Sometimes Feelings of Inadequacy Contain Useful Information

I spent nine hours on Saturday in a conference room in New York with fellow members of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, discussing last year's titles and voting on the lists of finalists. It was a spirited and at times very contentious process. I served on three committees covering various categories, plus chairing the one for the Balakian. Nobody gets paid for serving on the NBCC board and it demands a tremendous amount of work. We have two marathon argument meetings a year. Of course I don't agree with all of the results. But it's worth it, for some reason I can't quite put into words.

Then again it isn't necessary to do so, because I see that one blogger has figured it all out:

The finalists for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced Saturday night in New York. Once again, the titles that made NBCC's final cut seem to comprise a list more intended to make a small group of people feel erudite rather than making a large group feel passionate about books and reading.

Man, it's like she was a fly on the wall! That is all we ever talk about.

We spend months and months looking for books to make ourselves feel erudite, of course, but that's the easy part. Then we have to make sure no titles get through that might make someone feel passionate about books and reading.  That happened one year and the whole board felt just terrible about it.

Making sure that mistake is not repeated is not easy. At the face-to-face meetings, it brings out the worst in us. Things get ugly at times.

"I can't believe you want to nominate something that will make a large group feel passionate about books and reading!" someone will hiss, between sips of tea and bites of crumpet. "What are you, Oprah?" Sometimes, in response, crumpets and tea cups are thrown. By the time announcements were made on Saturday night, three people were limping from shrapnel; one lost the use of her right eye. (I believe this was the worst year on record for casualties.)

But keeping "a large group from feeling passionate about books and reading" is a struggle, and you know when you enlist that you might not survive every battle.

On reflection, I'm not sure I should publish this; someone will take it literally.

For the record: The arguments over books during the meetings I have attended never address the response of the public at all. They are always about the qualities of the books as such. That is what makes the debates so intense. It is hard to make comparative assessments in the first place, let alone to respond to challenges to how adequately you've characterized a given book -- and all of it while the clock is ticking.

Maybe we should try to get a reality TV show out of this.

PS. Note that the blogger offers no grounds whatsoever for implying that the NBCC finalists would not appeal to "a large group" of readers. The logic here (if you want to call it one) is that since the titles don't spark immediate recognition in one person's mind, they must have been selected by a cultural elite to snub the hoi polloi. This is the literary equivalent of Palinism.(How's that for an oxymoron?)
January 25, 2010 7:08 AM | | Comments (6)

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6 Comments

Scott,
If it mitigates your irritation any, you should know that the nomination of Eula Bliss's book in the criticism category is going to cause me to buy it. I had seen someone raving about it online months ago, but I'd completely forgotten the author and title; now I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

By the way, I've seen that people are commenting on the fact that the list of fiction finalists has not one author on it who is a white male. Evidently this is a big deal. Maybe so, but to best of my knowledge it never came up.

I did step out for a minute during the fiction deliberations to buy a Payday bar from the vending machine around the corner from the meeting room. Perhaps the question of pale male representation was hashed out during that minute? But otherwise I feel confident in saying it wasn't discussed.

Anyone not involved in the process may have a hard time grasping just how focused it is on the books themselves. I certainly could not have imagined it before getting on the board.

I'm curious: Was the eye injury caused by a hurled tea cup or crumpet? You'd think cup, but an especially crusty crumpet can be dangerous as well. I suggest goggles be worn during future discussions.

Yes, quite right -- the temporary blinding was a product of the crumpets being stale. This put everyone in a bad mood, of course, but it was good for the polemical spirit.

I wonder if "Linda" lives in Brooklyn.

And as someone who's been yodeling about *Wolf Hall* and *chronic,* I'm glad both survived the stale crumpets to make the final cut.

Actually, when I speak to classes about reviewing and when I serve on awards committees, I often make the case that one of a critic's great pleasures -- not a necessary function, but a pleasant reward -- is shining some small bit of attention on a work that, lacking massive corporate marketing or popular media fervor, might otherwise go under-noticed. I do not hold that being 'obscure' (to pluck a term from your recent bookforum article) is a sign of true worth. But when it's undeserved, it's gratifying to combat it -- in what little way we can.

Also, the fact is, "Wolf Hall" is a tremendous novel that has elicited a passionate response from elitist critics and reg'lar folk alike. The blogger must be living on the far side of Danielle Steele to think it highfalutin and unknown. It's currently #29 on the Times hardcover bestseller list.

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