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November 15, 2004

If Everybody Keeps Putting Their Two Cents In,
Pretty Soon the National Book Award's Cash Prize Will Double

by Ron Hogan

Claudia Parsons of Reuters has been doing the legwork on the uproar over the fiction nominees, and presents a slim range of opinions from people who hate them. She notes, "Many critics were outraged not to see Philip Roth on the list for his new book The Plot Against America, a historical fantasy that has won good reviews."

On the one hand, I'm pleased to see that somebody is coming even closer to calling Roth's book science fiction, but let's not overstate the case: Plot has gotten plenty of bad reviews as well as the good, and it's hardly a slam-dunk nominee save for its pedigree. If, to throw out a name here, Harry Turtledove had written the exact same book, (well, okay, maybe with the name of Roth's family changed), would people honestly say this book had been overlooked? And mind you, I like Harry Turtledove; I'm just using him as the most convenient hook for speculative fiction--any science fiction author I named here would be just as likely not to pass muster with the fiction judges and the harping industry pundits.

Of the two industry insiders quoted, PW columnist John Baker blames Rick Moody, while former National Book Foundation co-chair Herman Gollob sneers, "It's supposed to be an achievement award for the best that's been done, not a feel good award for aspiring writers." He hadn't heard of any of the books beforehand, and he's damned if he's going to read them. One would have thought that during his long career as an editor, Gollob would have learned not to judge a book he hadn't read, but perhaps all he needed to hear was that the books weren't, as Caryn James put it, "big and sprawling" like, say, Leon Uris. I'd also suggest to him--heck, I'll do it right now--that five authors with, if I'm counting correctly, sixteen published books to their collective credit deserve a little bit more than a dismissal as "aspiring writers," especially since two of the nominees got longer reviews in the NYTBR than he got last year for Me and Shakespeare. (Granted, Lily Tuck's review was less than fifty words longer, but that counts as far as I'm concerned.)

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