There is a great editorial by Elinor Lipman in this week’s Publishers Weekly on the broken, biased system in place for the selection of the National Book Award. I have never made it a secret that I loathe the process we have accepted for the selection of major book awards, but I’ve never been able to put it so eloquently as Ms. Lipman has. Here’s her Soapbox.
When the NBA judges were announced last year, I dismissed Lipman as a “moderately respectable” author of “ladies’ fiction”. I take the “moderately” part back and offer my humble apology – (I still think she writes “ladies’ fiction”) – because it’s refreshing to hear an insider get upset over the way things work in the industry. No one wants to listen to the crazy, profanity-prone blogger from Southern California, but people read PW – and, I will begrudgingly admit, they also read Elinor Lipman. Essentially, she calls for anonymity in the process – something that is, shockingly, not already in place. Her idea would be to simply have publishers submit title-less, author-less, 50 page manuscripts – no finished copies, not bound galleys – in an attempt to get the judging panels to just shut up and read. The 50-page element is especially intriguing – if you’re not falling over yourself in love with a book by the fiftieth page, it is simply not worthy of the National Book Award. The elimination of bias would be a breath of clean, cool air to a stuffy, dank process – no longer would judges consider or dismiss on the basis of the author’s name recognition, bestselling status, or because they “looked rich” in their jacket photo. Petty attitudes like these should be shelved if you’re on the selection committee for a major award – there’s no denying the purchasing power of those little stickers that get put on the jackets once an award is bestowed. Does anyone think the sales for The White Tiger and Shadow Country would be half of what they are without their respective awards? Hell, five minutes before I left work on Thursday I had a customer ask me for some paperback Pulitzer winners for her upcoming plane ride. She dismissed a signed copy of People of the Book by former Pulitzer-winner Geraldine Brooks simply because it wasn’t the book she won the award for and thus did not have the Pulitzer sticker on the jacket. (She may have settled for the Aravind Adiga, so all is not lost.)
Maybe that sort of buying attitude is naive and foolish, but it’s not going anywhere – this is how people buy books. They listen to Oprah, they read the NY Times reviews, and they look over the stacks at Costco for the little golden stickers. The least we can do is offer them an unbiased, evenhanded assessment of what the best books culled from the herd actually are. Having this sort of “blind taste test” for award selection would, hopefully, lead fools like NYT’s Sam Tanenhaus to never again select 90% of the year’s best books from one single publishing house or for the NBA judges to give Peter Matthiessen an award for 15-year old material that he probably should have won the first time around. Maybe this attitude is, in and of itself, naive of me – it’s never going to be a perfect system across the board, for all major awards and I realize that, but it does beg reform.
*Please note, this mild rant has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that David Benioff, author of City of Thieves, was snubbed by every major award panel, as well as the New York Times Notable list in 2008 because he’s married to a Holywood starlet and he wrote the screenplay for Troy. Nothing at all. (Prove them all wrong by meeting Mr. Benioff on Saturday, April 18th at 7:30pm at Warwick’s in La Jolla, CA.)