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October 18, 2004

National Book Awards Apparently Not a Popularity Contest

by Ron Hogan

NYT publishing industry correspondent Edward Wyatt visited the Week in Review section yesterday to consider the NBA fiction nominees nobody's heard of, which leads various book bigwigs to melt down:

"We are completely closing ourselves off from the culture at large," said Larry Kirschbaum, the chairman of the Time Warner Book Group, "we are supporting our demise." Esther Newberg, a literary agent at International Creative Management, said, "We are not helping the book business this way, and we're not exactly flourishing already."

Now, a less cynical man might say he wasn't aware the purpose of the National Book Award was to "help the book business," having always thought it was to recognize the best in contemporary American letters. I, however, am not such a man. And as evidence of my cynicism, I hereby predict that the very next Book Babes column will be about these five fiction nominees and how they represent the entrenchment of an "elitist" sensibility at odds with what people are "really reading." Even though it's unclear to me--as I wait for my review copies--what exactly they've done to earn the highbrow tag other than not sell a gazillion copies.

UPDATE: A trip to the mailbox reveals that this controversy also found its way into Talk of the Town. Thomas McGuane (who coincidentally has a new short story in the same issue) attacks the "provincial tone" of the fiction list, while judge Stewart O'Nan answers at least one criticism: "I think [The Plot Against America] is a wonderful reworking of history that [Philip Roth] then tries to fulfill. And it works for a while, but then he realizes he's painted himself into a corner he can't get out of, and he throws his hands up and says, 'Oh, help!' ... It's a good try." O'Nan also weighs in on Tom Wolfe, with an opinion I frankly share: "The guy's not a novelist...It's nice that he thinks he's the new Dickens, but he's just not. Wow! What are you gonna do?" Not that that means I'm any less curious about I Am Charlotte Simmons, to see if maybe this time Wolfe finally figures out how to write endings.


Well, I know it's not supposed to be a popularity contest, but less than 1000 copies for 4 of 5 nominees does seem kind of ridiculous, no? The implication is, "You've never heard of them, but WE have and we're smarter than you. Trust us, they're better than Philip Roth."

Posted by: Jimmy Beck at October 18, 2004 02:28 PM

Fair enough--on the other hand, I kinda look to awards like this to tell me about what I (and other book reviewers) might have missed rather than reify the already talked about. Of course, it's also possible that the books already talked about are the best, and that's why they're getting talked about.

Posted by: editor at October 18, 2004 06:17 PM

Check out this:

it's a letter to the NYTRB, Oct 1979, signed by lots o' people (including Philip Roth) and it begins:

"To the Editors:

As former winners and judges of the National Book Awards, we should like to comment on the recent and ominous announcement by the Association of American Publishers of their revised book award program, henceforth to be known as The American Book Awards and administered by a new organization called The Academy of The American Book Awards (TABA).

Apart from the increase in the number of categories, which seems harmless in principle, the main purpose of the change appears to be to transfer decision-making from those who write books to those who sell and buy them."

Posted by: Barton Yeary at October 18, 2004 09:33 PM

I think it might just go back to the statement we've read so many times on blogs the past few weeks - that incredible number of books published each year and the fact that no matter how hard you try, no matter how in the loop you might be, there will be books that you miss that are just flat out great books.

We've been discussing Roth because of his body of work, as well as the added bonus that many feel his rewriting history is an allegory for the current times. His last few books have received a great deal of press, but I don't recall it being this heavy (though, I wasn't reading blogs when his prior novel came out either).

How many times though has that first-time author, and maybe one-hit wonder (Harper Lee anybody?) write an absolute incredible piece of work that maybe only his/her publisher is well aware of it. The judges get to read it thanks to the publisher, and want to share it with others.

Going by sales numbers is a scary way to go - before All the Pretty Horses came out, Cormac McCarthy's five prior works had sold less than 15,000 hardcovers. How many copies of Percival Everett's novels and story collections do you think sold before Erasure was published? Now they both have nearly a full shelf at my local Borders dedicated to them.

I know last year the only reason I heard of John Frederick Walker's A Certain Curve of Horn was because of the Michael Kinsley flap, admitting he hadn't read every book, let alone every page of the submissions. Yet, it was incredible and the only reason it got a paperback deal was the publicity it received at that point, not before, when it was published.

I guess I don't see it as the judges telling us they're smarter than us, as much as that they think they're luckier than us for having been allowed the knowledge these books exist. I hope they're right.


Posted by: Dan Wickett at October 18, 2004 09:55 PM

I hope so, too, Dan, 'cause I think one Vernon God Little is quite enough thank you very much.

Posted by: Jimmy Beck at October 19, 2004 09:31 AM

I have no doubt that the NBA judges are better-informed about contemporary fiction than I am. That NYT article, though, is a hoot: I love the "once" in "The awards were once more firmly planted in the cultural mainstream." It tries to hearken back to the long-ago days of Alice McDermott, Susan Sontag, and Jonathan Franzen (although Franzen was not quite "cultural mainstream" after his first two novels: his rise to celebrity, IIRC, got its major boost from the pre-pub marketing blitz associated with The Corrections). Things have all gone downhill from there.

The suggestion made by many in the article that the book business is only helped by promoting the sales of already-celebrated books is hard to parse. Is the reasoning, them that's got shall have, them that's not shall lose? Is it the market Calvinism that equates popularity with profitability with quality, so well-described in the novel A & R, so that any attempt to raise or diversify the quality out there is styled "elitism"?

(There is a mindset that really believes in some kind of mana or sanctity associated with already-famous and well-marketed, and even the broader category of the "celebrity." I once met a young man who expressed incredulity that I'd collaborated with Samuel Delany, on accounta the guy couldn't imagine a Celebrity living on the same plane as a fellow he'd never heard of.)

So what's that whole "elitism" accusation about in this context? Is it horror at the realm of Celebrity being desecrated by infidels? Is it just a kneejerk response to one's opponents, as it was when Bush used it a couple of years ago? Do the likes of the Book Babes feel that their cultural capital is threatened by the power of non-bestselling authors to celebrate the work of other non-bestselling authors? Very strange.

Posted by: Josh Lukin at October 20, 2004 02:31 AM
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