The Problem with Book Awards [Why America Sucks, Part Infinity]

Late last night, I came across this article about a new book award—one to reward innovative writing:

[In reference to all the other book awards out there—Man Booker, Costa, IMPAC, Women’s Prize for Fiction, etc.] Enough to be going on with? Well, no. Not just because there can never be too many literary prizes (it’s a profession with precious few bonuses), but because the brief of all existing prizes is to seek out “the best” or “most promising”, rather than to highlight what’s innovative, ground-breaking, iconoclastic – fiction at its most novel. This is why Goldsmiths College, where I work part-time as a creative writing tutor, has just launched a new £10,000 prize, in association with the New Statesman.

The new fiction prize will go to a book that celebrates the spirit of invention and characterises the genre at its most surprising. Drawing up a description was tricky, not least because we wanted to avoid the word “experimental”, which no one seems to like any more. It’s easier to list the sort of writers who might have won the prize had it been around in recent years: David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, Geoff Dyer and Tom McCarthy come to mind.

Further back, in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses would have been battling it out with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – whereas in 1962, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange might have edged out Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. And Julian Barnes might have got it for Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, a quarter of a century before he won the Booker.

For anyone even halfway excited by this, you should go read the full article. The reference to Tristram Shandy is sure to give you a thrill, as is the bit about not excluding “hybrid” books:

[T]he prize won’t want to ignore is the number of texts that mix fiction with non-fiction. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is a good example. And then there’s WG Sebald, whose books blur the distinction between fiction, memoir and history, and who once compared his method to that of a dog running through a field – there might be nothing systematic or plottable, but he got where he needed to by following his nose.

Yes. Fuck and YES.

The one thing that breaks my heart about this prize is that it’s for “UK and Ireland residents only.” Why can’t America—home to any number of “innovative” writers, from David Markson to David Foster Wallace to Shelley Jackson to Lydia Millet—sponsor such an award? I have my (anti-capitalist) suspicions as to why something like this is pretty unlikely, but before laying out my biases and disgust, let’s take a look at the new format of the National Book Awards.

On January 15th, the National Book Foundation announced a few changes to the NBA’s, one of the three most important book awards in the U.S. (along with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Awards):

One change in the process will increase the number of honored books by selecting a “Long-List” of ten titles in each of the four genres, to be announced five weeks before the Finalists Announcement. In 2013, the Long-Lists will be announced on September 12th (forty titles), the Finalists on October 15th (twenty titles) and the National Book Award Winners on November 20th (four titles.) [. . .]

In addition, judges comprising the four panels—Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature—will no longer be limited to writers, but now may also include other experts in the field including literary critics, librarians, and booksellers. The number of judges in each panel will remain at five.

These are both pretty fantastic changes that I whole-heartedly approve of . . . at least on the surface. I love “longlists” (see our own Best Translated Book Awards) since they provide readers with a slightly wider range of titles to check out, adds an extra round of excitement to the awards process.

Ditto for the expansion to include critics, librarians, and booksellers. Authors (who have been the only group to comprise the judging panels for years now) are great, but in my experience, there are tons of critics, librarians, and booksellers who are much better readers, and more well-read, than a standard author. This isn’t to slight authors (at least not most of them), but they’re spending time working on creating, whereas these other groups are readers first . . . Point being, I think this should be great for the award as well. (And maybe, just maybe, someday I could make it onto one of these judging panels, which would be probably the Greatest Thing Ever.)

But wait! All’s not perfect in book paradise—there are cracks in the press surrounding these NBA changes that make me sick and hateful. Just check these bits from the AP story:

[Grove/Atlantic CEO Morgan] Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

“I think there are plenty of awards that recognize those kinds of books,” Entrekin said. “If one of those books is truly the best book of the year, that’s no problem. But it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors.” [. . .]

“We’re asking people to read a lot of books, but some of these librarians and booksellers we hope to bring in are reading a lot of books anyway,” Entrekin said.

Oh no, you didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t just say that. “Very eccentric”? “Little more mainstream”? And what do you think “mainstream” means exactly? There are really only two interrelated definitions: 1) more people read this, hence more popular or “mainstream,” and 2) more people know about it because it made lots of money. And those things have to do with something being the “best” book how exactly?

Way-too-obvious-to-waste-time-on-side-rant: America is The Worst for trying to equate popularity with quality. We do it over and over and over again and it drives basically everyone with taste nuts. And we lament it and gripe, but can’t really seem to do much of anything, since the system—those producing, promoting, and determining our tastes subtly and not-so—has all them money and power and influence.

OK, here’s another interesting quote:

“Our mission is to celebrate literature and expand its audience and we chose the path most consistent with our mission,” said David Steinberger, chairman of the foundation’s board and CEO of the Perseus Books Group.

