Monday, 24 September 2012

Get Me My Bookie, Quick: Critiquing Literary Awards

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 1990 award winners last week, which reminded me that rare beef—and an equally rare Georges de Boeuf vintage—are not the sort of regimen to put NBCC minds in a state of high readiness. But that was the prologue inflicted on the membership before their panel on “The Theory and Practice of Book Prizes,” at the 1989 meeting, held at New York University’s Loeb Center.

Calorie counts aside, the nutritiousness of the observations was rich enough to justify the travel expenses of the nearly 100 members who attended.

Poet/critic David Lehman keynoted the panel, summarizing the contentiousness of the Big Three—the 60-year-old Pulitzer Prizes, the 40-year-old National Book Awards and the ten-year-old NBCC Citations. The rhetoric unleashed by their ambiguous standards included William Gass’s contention that the Pulitzer-givers had taken dead aim at mediocrity and almost never missed.

Ah, yes, the awards we all love to hate—and still and all, hate not to be loved. Lehman concluded his feisty warm-up by posing the questions he hoped the panel and audience would engage: What is the rationale for book awards? Do they help sell books? Do they change writers’ lives? Who should be eligible? Is controversy inevitable (even useful)? And—asking that the judges be judged—what did the panel think of the NBCC awards?

Pride of place on the panel went—as it should—to Richard Rhodes whose The Making of the Atom Bomb took the Triple Crown in 1987 for non-fiction. If ever a member doubted the usefulness of the awards from the winner’s perspective, Rhodes put their minds at ease.

In the five years he spent making the book, he said, he didn’t think about awards. So he was truly surprised at the NBA nod. The Pulitzer kept his phone off the hook, as old friends and current creditors attempted to cash in on his new cachet.

He amused the jaded crowd with vignettes about a long interview with the New York Times followed by a telegraphic encounter with USA Today’s terse injunction, “How do you feel—in one sentence,” followed by an equally succinct “Thanks.”

But Rhodes attested to how the prizes changed his life—from 20 years of catch-as-catch-can article writing in Kansas City to his new estate in Cambridge as a fellow in the arms-control circles of both Harvard and MIT. And don’t forget the attentiveness of book reviewers to his 1989 book on a Kansas farm family of agricultural achievers with whom he slopped hogs for six months. And all this from a book that’s hardly a best-seller, at 35,000 copies sold.

But better than such megabucks was the new control he gained over his own writing life, preparing to hunker down for a decade to do a two-volume history of the 20th Century, with the empowerment of the people through science and technology as the leitmotif.

Farrar Straus and Giroux vice president Helene Atwan followed, expressing enthusiasm tempered by experience. She averred that the publishing industry loved prizes, wished there were more of them—but also wished they wielded a bigger impact. Surveying a dozen colleagues in the publicity end of publishing, she found that prizes don’t automatically lead to heartening sales booms.

But there have been memorable effects: the escalation of a paperback auction price from $15,000 to $50,000 as the result of an NBCC nomination, the positive impact of college paperback adoptions of prizewinners, the Penguin paperback tour of Larry Heinemen’s Pecos Story, which was going nowhere until he got an award mid-tour.

Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, designated cleanup hitter, argued that though the prizes weren’t perfect and their methodologies could always be fine-tuned, their net effect was one of gain for the book world, writer, reader and publisher. The judging process is heir to all human failings—whim, prejudice, fixation, dislike—but like democracy, though it may be a lousy system, it’s the best we have.

Therefore he greeted the new L.A. Times award as a healthy portent, breaking the East Coast monopoly in the prize-bestowing business. But he was restive about prizes being awarded by large panels with no expertise in a subject like, say, poetry or science—areas where he feels himself a rank amateur.

The free-for-all that followed settled scores, such as the Pulitzers not having the guts to give Thomas Pynchon the prize in 1974, or their feckless lack of judgment in awarding the Big P to Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn in a year that saw the publication of The Sun Also Rises. With no apologies to Richard Nixon, who would these book people have to kick around if there were no Pulitzers?

Yardley reminisced with feeling about the pre-glitz days when you could walk in off the street for $10 to the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall for the awards ceremonies. Yet by 1983, the process had become a holy mess, with 27 awards competing for media attention—and getting none.

The new and better ABA was patterned after the Booker Prize, with a short list to build suspense for the media. Some people present cheered for serious print coverage in “serious” media. Yet even here there were anomalies: USA Today—the butt of choice for most upwardly mobile newspaper readers—has one of the best book pages in the country, with formidable judges like Guggenheiming Joel Connaroe reviewing regularly.

Seriousness can be in the eye of the beholder. Dan Cryer of Newsday repeated the problem of finding a mechanism, say, for processing a dozen poets when most panel members don’t “do” poetry any more.

Another publishing executive argued that NBCC might be putting the horse before the cart by not attending to the 40-60 million illiterates in the country. (Gregory Rabassa recently lamented that you could put all America’s serious readers in one small state, and that one hour of Star Wars research could fund remedial reading courses for 300 illiterates for a year.) On the downside of his ups, Rhodes recounted his sadness at seeing a woman in a bookstore flinch at the periodic table in his text and put his book down for something more flappable.

Richard Rhodes praised Neil Sheehan’s book as the first one to make sense for him of the Vietnam War. He wanted more books like this one that changed out lives, not just runaway best-sellers. A member from the floor chided the pubs for not unleashing ad blitzes to boom the prize winners. Atwan replied that it wasn’t that simple: It cost too much to tout Sheehan’s hard cover; better to wait for the paperback and boost that.

Talk turned to the composition of panels. Sci-fi writer Tom Disch wondered aloud if three-person panels weren’t by definition a cabal. And Carol Renzler told a minatory tale of her involvement in a five-person telephone pane in which the manipulative maneuvers of the chair brought squirms of disgust to the audience.

Liz Bennet of the Houston Post wondered about how one award affected another: Did the Pulitzer affect the NBCC? No, said Lehman, because NBCC precedes the P. The NBA does precede NBCC, but conscientious members keep their own counsel.

Larry Swindell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (and formerly of the Inquirer) advised against conceiving the awards as being in competition with each other. The NBA was instituted in 1949 after years of simmering over the fiction and drama prizes of the Pulitzer.

Edward Giuletto had the last word: Cream rises to the top, and we’re making an affirmation that books and ideas are important to the American culture. Heh, the group seemed to exhale, after one hour and 25 minutes of palaver, “We’ll drink to that.” Which they did—at $20 a pop.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 28, 1990


Here are the National Book Critics Circle winners:

Fiction: Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow
General Nonfiction: The Broken Cord, by Michael Dorris
Biog./Autobiog.: The First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, by Geoffrey C. Ward
Poetry: Transparent Gestures, by Rodney Jones
Criticism: Not by Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History, by John Clive

And here’s who really should have won, says Patrick Hazard:

Fiction: Spartina, by John Casey
General Nonfiction: Barbarian Sentiments, by William Pfaff
Biog./Autobiog.: Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose
Poetry: Collected Poems, by Phillip Larkin
Criticim: Swing Era, by Gunther Schiller

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