introducing readers to writers since 1995

June 06, 2005

But What About the Panels, You Ask?

by Ron Hogan

After email exchanges spread out over the last few months, I finally met Katharine Weber wandering near the Javits food court Friday afternoon. She gave me a heads-up about the panel she was moderating on Saturday on "making the most of literary awards." Now, the Litblog Co-op doesn't give out awards, of course, but we do single out books and tell people to "Read This!" So I figured I might get some insights--and before the panel got started, I had a brief chat with National Book Foundation director Harold Augenbraum, comparing notes on our treatment at the hands of the New York press. Once the panel got started, Augenbraum answered the initial question--do literary awards matter?--by noting James Wood's observation that "awards are the new reviews," underlining the extent to which awards can get books noticed.

Nicholas Latimer, the publicity director at Knopf, likewise pointed out how houses use awards to define their historical pedigree, and that's one of the reasons he handles the awards submission process himself: "It requires a concerted effort because we don't want a book to fall through the cracks." Barbara Genco of the Brooklyn Public Library added that for children's books, awards are often a guarantee of longevity, particularly in terms of maintained presence in libraries. Rebecca Miller of the National Book Critics Circle said her organization aimed to call attention to literary criticism as well as to the books, and noted that the NBCC awards are judged by "people who are actively engaged with books every day of their lives." Finally, Gerry Quinn, the chairman of the Quills Literacy Foundation, talked about the challenges in creating a new award that would give book publishing "a platform as important as the Emmys or Tonys are to their industries." He was the most overly PR-focused of the panelists, even talking about the plans to "set this brand in motion" through TV and other media to "put publishing on the center stage in the American market." That open ambition might be unsettling to the "pure literature" crowd; in fact, Weber asked him right off if the nomination and selection process, which opens voting up to the general public, might end up ratifying the bestseller list. He left the door open to all sorts of possibilities, pointing out that the intitial nominations come from booksellers who might well be prepared to put forth less prominent titles of literary quality.

Augenbraum also had a marketing twist to announce, as the NBF will soon begin distributing "shelf talkers" (those little cards that hang on the front of your store's shelves) identifying shortlisted titles and winners--and he was open to possible collaboration on that front with the NBCC. Then Weber wondered if all these awards were creating "sticker backlash," a concept most of the panelists rejected. Miller demurred, "There's no way people don't need help making choices," and the different awards simply speak to different audiences. Augenbraum added that backlash only seems to come in when one book wins too many awards, while Latimer spoke semi-jokingly about the problems of having to arrange numerous awards stickers on a winning book. Then Augenbraum circled back to observe that readers love to argue with the shortlist selections--oh, Harold, we feel your pain now!

Earlier that day, I'd been to a Sarah Weinman panel on the mystery and suspense audience--she can tell you all about it. She and I both went to see our blogging comrade Laila Lalami at the "Emerging Voices" panel on Friday afternoon, reading from Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Novels about young single mothers appear to be in, with Maria T. Lennon (Making It Up as I Go Along) and Judy Sheehan (And Baby Makes Two) representing. Old Beatrice friend Damian McNicholl was in the house as well, reading from A Son Called Gabriel, and you really have to keep an eye out for Stephanie Doyon's The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole--it rocks.

One final observation: if you are a writer on a reading panel with more than one other author, do not, under any circumstances, get to the end of your chapter, pause, and then say, "And this is the second chapter," then go on for another 7-10 minutes, especially when your first chapter was a tight little unit all its own. I'm not naming names, and it's nobody above; I'm just laying that out there for future reference.

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