The Best Book May Not Win: Winner and Losers at Awards Time

By Steve Weinberg
We biographers covet awards for our books, as do novelists and poets and essayists and journalists from all media. After all, writers tend to receive little recognition and less cash.
My advice is not exactly to forget about awards, but something similar—relax, because most of us will never win and many of the “best” biographies, however that is measured, will not receive the prize recognition they deserve.
Michael Burgan asked me to write about awards partly because I have judged so many book, newspaper, magazine, and broadcast competitions. I have even received a few awards amidst my publication of eight books, although no awards that receive the most publicity—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle medal.
I am here to say that choosing the winner from hundreds or thousands of candidates in a given year is a crapshoot, an exercise in “It all depends….” It depends on which other books have been entered, the political log rolling (not always, but sometimes), and the reading preferences of the judges who happen to have been chosen that year. (I concede that although I enter judging with an open mind, I’d much rather read Robert Caro’s next volume on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson than a biography of a long-ago member of the Belgian royal family.)

Please do not think me cynical about awards for biographies;  just realistic. Perhaps my attitude has been colored by serving as a judge (nine years for the National Book Critics Circle, one year for BIO, one year for the Alicia Patterson Fellowships, at least a dozen years for Investigative Reporters & Editors, lots of years for the City and Regional Magazine Association, etc.) and usually ending up in the minority.
Judges disagree, often heatedly. Forget about logic or consistency among different awards competitions. Already during a thread on my Facebook page, I noted the anomaly of BIO member Megan Marshall winning the Pulitzer Prize this year for her life of Margaret Fuller, yet not even making the top ten list of BIO award nominees. Does that signify something amiss with the BIO judges or the Pulitzer judges? No. It simply serves as an anecdote to prove my thesis of “It all depends….” Marshall’s Pulitzer victory means other superb biographies did not win. And Marshall’s exclusion from the BIO list means a different worthy biography did win.
To come close to closing on a positive note: Although I am weary some years of being in the voting minority, I can recall only a couple of times when I believed the actual winner qualified as “unworthy.” I am pleased to report that neither of those times occurred while judging biographies.

As for me the biographer, I have stopped entering my books (and magazine features) in awards competitions unless there is a cash prize. I am not counting my winnings yet.
Steve Weinberg’s ninth book will be a biography of Garry Trudeau, under contract at St. Martin’s Press.