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March 10, 2005

LA Times Meets Literati On Their Home Turf

by Ron Hogan

I actually put on a tie last night for the reception announcing the finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, that's how much I wanted to make sure I wouldn't inadvertently get tossed from the National Arts Club before I'd had a chance to mingle with the writers. I spent about an hour catching up with various publicists from houses with nominated authors--and chatting all too briefly with Amanda Stern and Lisa Glatt (who was very good about keeping her nomination for the First Fiction prize a secret from me)--then settled in for the announcements. Times editor John Carroll seemed to lay the idea that the prizes were some sort of cultural defense against the barbarians massing at the gates a bit thick, and I found an early reference to "a tsunami-like torrent of bad goods" rather jarring, but I make up all sorts of motivations to get myself out of bed in the morning, too, and the main thing seemed to be a goal we could all agree on: "affirm[ing] the highest quality of writing in the United States."

Which made the nomination of Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box in the "science & technology" category frankly inexplicable. Especially after a year that saw great science books like Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale, Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open, Diane Ackerman's An Alchemy of Mind, and Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read. Those are just among the science books I read; that somebody who really knows science, as one assumes the nominating judges did, thought Lauren Slater was a better writer than all five of those authors defies rational belief.

That was, however, the only genuine shocker of the evening, unless maybe you were expecting The Plot Against America to get a fiction nod. Roth was shut out, but then so were all five of last year's National Book Award nominees. (For that matter, every NBA nominee, in all categories, seems to have been excluded, unless my memory's shot to hell.) Still, nobody's going to fault a fiction shortlist that includes Chris Abani, Russell Banks, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Toibin, and Joy Williams.

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