the treatment of American politics in a group of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, concluding that their authors' lack of inventiveness in dramatic technique reflects their acceptance of the political status quo.]

In his history plays, Shakespeare attempts to define the qualities of the good king, proposing a relationship between the health of the body politic and the moral nature of its rulers. This link was not original with the...

(The entire section is 5268 words.)

Further Reading


Frenz, Horst, ed. Nobel Lectures, Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies: Literature, 1901-1967. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. 640 p.

Collection of biographies, Nobel citations, and acceptance speeches of laureates from 1901 to 1967.


Beasley, Maurine Hoffman and Richard R. Harlow, eds. Voices of Change: Southern Pulitzer Winners. McLean, Va.: University Press of America, 1979, 145 p.

Collection of interviews with Southern Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights.

De Nooy, W. “Gentlemen of the Jury … : The Features of...

(The entire section is 258 words.)