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This guy is the next Pulitzer winner...

...and we don't even know his name!


One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.

— Charles Fort

 

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. 

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. We went back two decades, analyzing the geographical, gender and racial makeup of finalists and winners. In our review, we counted as East Coast residents anyone who lived, at the time of their award, at least part time in one of the coastal states between Boston and the nation’s capital. If a person worked for an institution based in the region but did not actually live there, they were not counted as an East Coaster, though surely, by virtue of their employment, they enjoyed some of the region’s social and institutional advantages. When evidence was entirely lacking, we assumed the person’s home address to be somewhere in the hinterlands. Thus, East Coast-edness is almost certainly undercounted. Accounting for gender tended to be straightforward, but race took some guessing. If a writer looked “white” in his author photo and his published bio did not provide contrary evidence, he was assumed to be white. Jewish was counted as white. Assume a margin of error, though not a large one. 

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. 

The National Book Award and Critics Circle Award showed less bias, though neither came close to reflecting the demographic makeup of the country at large. For the last two decades, winners and finalists combined were two-thirds male. Female winners of the Critics Circle accounted for a relatively progressive 40 percent of the total. Both awards showed less preference than the Pulitzer for writers with Acela access. To some extent it’s not surprising that so many decorated nonfiction writers live in an area of the country saturated with top colleges and media outlets. As well as the region’s obvious cultural draws — hello Brooklyn — East Coast colleges, newspapers and magazines attract, fund and support exactly the kind of writers and writing one would expect to win a lot of nonfiction book prizes. That is, not all biases are created equal. 

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. Though the Critics Circle was nearly as achromatic as the Pulitzer, during the last two decades, the National Book Award packed its short lists with 14 (out of 101) people-of-color, less than half the number we would expect to find if they had generated the names by national lottery. Among the NBA’s 20 winners were one Cuban-American and Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at Harvard who, in 2009, became the first African-American in history to win the Pulitzer for history. The book prize, our oldest, will soon celebrate its centennial.

 

My Wife, Jen, likes to tell a story about when we first met. We were graduate students in Florida, and she was house-sitting for Bob Shacochis, a professor in our writing program who may or may not have known that, in his absence, Jen was using his house to host the occasional party. I attended one of these affairs and, according to Jen, spent the entire night not eying my future wife but hovering creepily near the bookshelves, ogling Shacochis’ first editions and National Book Award. 

First editions are perfectly fine objects of admiration, but only a rube could be unreservedly enamored with a book award, particularly someone else’s. Of these prizes we should be of at least two minds: happy when they promote good writers and fine writing, but thoroughly cynical about their ability to identify the best writers and writing. In The Economy of Prestige, James F. English argues that, in our culture, literary prizes have a “fundamentally equivocal nature,” as do our attitudes toward them. In theory, these prizes exist in a realm beyond commercial interests, often with only nominal cash rewards, and yet their success vis-à-vis other prizes is regularly measured by their effect on book sales. The National Book Award, founded in 1950 and funded by the book industry, is from one perspective an utterly commercial endeavor which, nonetheless, confers its prize-awarding authority on five-member juries free to choose books without any consideration for their marketability and who, much to the chagrin of the administrators who organize those juries, often do exactly that. 

Nonetheless, our attitude toward prize juries, when not downright cynical, is at best ambivalent. William Gass spoke for all literary gossipmongers when he somewhat regretfully noted that book prize judges “are busy people, a long time in the rackets, with grudges and buddies and old scores and i.o.u.’s and other obligations like everybody else.” Monday morning quarterbacking the juries’ decisions is a favorite sport among literary types, second only to bashing Jonathan Franzen, and one does not spend long among the prize rosters without noticing all the esteemed writers who have not won a major book award. Nonfiction authors passed over by both the Pulitzer and NBA juries include James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, A.J. Liebling, Barbara Ehrenreich, Edward Abbey, Henry Louis Gates, Calvin Trillin, Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken, James Agee, Edmund Wilson, Gay Talese, Guy Davenport, Lillian Ross, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag. To the Pulitzer’s embarrassment, we can add Rachel Carson, Joan Didion and Paul Fussell. 

