One of the prompts for the 2020 Reading Challenge is “read a book nominated for an award in 2020.” But readers have lots of questions about literary awards. How many awards are there, who picks the winners, and what do those awards even mean? And if award-winning books are so great, why is actually reading them too often an underwhelming experience?
If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, you’re not alone. In a recent podcast episode, What Should I Read Next guest Grettel Castro and I discuss literary awards more in depth, and address these dilemmas, in Episode 251 (“I love books and books love me back“), circling back to the idea that just because a book is highly acclaimed doesn’t mean it’s the right book for you.
While it’s exciting to track the awards and pick up the nominees and winners, there are now so many literary awards that sorting through the many lists can be tricky, if not downright overwhelming. But once you know what some of the literary awards mean, and which ones to watch for your own reading life, they may help you discover books you wouldn’t have read otherwise, or serve as a useful way to narrow down a long list of library holds.
To assist you in your own readerly challenge, today we’re sharing overviews of seven noteworthy literary awards. We’ve linked to each award’s home base so that you can browse current or past nominees.
The Aspen Words foundation is a literary center in Denver, CO. They host writing festivals, hold classes for student writers, and form a committee to determine the best works of contemporary literature for their prize each year. This year the jury includes authors Emily Bernard and Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Aspen Words literary prize is “a $35,000 annual award for an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”
This award, sponsored by the Dublin City Council, is presented for a novel written in English or translated into English. Libraries from around the world submit nominations, and the Dublin City Libraries run the selection process. Winners are announced as part of the International Literature Festival in Dublin.
For 32 years, the “Lammys” have celebrated the best lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender books. Unlike many awards in which publishers submit nominations, the Lambda Literary Foundation allows authors to directly submit their work. Books are judged based on both literary merit and relevant LGBTQ content. The 2020 winners have already been announced.
This award goes to literary translators of poetry and prose who have done the best job of “masterfully recreating the artistic force of a book of consummate quality.” Both the translation and the original work get judged; this is the only translation award to do so.
These awards are voted on and presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The ceremony takes place as part of the Nebula Conference, which also features panels and community-building events for sci-fi and fantasy writers. This award dates back to 1965. Browse past Nebula winners here.
The Nobel Prize in Literature gets awarded to an author for their overall body of work rather than one specific book. Past winners include Kazuo Ishiguro, Bob Dylan, Alice Munro, and Toni Morrison. I’m eagerly awaiting the 2020 announcement, coming October 8.
2020 marks 25 years of the UK Women’s Prize for Fiction, and they’re celebrating with a public vote for the overall favorite from all past winners. Each year, this award goes to the best full length fiction novel by a woman author. Past winners include The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.
To help you get some more ideas for this category, today I’m sharing 11 books I’ve read and loved that are nominated for, or have already won, literary awards this year. With a mix of mystery, literary fiction, and Young Adult literature, this list features a variety of books to choose from.
Please tell us what you’re reading for this category in the comments section below. Which literary awards do you pay attention to? Is there a nomination or winner you’re excited about? We’d love to hear.
Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2020 Alex Awards. Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years. Elwood Curtis is bound for a local black college when an innocent mistake lands him at The Nickel Academy instead. Elwood finds comfort in Dr. Martin Luther King's words and holds to his ideals, whereas his friend Turner believes the world is crooked so you have to scheme to survive. All this leads to a decision with harrowing repercussions for their respective fates. This was a tough read emotionally, but such a good one. More info →
Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel. When two college friends plan a long canoeing trip in northern Canada, they anticipate a peaceful yet memorable summer escape filled with whitewater paddling, fly fishing, and campfire cooking. The first hint of danger is a whiff of smoke, from an encroaching forest fire. The next comes from a man, seemingly in shock, who reports his wife disappeared in the woods. If these boys didn't feel compelled to do the right thing and go look for her, they’d be fine, but instead they step in to help—and are soon running for their lives, from disasters both natural and man-made. A tightly-written wilderness adventure, a lyrical mystery, and a heartrending story of friendship, rolled into one. I didn’t know a book could be both gorgeous and terrifying—but then I devoured this in a day. More info →
2020 Hugo Awards Finalist. This novel combines so many elements I love: it's a literary mystery, a book about books, a coming-of-age story, a tale of adventure and suspense and revenge. I recommended this on an episode of WSIRN: episode 196 with Anudeep Reddy as a gateway fantasy, a fantasy novel for people who don't like fantasy. Creative and inventive and lots of fun. This was also our February 2020 pick for Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. The narration by January LaVoy (yes, you read that right!) is mesmerizing. More info →
