The announcement of the National Book Award nominees in the U.S. has already prompted much “and you are…?” head-scratching. Now, prize-spotters have moved from confusion to anger, documented in this New York Times story.
Absent from the fiction shortlist were big names like Philip Roth, whose The Plot Against America has benefitted from a staggering amount of press. Instead, nominees included titles like Christine Schutt’s Florida, published by TriQuarterly Books and Northwestern University Press, which has sold about 150 copies.
Among the outraged industry observers are Time Warner chair Larry Kirschbaum (“We are completely closing ourselves off from the culture at large”) and agent Esther Newberg (“We are not helping the book business this way”). The idea that literary excellence has any relation to mass-market culture, or that an award should primarily be a promotional vehicle, are highly debatable contentions, but Times reporter Edward Wyatt doesn’t find anyone willing to take up the counterpoint. In fact, he seems to share the industry concerns, writing, “It is not clear that literature benefits when one of its signal awards involves only books read by a few hundred people.”
Interestingly, no one suggests that lesser-known authors should not be considered for the award — after all, that would be churlish. Apparently the problem arises only when they actually have a chance of winning.