Sunday Salon: Do you read prize winners?

The Sunday Salon

On the back of this week’s announcement of the Booker Prize winner, I was wondering how much note people take of literary prizes. Are they just an excuse for bookshops to promote certain books? Or are they a valuable exercise in weeding out the best books from the thousands published each year?

I don’t follow any prizes closely enough to make a point of reading their long or shortlists every year, but there are certain prizes that have winners that tend to fit my taste. I find hype generally puts me off a book, but later I’ll come back to them and agree that the judges did a good job. And I do think it’s a great opportunity for small publishers to get their books out in the public eye and into all the bookshops, something they normally struggle with thanks to lack of the big bucks when it comes to marketing.

The [Man] Booker Prize
Launched in 1969, given to “the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”. Of 47 winners, I have read 11 and have a further four in my TBR. (That may not sound like many but all the ones I’ve read were published within my lifetime.) And I have had several other books on the list recommended to me.

The [Orange] Women’s Prize for Fiction
Launched in 1996, given to “the best full-length novel written in English by a woman of any nationality”. Of 17 winners, I have read seven. I never used to pay that much attention but the last two winners have been two of the best books I have read this year – The Tiger’s Wife and Song of Achilles.

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Launched in 1917, awarded for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Of 85 winners, I have read nine and have one on my TBR, but again I have had several recommended to me. I keep meaning to pay more attention, but that clashes a little with my intention to look beyond the UK and US in my reading.

Hugo Award for Best Novel
Launched in 1953, awarded for “the best science fiction or fantasy novel published in English or translated into English during the previous calendar year”. Of 64 winners (including Retro Hugos), I have read nine but I think we (by which I mean mostly Tim) own at least half, probably the SF half. And that’s probably also how many I’ve had recommended to me (largely by Tim, who has probably read them all, or at least significantly more than me). I have to say I’m a little surprised that JK Rowling won it in 2001 (actually, I know for a fact that Tim hasn’t read that one). I was also surprised to see that the book I’m reading right now, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won it in 2008 (okay, Tim hasn’t read that one either). This is not mentioned anywhere on the book jacket. Had it been, I might have found myself less confused when it turned out to be an alternative history. I wonder why the publisher didn’t choose to publicize this, when they did do that awful three pages of quotes thing at the start.

Nebula Award for Best Novel
Launched in 1966, awarded for “the best science fiction or fantasy novel published in English or translated into English and released in the United States”. Of 48 winners, I have read seven. The winners overlap quite a lot with the Hugos. In fact, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union also won this award and again this is not advertised on the book jacket. Methinks the publisher (HarperCollins) doesn’t want people put off a “literary” author by the idea that he has written SF.

Clearly, my bias is for novels, mostly literary ones. I include those last two prizes not only because I am actively trying to read more science fiction, but also because I know it is often discussed that the big literary awards occasionally include historical or crime fiction but never science fiction, not even in the shortlists. There is a certain anti-SF snobbery.

So which prizes (if any) do you follow, and how closely? Do you read the whole longlist? Are you more likely to buy a book if it’s won a prize?