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The essay prize quiz

On Why There is an Essay Prize: A Very Easy Quiz

Nonfiction submissions for national literary awards regularly outnumber submissions in poetry and fiction by an average of 2 to 1. Last year, for example, a total of 175 poetry books were submitted to the National Book Award in Poetry, while 271 were submitted in fiction. Nonfiction, however, had 540 submissions.


Well, partly this is due to the fact that far more nonfiction books are published each year than are books in any other genre. “Nonfiction,” after all, is a baggy term. By default, it includes everything that’s left on the table after “fiction” and “poetry” have divvied themselves up into those neat and easy categories.

And yet, what’s often left on that table is as dissimilar as poetry is to the criticism written about it, or as fiction is to a footnote in a concordance about a novel. Nevertheless, by necessity, nonfiction awards often judge books of hard-edged political analysis alongside confessional memoirs. Or volumes of impeccably researched history beside idiosyncratic narratives of primarily metaphorical significance. Journalism is compared to natural history. Academic biographies to personal travelogues. Etc.

The imagination gets lost, trumped, overcome by information.

What follows are some significant dates in the recent history of American nonfiction. Each date features three nonfiction books that were published in the given year, two of which were awarded major literary prizes. One of which was not.

Your goal is to choose the one nonfiction book that was not awarded a literary prize for that year—the one book, in other words, with the least “literary value.”

Score perfectly on the quiz and we’ll send you a limited edition temporary tattoo: “My Heart Burns for the Essay.” It’s non-toxic, easy to apply, and will last far longer than you’ll want it to.

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