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October 21, 2004

I Never Win the Oscar Pool, Either

by Ron Hogan

Three days ago, I predicted, regarding the National Book Awards, "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.'" I was wrong--instead, they tackle the other great controversy surrounding this year's awards: how the hell did the 9/11 Commission Report get on the shortlist?

"Shouldn't we be disturbed that the five National Book Award judges in nonfiction--Diane Wood Middlebrook, Douglas Brinkley, Ted Conover, Thadious Davis, and Katherine Newman--think this is one of the best five books of nonfiction written this year?" Margo Hammond asks. "A book written by the government about its own failures?" Why a book "written by the government about its own failures" couldn't be good is a point I'm not quite grasping; if it's because we shouldn't reward self-penned chronicles of failure, well, everybody toss out your copies of Frederick Exley. What she's really trying to get at, though, seems to be that the judges have picked a government account over the work of investigative journalists, who presumably would have a perspective with more...bite? credibility?

Ellen Heltzel points out that the Commission Report "has had its critics since it was published," without going into more details--like, for example, Benjamin DeMott's evaluation of it as "a cheat and a fraud" in Harper's (which didn't put the article online, sorry, but the excerpts at The Reading Experience give you a good idea of the tone). And along with everybody who wonders why Sy Hersh wasn't nominated, she puts in a good word for Jon Lee Anderson and The Fall of Baghdad. But then, noting that the other nominated books deal with "race, the Revolutionary War, life in prison, and the Bard of Avon," comes awfully close to suggesting that the judges are out of touch for not having chosen "independently produced books about the subjects that have dominated media coverage and the bestseller lists." A clear variant of Esther Newberg's complaint that the fiction judges "are not helping the book business," and just as ludicrous. Again, the point of the National Book Awards is not, as I understand it, to reify the already popular, but to seek out and recognize the excellent, even if it's about a subject to which readers haven't paid much attention in the past--though somehow "race" and "life in prison" don't exactly seem all that obscure.

More disturbing, though, is the wondering aloud: "What role did [Douglas] Brinkley's presence among the judges play, given that he's John Kerry's biographer and a frequent commentator on the presidential campaign? Did he inhibit choosing books about his field (which also includes American history), or was he a voice crying in the wilderness among the other judges, who are worlds beyond the Beltway?" The idea that Brinkley would quash "competing" books is bad enough--but what are we supposed to make of this slur on the other judges' supposed marginality? Should we believe that Thadious Davis chose the race book, Ted Conover chose the prison book, Diane Middlebrook used her powers of English literature to go with the Shakespeare, and after Brinkley stifled all the political books with the 9/11 Report, poor Katherine Newman picked up a Revolutionary War tome off the submissions table to round off the list because there weren't any good books on poverty?

I agree with the Babes that the nomination of the Report is not a good move, but the reasoning behind their evaluation--apart from the belief that there are better books out there--is not how I'd make that case. Now let's see if I can get Benjamin DeMott to comment on the nomination...

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