Did the National Book Awards Need Fixing?

In recent years, the National Book Awards have come under a heavy amount of public criticism for the books they’ve proposed as the most outstanding in American letters in a given year. The criticism is almost exclusively aimed at the fiction selections, with the general thrust being that the writers who are appointed to the selection jury have some sort of elitist writerly criteria for picking precious, obscure books rather than books that ordinary people might have heard of. I’ve never gone in for that reasoning, and I’ve always value the perspective of the NBA juries—I may be fairly well-read by most statistical standards, but I know I’m barely skimming the surface of what’s available, so as far as I’m concerned calling my attention to excellent books I might have missed is a fine thing.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I’m friendly with several folks at the National Book Foundation as well as outspokenly sympathetic to their aims, to the point where I’ve contributed to their website.)

Now, there have been some changes in the NBA selection process, which in and of themselves are not so remarkable or unsettling. In fact, putting literary critics on the selection juries is actually a return to the way things used to be, as Foundation director Harold Augenbraum notes in the press release—in an ideal world, his prediction that “by enlarging the judging pool new and exciting voices will again deepen and enrich the process” is absolutely on target. Likewise, announcing preliminary ten-book “longlists” for each of the NBA categories a month before the traditional five-book finalist announcements, could well be an opportunity to expand the conversation around those books.

It’s when the rationale for these changes is elaborated to the media that I start to feel less enthusiastic; specifically, the remarks by Foundation board member Morgan Entrekin (who’s also the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and—again, full disclosure—somebody I’ve always respected and been delighted to run into as one does in the not-so-large world of mainstream book publishing) essentially conceding that the fiction shortlists have been “very eccentric” and affirming that the goal of a wider slate of candidates is to make the lists “a little more mainstream,” reducing the possibility that the award would go to what he seems to dismissively refer to as “a collection of stories from a university press.” (Two such books have actually been nominated in recent years, with Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.) As far as he’s concerned, there’s plenty of prizes for books like that; the National Book Awards, he seems to suggest, should be about something bigger.

When Entrekin tells the Associated Press “it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors,” he is exactly buying in to the attacks that have been levied against the awards, and that’s a damn shame. Mainstream book critics and book publishers liked to snipe at NBA shortlists that didn’t validate their opinions on what constituted significant literature, but they already had their own forms of validation. Book critics have the National Book Critics Circle awards, and book publishers? Their reward for publishing literature that appeals to mainstream audiences is that it sells.

Perhaps it’s also worth noting that therehas been an attempt, within the last decade, to create a literary award that aligned neatly with mainstream values and sensibilities. It was called the Quills, and it only lasted three years because, ultimately, its contributions to American literary culture were minimal at best—it was hard enough to find people in publishing who really cared about them as anything more than a potential bullet point on a marketing plan, and people outside publishing? Forget it. (A Quill didn’t even really work as a marketing asset, perhaps because so many of the books they selected had already found their audiences.) The comparison isn’t entirely fair, as the Quills were explicitly consumer-oriented, while the National Book Awards are explicitly modeling themselves on Britain’s Man Booker Prize—to the extent that Entrekin concedes “we just basically borrowed some of their ideas.”

As I say, I like the National Book Awards, and the people behind them, a lot, and I believe in what they’re doing. I agree that it’d be a fantastic thing to raise their profile, and I would hope that creating another publicizable moment around the announcement of a “longlist” helps do that. What I would hate to see, however, is for this attempt to make the National Book Awards “a little more mainstream” to undercut the sensibilities that have guided the juries’ selections over the years—that sensibility that allows five people to spend the year surveying the breadth and depth of American literature, and tell us about five books that they’ve found genuinely outstanding—whether or not anybody else has heard of those books before.

I don’t want the National Book Awards to become an opportunity for commercial book publishers to pat themselves on the back for publishing commercial books, and I believe that isn’t what the people I know there want, either. (And I sure as heck know it’s not likely to be what the juries want.) Today, it feels like there’s some risk that these developments aren’t so much an “evolution” in the Awards as an unfortunate concession to criticisms that can, and should, be forcefully challenged. I’m going to cross my fingers that we see those challenges reflected in the longlists that come out in the fall of 2013.

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15 January 2013 | theory |