I totally agree with the National Book Foundation’s mission to expand the audience for literature in all sorts of ways. Beyond the awards, the NBF—run by the brilliant and perceptive Harold Augenbraum, who I respect as much as any other person working at a literary organization anywhere in the world—runs a slew of really amazing programs, such as the Innovations in Reading awards, 5 Under 35, and BookUp, all of which are aimed at preserving and expanding our book culture.

But the awards are the main thing everyone knows about, and the balance that has to be kept between rewarding great literature and expanding readership may be getting a little bit tainted . . . (Here comes my paranoid of the military-industrial-complex bit.)

Did you notice anything about the two National Book Foundation members quoted above? One is the CEO of a very well-respected, and relatively large, international publishing house (Grove/Atlantic). The other is CEO of another large(ish) book publishing group (Perseus Book Group) that happens to own the distribution company (Perseus Distribution) responsible for selling Grove’s books.

I don’t necessarily care about that connection—this is publishing after all, a pretty incestuous and well-knotted industry—but about the fact that it’s these for-profit, pro-sales organization heads who are determining the shape of this very respectable award.

Just look at which companies are represented on the Board of Directors: Perseus Books Group, Grove/Atlantic, John Wiley & Sons, Google, Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble, Penguin Group USA, W.W. Norton & Co., Random House, and Janklow & Nesbit. This is quite a heavy hitting board—as it should be—made up of some very influential and brilliant people. People who have a lot invested in creating an award that would benefit their bottom line.

See! Paranoid. But read this quote in context of what I just wrote above:

Board members had come to feel that the awards needed a model more like that of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary honor, which is more integrated into popular literary culture.

“When a book is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it sells another 50,000 copies,” Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press and vice chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board, told The New York Times last November. “It can transform the fate of a book.”

So what exactly is the mission of the National Book Award? To honor the best works of the past year by American writers, or create a system by which you can sell more copies of more “mainstream” works? If it’s the latter, then fuck it, this award is dead to me, and I’d cut it if I could.

But maybe these quotes are somehow taken out of context? Let’s look at the past few recipients of the NBA for Fiction:

2012: Louise Erdrich, The Round House (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
2011: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA)
2010: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
2009: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
2008: Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
2007: Denis Johnson , Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
2006: Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
2005: William T. Vollmann Europe Central (Viking)
2004: Lily Tuck, The News from Paraguay (Harper)
2003: Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

So, over the past ten years, with the exception of McPherson & Co., and to a lessor extent, Bloomsbury USA, the winning book has been awarded to one of the Major Corporate Publishers. What exactly did Entrekin mean by stating that the selections have been “very eccentric” and that it was less likely with these changes that a collection of short stories from a university press would be on the list?

OK, not to draw this out too much, but to build up to my final condemning point, we first have to look at the complete list of “small” or “independent” or “university” presses with books on the finalists list for fiction over the past five years: McSweeney’s Books, Bellevue Literary Press, Lookout Books (which is part of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and the book in question—Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision—_is_ a collection of short stories), McPherson & Co., Coffee House Press, Wayne State University Press (on there for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, which, yes, is a collection of short stories), and Graywolf Press.

In the greater scheme or things, that’s not terrible for the non-corporate presses of the world . . . Our of 25 finalists from the past five years, 7 were from this “second-tier” of publishers.

One last thing worth noting: The Lookout Books book that was a finalists—Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision—actually won the NBCC for fiction that year. How “eccentric” of a choice for an award honoring the “best” of American writing is that, really? Fucking crazy that authors and critics would both reward a book that certain publishers didn’t publish because they didn’t think it would be commercial successful. (And didn’t think it would win any major award.)

OK. Point being that if you tie all of Entrekin’s quotes together along with a cursory look at recent finalists, it’s clear (to me) that what he wants is a longlist of 10 titles that may include some of these “eccentric” small press books. But that these would be weeded out before announcing the finalists, which would then go on to sell 50,000 copies a piece—sales figures that commercial presses clearly deserve, since this is sort of their award . . . And that the winner would be even more mainstream that Louis Erdich, Richard Powers, Colum McCann?

(That’s one thing that totally scares me. These are all fine writers with sold literary credentials—McCann and Powers more than Erdich, but still—what would a “more mainstream” list of winners look like? Clearly J-Franz would be on there. Do we need an award that focuses on writers less literary/more mainstream than these? No. Absolutely not.)

As much as Entrekin retracts these statements (and don’t get me wrong, Morgan is brilliant and an awesome publisher and person who has done more for literature—especially literature in translation—than most anyone else), I think the tracks have been laid and that the NBA is going to move from an award honoring “writer’s writers” that deserve respect and readers and money, to an award helping generate revenue for commercial publishers. And that makes me puke in my mouth.

In other words, GO UNITED KINGDOM! Until they totally cock it up, this Goldsmiths Award is The Greatest. (Well, that and the NBCCs which, once again, have a really great group of finalists for this year’s award.)

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