Everybody in the blogosphere seems to have something to say about this year’s National Book Award fiction nominees (Our Girl weighed in last week, and Maud links to some of the latest reactions here). I’ve said nothing, for the very good reason that I haven’t read any of the novels in question, nor am I familiar with the past work of any of the authors. Nor have I said anything about this year’s nonfiction nominees, for the equally good reason that I was one of the five judges on last year’s panel. To comment on the work of my successors would be just plain rude.
Having said all that, I confess to being puzzled by certain aspects of the ongoing hoopla. Maud also links to MobyLives’ speculative spoof about the thinking of a prominent member of the fiction panel:
I slapped him hard across the face. It was enjoyable so I did it again. “Snap out of it!” I told him. “Now start from the beginning. What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know!” he cried. “I thought we were doing what they said. I mean, they said not to pick more than one token book from a small or independent press, because that would decentralize power and be good for the book business on the whole, which they just can’t have, because everybody knows that diversity just blows…”
Once again, I have no opinion about any of this. I don’t know Rick Moody or any of the other fiction judges, nor do I have any continuing contact with the National Book Foundation. (Once you’ve served as a judge, you’re never asked to do so again.) Still, I can’t help but recall the experience of picking last year’s nonfiction winner, which I described in this space shortly after the fact:
We considered 436 books (some of them very, very briefly, but they all got talked about at some point in the past few months). We never raised our voices, never argued with one another, never got angry. Our deliberations were civilized, collegial, and great fun. When we met yesterday afternoon to make our final selection, it was the first time all five of us had been in the same room at once–we mostly deliberated via e-mail and in conference calls–and the atmosphere, far from being tense, was positively festive.
What we didn’t do was engage in horsetrading or logrolling, speculate on how our picks would be received by the literary community, or attempt to Make a Statement. I don’t mean to sound like Pollyanna in Bookland–I know such things do happen, and always will–but in our case they didn’t, period. We simply tried to choose a wide-ranging slate of worthy nominees, and to pick from them the one book we thought best.
Perhaps we missed a bet, since neither our nominees nor our final selection attracted more than a modest amount of attention from the press. All anybody seemed to want to do was talk about Stephen King and Shirley Hazzard. Nevertheless, we thought we did a good job. To be sure, Carlos Eire may not have been on the literary world’s collective lips in the wake of our deliberations, but my guess is that Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy will be read and remembered long after the current controversy over the NBA fiction nominees is filed and forgotten.
I think we did our job the way such jobs ought to be done, and I like to think that’s the way most literary judges endeavor to go about their difficult business. Don’t ask me, though: I’d never before served on such a panel, nor have I since. Maybe we were all Pollyannas.