Demographics of Major Nonfiction Book Prizes: The Why Am I Not Surprised? Edition


Suppose you wanted to win a nonfiction book prize, not the attractive but obscure medal awarded by your local Rotary Club but something more illustrious. A Pulitzer, let’s say. And let’s also say you’ve already written a pretty good book, even a great one. What else might you do to improve your odds?

First, you could relocate to that stretch of the East Coast between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. If possible, you’ll hang your hat in one of the regional metropolises, extra points for New York City, likewise for landing a job at a prominent newspaper or magazine, though if your leanings are more academic, similar advantages can be gained by joining the faculty of an Ivy League college. After that, things get tricky. For example, it’ll help, a lot, if you’re a white American, though I suspect you need to be born that way. Similarly, if you have a superfluous X chromosome, you’ll want to exchange it for a Y, or at least display the expected phenotypic traits. These are not uncomplicated strategies, though neither is writing a great book.

This is the opening of Josh McCall’s excellent (and eye-opening, and outrage-confirming) essay “This Guy Is the Next Pulitzer Winner…And We Don’t Even Know His Name!”  McCall’s findings are hard to dispute, seeing as how they’re supported by statistics.  Isn’t it amazing what you can do with statistics?

Of course, prize juries do not pluck winners and finalists from the literary wilds simply because a writer happens to be white or male or occupy a rent-controlled walk-up in the East Village. And yet there is something about these characteristics that radically affect one’s odds of being plucked, at least for the awards we examined: the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Award (NBA) for Nonfiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for General Nonfiction. […] What we found was grim, unsurprising and conclusive. For the past 20 years, more than three-quarters of Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners (the category is nonfiction throughout) called the East Coast home, 80 percent were male, 95 percent were white, and a whopping 57 percent scored the hat trick. In contrast, according to the most recent census, only 19 percent of Americans live in what we’re calling the East Coast region, just over half are female, and 64 percent self-identify as non-Hispanic white.

Grim indeed.  I’ve always thought literary awards were a lot of trumped-up bullshit, but I also thought that was simply Writer Me grousing about the fact that I’ve Never Won a Literary Award.  Not even a little one.  I’ve long thought that the Literary Fairy suspiciously grants fame and accolades to the writers of New York City.  I mean, even in this article by Katie Roiphe , the best literary “outsider” Roiphe can think of is a woman with a white-sounding name (Carla Krauss) working in a coffee shop in Brooklyn.  It’s like Roiphe can’t imagine any writer in the world living outside of the greater New York area.  But according to McCall, the entire Northeast Corridor gives you a point in your favor.  Who’d a thunk it?

For me, this bit of the article is most damning:

On the other hand, the Pulitzer has never, not once, given its prize for general nonfiction to an African-American, and during the 20-year period we examined, it did not even name one as a finalist.

Holy crap, that’s depressing.  I know this has been said many times in a thousand different contexts, but come on, literary prize boards: it’s the year 2014.  Twenty years ago was 1994.  The Great PC Movement began in the 1990s.  I remember.  I was there.  So in all that time, while we college students and assorted young’uns were fretting over language and identity and what ought to be included in college lit syllabi, you couldn’t find ANY African-American nonfiction writers to elevate to fame and fortune?

This is the bait-and-switch game of cultural power.  When under-represented and/or oppressed voices in a society suddenly gain a little bit of a platform, debate starts raging about micro-issues, like terminology and college courses, so that the people in power can pay lip service to “diversity” while not actually changing their well-established practices.

All the more reason for authors to ignore the award system and strive to be read…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s