Sunday, May 06, 2007

Can you write a book with the goal of winning a prize?

Journalism's critics have a name for those long, usually politically correct features or series that newspapers tend run from time to time. You know the ones I mean: "Enrique's Journey," the story of a Honduran boy's search for his mother (Los Angeles Times); "Boss Hog," about hog farm pollution in North Carolina (the News and Observer); or "A Nation Challenged" about the aftermath of 9/11 (New York Times). Periodically papers take these on, with varying success , often crossing the line from hard news to a kind of literary nonfiction. Critics call them "Pulitzer Bait," since only pieces that broad, ambitious and (in their way) artistic have solid chances of becoming finalists for the prize.

Yet recently when I suggested to an author who had won the Pulitzer for one book and been nominated for another that there had been any strategy in her accomplishments, she balked. "Absolutely not!" she said. "You can't write a book to win a prize!"

Why on earth not? Journalists don't mind admitting that they sometimes write to win. Many are comfortable discussing the professional benefits of a Pulitzer, and the rewards both individually and for the host newspaper. Yet I have encountered resistance among otherwise ambitious academic authors to the idea that they would ever write with public rewards in mind.

In this office we do think about Pulitzers, National Book Awards, even Nobels. Part of my mission is an effort to quantify what has made books successful in the past, and what might signal great success in the future. Upcoming blog entries will analyze all sorts of winners, and will also examine academic bestsellers and how they got there. Why? Because I believe that just like the olympics, authors CAN run for prizes, not as a crass or compromising ends in themselves, but as the logical outcome of meaningful and ambitious careers.

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