Of course, plenty of great writers do receive their laurels, but even the most enthusiastic book prize boosters admit that, as one Pulitzer jurist put it, judging books is “a highly inexact science.” How then to make sense of what English calls “the profound and seemingly unaccountable investments of emotion that serious artists and intellectuals” make in award ceremonies? Why do we even care? According to English, we care (and complain) about book prizes because we care about Literature, capital-L. 

But we also care because, clumsy as they can be, these prizes bestow on their winners and finalists very real earthly rewards. Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove Atlantic and vice chairman of the National Book Foundation, explained to me that “a prominent book prize can double or triple sales and in some cases increase them 10 or 20 times over.” A major award will raise an author’s profile, he said, and if he’s a journalist, he’ll get more attention from magazine editors. If he works in academia, he’ll be better positioned in that job market. He will likely receive a bigger advance and more coverage for his next book, and the prestige can help winning authors leapfrog entire rungs on their career ladders. 

Shacochis, whose award I once spent an evening ogling, is a good example of this latter group. In 1973, he graduated from journalism school, smarting from his professors’ criticism that he was trying too hard to write like he had a byline at Rolling Stone. Five years later, after serving as an agricultural journalist with the Peace Corps, Shacochis returned home to a job as copyboy at The Evening Times in Palm Beach. Realizing he might spend a decade in the industry and still be no closer to his fabled Rolling Stone byline, or any other byline worth having, Shacochis made a move that, in the decades since, has become as common among writers as the pump fake is among basketball players: He applied to writing programs. Rejected by all, he applied again the next year and, in 1980, enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he would compose most of his first collection of stories, Easy in the Islands. That book, in 1985, won the National Book Award for First Work of Fiction, and within a fortnight, Shacochis was fielding calls from magazine and newspaper editors asking if, by chance, he had ever thought about writing nonfiction? The New York Times, Esquire, Harper’s; Bosnia, Kamchatka, Haiti — suddenly a career materialized if not out of thin air then out of the rarefied air of one of our most prestigious book prizes. 

In 1993, Shacochis was a finalist for another National Book Award and, in 2014, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. When I asked him what these awards, and in particular the Pulitzer, meant to him on a emotional level, I half-expected him to humble-brag about how it was a privilege but also kind of bullshit. Instead he was all sincerity. “Being a finalist for the Pulitzer is like having my writing life revalidated in a vital way,” he told me. “It gives me a sense of a writerly self that would otherwise not be there — a writer who is a player, who has a voice and a presence and an audience for that voice.”

 

”You have to drill down,” Entrekin told me when I asked what he thought of the scarcity of women and minorities on the National Book Award nonfiction shortlists. How do the submissions break down? How skewed is the applicant pool? Just as importantly, who writes nonfiction books in America? What are their demographics? 

“These numbers raise questions about the wider universe of nonfiction writing,” said Sig Gissler, an administrator for the Pulitzer Prize and an expert on race in the media. “Is nonfiction primarily a male-dominated field?” All but one of the prize administrators I spoke to, when confronted with the demographic makeup of their winners and finalists, asked some version of the same question: What’s upstream? 

Two administrators provided data that suggests at least a provisional answer. According to Gissler, of the 329 books submitted for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, 72 percent were written by men. (The fiction pool was only 54 percent male.) For the relatively small fee of $50, anyone, even self-published writers, can submit their book to a Pulitzer jury. The NBA fee is $135 and only publishers may submit. (No fee is associated with the Critics Circle, and the critic-jurors nominate most of the books themselves.) Given the different submission paths, one might expect to find different candidate pools, but Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said the NBA’s nonfiction pool was almost identical to the Pulitzer’s during the same year: 70 percent male. This, of course, is only a snapshot from one year and reveals nothing about the racial or geographic makeup of the competing authors. It is, however, some evidence that men may write, or at least publish, more nonfiction books. 

We were not able to obtain statistics on the “wider universe of nonfiction,” but what those numbers might look like is suggested by the institutions upstream from nonfiction awards, i.e. the same top colleges, magazines and newspapers that help skew the prizes so heavily toward the East Coast. Those institutions, as is frequently reported, have always been and remain disproportionately white and male. And so it is no surprise that, downstream, books prizes are awash in our culture’s race and gender prejudices.

