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.


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15 January 2013 | theory |

Amazon’s Deleting Customer Reviews: So?

The New York Times had a story about Amazon.com’s purge of thousands of customer reviews from its website. Apparently, an author’s relatives lack the disinterest necessary for a valid evaluation of a book—but Amazon also doesn’t like to see authors reviewing books by their competitors. At least, that’s the way it seems; the actual process of removing reviews has been handled so nebulously that there’s understandable confusion and frustration about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing, though: People have been giving Amazon their book reviews for nothing. Why are they now so surprised that Amazon treats those reviews as worthless and disposable?

I’m not particularly invested in this subject—the only customer review I can remember writing for Amazon was back when I was still on staff, and a negative review I wrote was rejected as not fitting into the promotional campaign in which the book was included, but I didn’t feel like letting all my work go to nothing, so I put it up myself. Other than that, John Scalzi wrote a post recently that sums up my general feeling about providing content for large corporate websites: “Fuck you. Pay me.” Now, it’s true that Amazon doesn’t actually ask people to write for them for free; instead, people have been volunteering to share their opinions for more than a decade. Why? Because they like to share their opinions? Because they like the validation of having other people say their opinions are smart or helpful? Because they like pissing on the aspirations of creative people?

Those are three reasons; there are others. And, truth be told, those are also three of the reasons that people launch their own websites—sites like Beatrice—and freely share their opinions about books and writers. The difference is that here at Beatrice, I can share what I share, reaping all the non-economic benefits of my sharing (as well as some indirect economic benefits), and I don’t have to worry about somebody else deciding to cut me off because they aren’t getting enough out of what I do.

Look, I’m not a purist in these matters; granted, it’s been a year since I last updated my Goodreads, but that’s mostly because I’ve been too busy, not because I stopped believing in the site. I know Goodreads is making money selling ads next to our reviews and discussions, but I’ve found it useful enough to have the literary opinions of a group of people I trust bundled together that I don’t begrudge the company the revenue that makes such a bundling possible.

At Goodreads, though, it feels like (at least to me) there’s an equal emphasis on discovering people as well as discovering books. Even with the sideshow hoopla of customer review rankings, Amazon’s never felt to me like it cares much whether I find someone with a literary sensibility I trust—the customer reviews serve one purpose, and that’s to persuade me to buy books. (Even negative reviews, which ultimately encourage you to keep looking until you find a book you will like.) To me, Amazon customer reviews are noise, and the opinions of my friends on Goodreads are signal. So I honestly can’t get too worked up about Amazon deleting any number of its customer reviews, because I never really considered them worth anything, either.

24 December 2012 | theory |

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