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The Prize I Want to Start
What was the best book of 2008?
With the Pulitzer Prize announcements for last year coming on Monday, prizes have been on my mind. And specifically, this pipe dream I’ve had for a while now of starting a new and unconventional prize: one that celebrates the best book from 15 years ago that never won a major award.
We could call it the Cassandra Prize (as in, a visionary book that no one fully appreciated in its time) or we could call it the PEN/______ Award (after the person who will give a million dollars to endow it forever).
(This is not the world’s most original idea; podcaster Bill Simmons has mused about giving Oscars five years after the fact. But I’m talking about an actual book award, one with hoopla and prize money and a sticker and everything, not just a thought exercise.)
Here are the criteria: An American book of fiction (novel or stories), published fifteen years ago, that never won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Booker, Women’s Prize, any PEN award, the NBCC, the Story Prize, the Dylan Thomas, etc. It doesn’t matter if it was a finalist for all of those; it just can’t have won. It doesn’t matter if the author went on to win every award on that list or passed away or vanished into a life of tenure and sourdough baking—it’s the book that counts. It doesn’t matter if that book was and continues to be a bestseller, or if it went out of print.
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Why fifteen years?
Because it’s just long enough. For one thing, we can look back fifteen years (and sorry, folks, that’s 2008, not somewhere in the 1990s, as I’d like to believe) and recognize what kinds of books and the kinds of authors that weren’t getting their due. (Despite some steps toward change, prize winners were still white as a mob of Halloween ghosts, for one thing, and books by women but not books about women were taking home awards…) And fifteen years from now, we’ll be able to do the same for 2023. We also might notice the book that was way ahead of its time stylistically or in subject matter. We might notice the 500-copy print run story collection of an author who later lit the world on fire.
How would the judging work?
Hmm, good question. Presses wouldn’t be lining up to send copies of the books of 2008 to the judges, so judging might work more like it does for the NBCC or PEN/Jean Stein awards, in which judges read at their discretion, looking at the books they’ve already heard great things about, or asking smart friends what to read, or scouring reviews. If someone funded the prize, you could pay each of five judges $1,000, a pretty standard pittance. OR it would happen online, with a lot more judges—something like Tournament of Books.
Why do this?
For the same reasons we give any prize: Partly for the author, and partly for the readers. It would be the most amazing vindication for any author; it could bring a worthy book back into print or boost the sales of one that too few people know about; and it would bring an amazing book to the attention of the readers who need it.
Plus, if you published a book and no one cared and the worst guy you ever met at a conference took home the Booker that year, you could at least go, “Well, maybe in 15 years I’ll win the Cassandra Prize and it’ll all be good.”
So, what were the best books of 2008?
If we were awarding the prize right now, we’d be looking back on the year of the burst housing bubble and Obama’s election and “I Kissed a Girl.” Current high school freshmen were busy getting born.
For one thing, there are some big names to look back on. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, didn’t win any prizes. Rachel Kushner’s debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for a few prizes but didn’t win a major one. Another notable and prizeless debut of 2008: Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward.
Among the equally brilliant, if less-beribboned, authors: V. V. Ganeshananthan’s debut, Love Marriage, appeared that year. So did Carolyn Chute’s The School on Heart's Content Road. Kevin Brockmeier’s story collection The View from the Seventh Layer is a masterpiece. Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring was a finalist for the Story Prize, but didn’t win.
And who knows what else we missed? WHO EVEN KNOWS??
Are you actually going to make this happen, Rebecca?
Uh, probably not? Because I’m really busy. But I’m serious about it. I actually want this to be a thing. That’s why I’m putting it out into the world.
If someone out there (a lovely university? Lit Hub? a very rich person?) wants to make this happen, please get in touch.
Everyone else, let’s brainstorm. And maybe tell me your favorite book of 2008, while you’re at it.