Which is not to say prize administrators have washed their hands of the issue. “The [Pulitzer] board is concerned about diversity,” Gissler told me. “To see that,  you only need to look as far as its own membership.” (Of the board’s 17 voting members, five are minorities and seven are female. Its incoming chair is an African-American woman.) Both the Pulitzer and National Book Foundation have made similar efforts with their juries and, according to Augenbraum, the effect is apparent if you look at the NBA shortlists in all categories since the award’s inception. From that viewpoint, the prize has begun to achieve parity, at least in terms of gender. 

And yet nonfiction remains a stubborn outlier: During the past 20 years, none of the awards we examined showed significant improvement in any demographic category. And so, for the umpteenth time, we ask if there is something about the field of nonfiction itself that skews the prize results so dramatically? But the question, important as it is, deserves at least two qualifications. First, we should acknowledge that these prizes do more than reflect our culture’s structural prejudices. They also reinforce them and have the potential to mitigate them. That is, if we’d like to see more minority women writing for The New Yorker or teaching at Yale, then it would not hurt to award them more book prizes, a credential invaluable in both job markets. 

The suggestion that something like affirmative action belongs in the prize world will undoubtedly raise hackles among literary folk in blue and red states alike, but return for a moment to the case of Annette Gordon-Reed. Is it really possible that every year for nearly a century no African-American wrote the best book of U.S. history, and even now has failed to do so in the general nonfiction category? Or that for the past 20 years, an African-American has not even written one of the top three works of general nonfiction? Recent books by Edwidge Danticat, Saidiya Hartman, Michelle Alexander, Eugene Robinson and Hilton Als might have been reasonable candidates and yet they did not even register on the Pulitzer radar nor, excepting Danticat, on the NBA’s.

Which brings us to the second qualification: Quantity and quality are not synonymous and may not even be related. When I asked Laurie Muchnick, the fiction editor at Kirkus Reviews and president of the National Book Critics Circle, if she thought the biases evident in nonfiction book prizes might be the effect of a candidate pool similarly skewed, she brought up the VIDA Count, an annual tally of, among other things, the gender makeup of authors reviewed by major newspapers and magazines. The reviews are inevitably male-dominated, and almost as inevitable are the rebuttals that the book reviews are so male because so many book authors are male. “I thought that was a specious argument,” Muchnick said. “So many more books get published than you could possibly review. All you have to do is slightly shift your gaze.” 

Earlier, Muchnick had told me that in her organization, the prize juries’ only goal was to “find the best book published that year,” and that while race and gender might factor into the decisions of individual judges, they were not overtly part of the debate. She mentioned Robert Caro, who in 2012 won his third Critics Circle Award for Biography. Were they to pass over the author of arguably the most important work of history in our time just because he’s a white man living on the East Coast? 

I asked Muchnick if, most years, the contest wasn’t a bit more neck-and-neck? And if so, why couldn’t nonfiction juries do what magazine and newspaper editors have slowly begun to do: Shift their gaze? Muchnick paused. For a moment, I thought we had been disconnected or that she was brainstorming a nice way to tell me what an idiotic idea this was. Instead she said, “You should be able to. Why we haven’t, I don’t know.”

By Josh McCall with additional reporting by Dario Sulzman

 

Book Prize Biases

(Winners %, Winners + Finalists %)

Award

East Coast

Male

White

All Three

Pulitzer, Nonfiction, 1995-2014

85, 77

75, 80

95, 95

55, 57

National Book Award, Nonfiction, 1994-2013*

80, 68

70, 65

90, 86

50, 34

National Book Critics Circle Award, Nonfiction, 1994-2013

70, 64

60, 67

90, 94

40, 38

Pulitzer, Biography/Autobiography, 2005-2014

90, 73

80, 83

100, 97

70, 53

Pulitzer, History, 2005-2014

73, 58

91, 76

73, 91

45, 45

Bancroft Prize (winners only), 2005-2014

41

78

96

30

Lon Tinkle (winners only), 2003-2013

 

90

90

 

*The 9/11 commission, a 2004 finalist, was excluded from this count.

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...and we don't even know his name!
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