I was thrilled to see Mallory on the list of Hugo Award finalists for "Best Related Work." As an avid fan of monster movies, she was thrilled to discover that a woman designed the monster from one of her favorite films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But as she soon discovered, Millicent Patrick's design accomplishments were hidden from history, due to jealous male colleagues and pervasive sexism in the film industry. Following along with O'Meara's research process is just as delightful as learning all about Millicent. I got to chat with Mallory on Episode 176 of What Should I Read Next, and despite my total avoidance of the horror genre, we found some readerly common ground. More info →
Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. On page one, we meet Emira, a twenty-five year old babysitter for a well-to-do Philadelphia family. Emira's out with friends when the mother calls to ask if Emira can rush over and pick up their daughter. Emira finds this strange because it's almost 11:00 p.m., but apparently something has happened at the house. This is important: Emira is black; the Chamberlains are white. She picks up the little girl and takes her down the road to the special, pricey grocery store. They're enjoying the thrill of being out past bedtime, when Emira is racially profiled for a crime she didn’t commit. This is the first domino in a chain of events that forever changes the lives of everyone involved. This all happens in the first 20 pages, and I don't want to share more, because whatever you're thinking right now--it’s not the direction this story goes in. Confident and complex and a total page-turner. More info →
Finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Young Adult fiction. Acevedo dedicates her new novel in verse to the memory of the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, the passenger flight that crashed en route to Santo Domingo from JFK on November 12, 2001. Taking this historical event as her leaping off point, she tells the story of two teenage girls—one in New York, one in Santo Domingo—who are shocked to discover they are sisters in the aftermath of the crash, when the truth of their father’s double life was unceremoniously revealed. The girls tentatively bond as they explore the love—and pain—they share. A lyrical, heartfelt exploration of what it means to discover secrets, to find family, and to discover your own hidden resources in the face of great loss, and surprising joy. More info →
Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel. This fascinating and multi-layered spy thriller is told from the perspective of a black woman, recruited by the CIA in the all-white, boys' club-era of the 1980s for an important African mission. Her assigned task is to fall in love—or pretend to—with Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkino Faso, known as "Africa’s Che Guevara." (Sankara is a real historical figure and I was so curious about how Wilkinson would handle his story.) The book's epigraph is from Ralph Ellison: he refers to being "a spy in enemy country," and I'm grateful this work inspired me to learn more about the rich literary history of African American spy novels and the theme of double consciousness. More info →
Finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for fiction. The story begins with a shooting: it's 1969, in the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn; a beloved drunk deacon named Sportcoat wanders into the courtyard and shoots the drug dealer he'd once treated like a son point-blank, in front of everyone. After this jolting beginning, McBride zooms out to show the reader how this violent act came to take place, exploring the lives of the shooter and the victim, the victim's bumbling friends, the residents who witnessed it, the neighbors who heard about it, the cops assigned to investigate, the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon, the neighborhood's mobsters (and their families). All these people's lives overlap in ways that few understand in the beginning, and McBride's gentle teasing out of these unlikely but deeply meaningful connections—and the humor and warmth with which he does it—is what captured me. More info →
Winner of the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography. Jones's remarkable coming-of-age memoir about being a Black gay man from the South is told in a series of moments and scenes from his childhood through young adulthood. My husband Will cited this one as a favorite in What Should I Read Next Episode 214: Deconstructing your best reading year yet because of Jones's storytelling. Note: the audiobook, read by the author, is excellent. More info →
Shortlisted for the 2020 Dublin Literary Award, plus a National Book Award finalist and Winner of the 2019 Albertine Prize and Lambda Literary Award (and countless others). At the age of ten, Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran with her mother and sisters to join their father in France. Now 25, Kimiâ sits in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic while generations of her ancestors visit her, flooding her with memories, history, and stories. Merging a sweeping family story with factual Iranian history, this semi-biographical novel explores cultural and sexual identity, family tradition, and storytelling as a means of finding oneself. More info →
Winner of the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. In her sweeping new novel, Maggie O’Farrell takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. You should know this book is devastating, and I consumed the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it. Yet with its captivating central character and evocative storytelling, I didn’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world—or put down O’Farrell’s writing. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’FarrellI takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way. More info →
Have you read any literary award winners or nominated books this year? Please tell us all about them in the comments section.