Examining literary prizes with a book award judge

One might say it’s a job James English was born for. The John Welsh Centennial Professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, English has lectured and written extensively about literary prizes and is considered a leading expert on the subject. However, he’s never taught a class about them—until this semester.

His class, “Novel of the Year,” offers students an especially up-close view of literary prizes, given that English is this year’s chair of the National Book Award judging panel for fiction.

English says his students’ perspectives on which shortlisted novel should win have expanded his own thoughts on the intricacies and assumptions of the selection process.

“I’m a bit jaded, in a way. I like a book that doesn’t come at you with its high seriousness and announce itself as a great work, but kind of sneaks up on you through the back door,” he says. “Most of what the students read in their literature classes are books of consequence, of course, so they’re not going to settle for something that might appear lightweight. And they have a point in setting the bar high.”

As director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, English also saw the benefit of incorporating digital research tools into the class. In the coming weeks, they will be working with Scott Enderle, a literary text-mining specialist in the Penn Libraries, running algorithms to try to predict the prize winner. A preliminary test of one particular algorithm correctly predicted which five novels would make it off the longlist to become finalists.

“Our class conversations have been operating on the tacit assumption that the novel most like last year’s prizewinner would win,” English says. “But the computer modeling approach—which simply counts and categorizes words—actually bases its prediction on how different a given novel is from previous winners.”

One student in the class, a double major in English and computer science, is particularly interested in this method of prediction and is planning to extend this work into a final research project.

Literary prizes also offer a unique lens through which to look at canonicity and the economy of literary value. To this end, English hopes his students will come away from the class with “an appreciation for the whole social and institutional system that generates literary value, and an understanding that it is the task of the literary scholar to make sense of this system, historically, conceptually, and sociologically.”

The second insight he wants them to gain is a straightforwardly practical one.

“It’s not always clear to English majors that gathering, refining, and categorizing data makes sense in literary studies,” he says. “This can be a bit of a handicap when they’re trying to find employment, so I’m trying to give them an opportunity to develop these skills as well.”

James English