A reader writes, apropos of the National Book Awards, but before my first-person account (see immediately below) was posted:
Do you think that personal memoir and narrative nonfiction based on journalistic reconstruction should be in the same category? I suppose that might be like asking whether historical fiction and contempory fiction should be in the same category, yet I can’t help but feel that these forms are very different from one another. I guess this begs the question of what, exactly, is it that you judge when viewing art? Is it the impact upon the viewer/listener/reader? And if the content is inherently more emotional in one work than another, does that skew the comparison? I think, too, of actors. The embodiment of a highly charged character seems to have an edge over a masterful embodiment of a more subtle character, even when I suspect the latter requires much more skill.
Right on all counts, say I. All five of the NBA nonfiction judges were troubled by the fact that we had to render a single judgment on so disparate a group of books, and we have made our feelings known to the powers-that-be at the National Book Foundation. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be a dozen National Book Awards: if there were, nobody would pay attention to them. (It’s hard enough to get the mass media to pay any attention to a literary prize.) Still, disaggregating history from biography, as do the Pulitzer Prizes, seems to me an important step.
On the other hand, to do that would bring us right back to another horn of the dilemma posed by my correspondent. Can you really compare a scholarly biography to a personal memoir? I mean, of course you can, you can compare anything to anything else, but ought they to be considered part of the same category for purposes of prizegiving?
Without telling tales out of school, I can say that my fellow judges and I spent a lot of time talking about precisely these issues. We took them with the highest possible seriousness. But at the end of the day (as they like to say in Washington), we had to perform our assigned task, which wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the National Book Foundation instructed us not to split the first prize between two books. We had to pick one, and we chose Waiting for Snow in Havana. As John Wayne is supposed to have said (though I think the quote is as spurious as “Play it again, Sam”), a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Better one prize than none.