Posted by: Jeanie F | June 7, 2010

Do Only “Unenjoyable” Books Win Prizes?

Martin Amis said it – is it true that only unenjoyable books win literary prizes? According to Amis, who has never won a major prize, judges “do not appreciate fun literature.”

This made me wonder – sour grapes or is there truth to the statement? I can imagine that to have produced the body of work that Amis has, it must be frustrating to be passed over, but does this speak to literary prize judges or to Amis’ work itself?

I decided to go back an look at a few prize winners, to see if I thought any were enoyable, and guess what – not only did I find many enjoyable, but more than a few were “fun”.

Here are some examples:

The National Book Award:

Three Junes by Julia Glass

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

And this is only going back as far as 1993 – there’s also The World According to Garp (John Irving), Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) . . .

The Pen/Faulkner Award:

I had to admit, Amis was a little more on-point with this one. Lots of good winners, but I don’t think many would qualify as “fun”:

War Dances by Sherman Alexie definitely had it’s humorous moments, but it won over Sag Harbor (Colson Whitehead), which is decidedly more entertaining

The Great Man by Kate Christensen was reviewed as “witty,” but I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment

From here, it’s one buzz-kill after another: Everyman (one of  Philip Roth’s darker novels), The March (E.L. Doctorow), a couple by the fabulous, but not “enjoyable” Ha Jin.

Some of the titles that were nominated but didn’t win Pen/Faulkner and were, in my opnion, more enjoyable than the winners: All Aunt Hagar’s Children (Edward P Jones), The Corrections, The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

Thinking that maybe Amis was unhappy because he didn’t win his own country’s most prestigious award, I decided to check up on . . .

The Man/Booker Prize:

This is where Amis’ argument really falls apart, because there are some decidedly entertaining – as well as fun – titles that have won this prize:

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (this one alone belies the “no fun” accusation)

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (not a favorite of mine, but 1500 readers can’t be all wrong)

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The list goes on – and includes Amis’ father, Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils.

Kingsley claims that “I want to give the reader the best glass of wine I have, the best food in my kitchen.”  Maybe he needs to recognize that, just as many outstanding cooks will never be Julia Child, many great books are not award winners. No need to be petty about it.


  1. Just hopping through!

  2. I think what Amis said varies with the award. I think that it would be fair to say that some awards are only awarded to unenjoyable books. Like the Pulitzer Rpize for example – The Road by Cormac McArthy and The Gathering by ANne Enright come to mind.

    But the Commonwealth Writers Prize winner is usually very enoyable, The Miles Franklin Award winner is always enjoyable, the Vogel Award as well (those last two are Australian awards).

    And the Man Booker…. I don’t think I have read an unenjoyable Man Booker Winner!

    • I agree, Becky. I tend to like the National Book Award winners, and many smaller ones, such as the LA TImes Book Prizes. I loved last years Pulitzer – Olive Kitteridge, but hated The Gathering. Can’t say I “enjoyed” The Road, but I sure didn’t forget it!!!

  3. wow thats a sweeping statement, it depends on what you mean by enjoyable. Even terrible heartbreaking stories I can enjoy.

    • I agree, Jessica! A Fine Balance is one of my favorite books – tragic, but a book I loved reading and would therefore consider “enjoyable”. Amis, however, seems to equate “enjoyable” with “fun”. I can see his point in a way – consider how few comedies are nominated for Oscars . . .

  4. Sounds like a bit of sour grapes! That being said, I wouldn’t have classified The Old Devils as a ‘fun’ book…it’s the only Booker winner I’ve read that at times felt physically painful. lol

    • Eva, I felt thaht way about The Life of Pi! 🙂

  5. I wouldn’t agree with the sweeping statement made by Amis, simply because I enjoy reading prize winners. Nope, I’m not a book snob, but in a world where the number of books to read vs. the time to read them in is way too high, I’ve become pickier and choosier.

    As you’ve already mentioned, White Tiger comes to mind as a classic example. I hated The Gathering myself, but thought The Road was absolutely fantastic, as was Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

    Then you have the likes of Mr. Pip, Alice Munro’s Runaway and The Handmaid’s Tale (winners of the Commonwealth Prize).

    …and the books mentioned above are the ones that came to me without actually having to think about it!!

    • Cookie, I have never heard of the Commonwealth Prize, but I just looked it up. Wow – what a fantastic collection of titles!!! Thanks for introducing it to me. I’ll be spending some time today looking up a few of these unfamiliar titles!

  6. I’m glad I found your blog on the blog hop-I will be following you on Google Reader. If you’d like to visit me I’m here:

  7. Lisa, I’ve added you to my blog links and will check back often! Love your blog!

  8. Thanks for stopping by my blog…looking forward to reading yours!
    I personally think nothing Martin Amis or indeed Kingsley Amis says (or writes!) is worth paying attention to…look, a massive overgeneralisation of my own! Just look at the few you’ve come up with – particularly agree with your Booker assessment.

  9. Stopped through on the Book Blog Hop. Interesting article! It is not as though all the “classics” are that interesting either. Some are downright difficult to get through, so it goes to show you that there has to be something more lasting in them (i.e. themes, style, tone, diction, etc.). Really like your blog and will be keeping up with you from now on.

  10. Gah, Amis has a tendency to rub me the wrong way.

    ‘Enjoyable’ isn’t the same as ‘fun’. I’m currently close to finishing Flannery OConnor’s Complete Stories and I’m finding them thoroughly enjoyable and they’re often fun too, despite what prejudiced ideas people might have.

    Also, hello! I found you via the blog hop!

  11. Hi, just popping over from the blog hop. good to meet you and your blog.

    I have my copy of the Shipping News somewhere in my attic. Must find it for a re-read.

    • LOVED Shipping News – May reread it myself! Thanks for stopping by!

  12. stopping by on hop ,think amis may be talking about his own books last good novel he wrote was time arrow in 91 ,yellow dog was dire ,got new one but yet to read ,think he is unhappy not to win booker ,he did win tait prize for memoir ,although I didn’t like wolf hall habving read other shortlist last year wanted glass room to win which was a much better book ,all best stu

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