By the Page

Crazed Hypothesis Which Involves Momentary Shift From Lit-Loving Guy Into Silly Marketing Type (With Extraordinary, Speculative Overtures) And Mischeviously Suggesting That William Goldman’s “Nobody Knows Anything” Maxim Applies to the Publishing World: If a 300-page novel is, by Page 165, something you’re trying to finish reading so you can move on to the next one, can you conclude it’s a good novel (if you admire it in spurts)? Conversely, if it’s something you can’t put down, does it follow that the book is a great one, whether pop or literary?

Is Page 165 is the make it or break it point? Sure, there’s the possibility that the story or prose will pick up in 5-10 pages. But if the reader or critic is not mind-staggeringly drunk over the book by now, then the writer can kiss her shot at being short-listed or getting a rave review goodbye, or face being a literary mid-lister. In which case you hustle the people behind the Today Book Club.

Is this how the publishing world works? Chaos theory?

Here’s where a bit of extremely specious speculation into American lit comes into play. If we examine the last five years of winners by page count, we find the following:

Pulitzer Fiction Winners

1999: The Hours by Michael Cunningham (230 pages)
2000: The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (198 pages)
2001: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (656 pages)
2002: Empire Falls by Richard Russo (496 pages)
2003: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (544 pages)

Average: 424.8 pages
Next Awards Ceremony: May 2004

Of the Pulitzer winners, only The Interpreter of Maladies and The Hours are less than the around-500 page mark. And that’s only because The Interpreter of Maladies is a short story collection. My guess is that The Hours‘s uber-homage to Virginia Woolf led the page count factor to be dismissed. But the Pulitzers seem to favor sprawling epics, whether a Greek family coming to Detroit, two Jewish emigres making a killing in the comic book industry, or Russo’s wide blue-collar swath.

National Book Award Winners

1999: Waiting by Ha Jin (320 pages)
2000: In America by Susan Sontag (400 pages)
2001: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (592 pages)
2002: Three Junes by Julia Glass (368 pages)
2003: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazard (288 pages)

Average: 393.6 pages
Next Awards Ceremony: November 16, 2004

The National Book Award winners are more manageable reads, averaging out at the 350 page mark. But page count isn’t so much as a factor, as are consequences over time (World War II in The Great Fire, what happens to characters over a decade in The Three Junes, familial trappings in The Corrections).

The National Book Critics Circle Award

1998: The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro (352 pages)
1999: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (336 pages)
2000: Being Dead by Jim Crace (208 pages)
2001: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (304 pages)
2002: Atonement by Ian McEwan (368 pages)

Average: 313.6 pages
Next Awards Ceremony: March 4, 2004

The odd one out here is The Love of a Good Woman, which is a collection of short stories. (And I’m discounting short story collections because, by definition, they’re harder sells than novels.) But it would appear that the National Book Critics prefer breezy, puncutated books with a more quirky style. Ian McEwan has a reputation for whittling his prose down to the bone. Austerlitz is “short,” but the conversations embedded within the novel require work to pick out, being separated by commas. Being Dead is, of course, the ultimate perspective novel in that it follows the disintegration of two corpses. And Motherless Brooklyn has the Tourette’s syndrome hook.


The shorter your book, the more likely you’re going to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. But only if the prose is perspective-oriented and “challenging” enough to impress the critics.

If your novel is a little longer and your book is more centered around time and location, then you stand a shot at the National Book Award.

And if you have a sweeping epic, then the Pulitzer’s your best bet.

This leads me to wonder whether some publishers are more inclined to typeset their books to pander deliberately for specific awards, with abstruse cover art to match, and whether some editors, sensing that a prospective title has some literary merit (i.e., award-winning potential), will press the writer to tailor their books within these guidelines. (“No. Make it a little longer. And can we go off to Bavaria for a few chapters?”)

Of course, all of this is just extremely idle speculation on a rainy day. And I haven’t even taken a look at the finalists, or accounted for timed release dates. But being ill-informed on multiple levels about this sort of thing, I’d be extremely curious to hear from someone inside the publishing industry just how “pre-packaged” a particular book is for these three major awards. It certainly works that way with movies, and, since the risks are just as great (on a smaller financial scale) in fiction, it would seem to me that at least something along these lines would be in place in New York.

Just about every trade paperback edition that comes out has some kind of “Short-Listed” or “Finalist” nod on it, if it can include it. (Even a later edition of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had “Pulitzer Finalist” on it when it already had a built-in audience, which mystified me.) You’ll recall that Jonathan Franzen got his panties in a bunch over advertising the Oprah Book Club selection on the first hardcover edition.

So the questions are: Are we seeing a shift towards award-conscious releases (even in first editions)? (The more awards, the merrier.) And, if so, how embedded is this within current publishing house policy? And by what factual criteria do they base these ebullient cover-laden interjections?

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One Comment

  1. happy new year

    2003 time capsules -The Critics Critiqued: Their nastiest insults, most insightful reviews, and oddest fixations this year. -Fimoculous names his

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