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Win Some, Lose Some 

City Lights hosted the announcement of the National Book Awards finalists this month. But do book awards even matter?

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
It's never clearer how movies and books exist in alternate universes than during the fall awards season. In the cinematic world, the last few months of the year bring on the Academy Award hyperbole, as the phrases "Oscar-worthy" and "red carpet" get bandied about with increasing regularity. Movie studios small and large bring out their big guns — attempted showstoppers dripping with stars in assumed powerhouse roles — and the newspapers crank up their film coverage in anticipation. For books, though, things are a bit more subdued.

On Oct. 10, the U.K.'s big-deal Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced: Kiran Desai, author of the novel The Inheritance of Loss and the youngest woman ever to win, received $50,000. The Man Booker is Britain's most prestigious prize and known to increase sales — last year's winner, The Sea by John Banville, has sold a quarter of a million copies so far, which isn't bad for a rather snoozy atmospheric novel with a twist ending — but the Chronicle didn't even bother covering this year's contest, and the Examiner ran an Associated Press wire brief. The Quill Awards had their day on Oct. 11, to radio silence from the Chron and some AP stories in the Examiner (it would appear that AP's Hillel Italie writes most of the local dailies' book awards stories). On Oct. 12, the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature was named — Turkey's Orhan Pamuk — to a few quiet stories on NPR and some more AP noodling. The Chron ran a story about the "grousing" that surrounds this "mysterious joke" of a prize, then picked up some pieces from (you guessed it) AP and the Los Angeles Times.

The biggest local occasion was the announcement of the National Book Awards finalists at City Lights on Oct. 11 — the first time that that call had been made from the West Coast in the award's 57-year history. The Chron published our friend Italie on the results, plus a 500-word item by a staff writer (hurrah!) on how the Bay Area was "well represented" among the finalists — because we had three writers (one from Fremont, one from Berkeley, and one from Santa Cruz) in the 20-book mix. Oscar Villalon, the paper's book editor, was at the City Lights event (joking that his khaki pants and sports coat were "really an elaborate jumpsuit; you just can't see the zipper" — presumably he has to make lots of clothing changes, like a live sketch comedy star), but he didn't report on it, not even in the paper's so-called Culture Blog (which, on the day after the announcement, was still talking about the Westfield mall two weeks after it opened).

All of this is to say that, at least in the Bay Area, we don't seem to care much about national and international book awards, even when a whole bunch of big-name local authors show up to a press conference at 9 a.m. to have their photo taken outside a historic indie bookstore.

City Lights' co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti wore a red shirt, a skinny black tie, and jeans, his blue eyes a bit blurry, perhaps due to the early hour (or maybe because he's 87). He had been honored by the organization that oversees the competition, the National Book Foundation, last year with a new prize created just for him, the "Literarian Award"; this year he made a few quick comments before handing the mike over to Paul Yamazaki, a buyer at the store. "It's sort of like we've just been discovered by Magellan or Lewis and Clark," Ferlinghetti said of the awards being held in San Francisco. The first time the explorer came by it had been foggy, he explained, "but it's clear today."

Indeed, it was a gorgeous Indian summer morning when City Lights filled with writers known and unknown. Michelle Tea was there, dazzling in a striped top, plaid skirt, and excellent shoes, her incredible tattoos on full display. S.F.'s poet laureate, Jack Hirschman, looked a little scruffy, but maybe he'd been up all night writing. Ishmael Reed, Anne Lamott, and Barry Gifford joined a group of about 25 fellow authors for a photo in front of the store, an annual tradition at City Lights. Tourists drove and walked by, gawking.

Inside, the NBF's executive director, Harold Augenbraum, explained his respect for this city. He'd gone to a neighborhood coffee shop, he said, where he'd seen a twentysomething patron pull out a copy of Sartre's Nausea — in French. "Where else do you find people talking about great literature?"

But when it came to the "great literature" on display after the announcement, few people had read most or even many of the finalists. In fact, I've read none of them (I'm not proud to admit). Malcolm Margolin, founder of Berkeley's venerable publisher Heyday Books, was unimpressed by the poetry selections — Averno by Louise Glück, Chromatic by H.L. Hix, Angle of Yaw by Berkeley's Ben Lerner, Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey of Santa Cruz, and Capacity by James McMichael. Margolin felt they were "conservative." The nonfiction choices he declared "political," but they were much less so than I'd expected: One was about Iraq (Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City) and one about Al-Qaeda (Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower), but the others covered Martin Luther King Jr. (Taylor's Branch's At Canaan's Edge), the Dust Bowl (Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time), and China (Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones).

The fiction picks did seem a bit obscure to me, which is a common complaint against book awards in general. I'd heard of three of them: Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions (an amazingly designed road trip narrated by two 16-year-olds), Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document (about a '70s radical in hiding), and Ken Kalfus' A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (what the award's press release describes as "a black comedy that follows the unraveling of a marriage in the aftermath of 9/11"). (The other two are Richard Powers' The Echo Maker and Jess Walter's The Zero.) Only Danielewski had already been on my reading list. The one book that got an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd was a "young people's literature" offering: Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival. (Fremont's Gene Luen Yang got the nod for his graphic novel — the first in the award's history — for American Born Chinese.) The winners will be named on Nov. 15 — at a ceremony in New York City, of course.

The selection process for all of these awards seems pretty arbitrary, and even the National Book Awards' Augenbraum acknowledged that he had to persuade people to serve as judges: "No one says, 'Yes, yes, I want to read 300 books in two months over the summer.'" For his award, five judges in each category read a total of 1,259 nominated books — 177 in poetry, 270 in young people's lit, 276 in fiction, and 536 in nonfiction — starting in June. Even for someone who loves books, that schedule is brutal. Back when I was evaluating unpublished novels, I'd sometimes take home eight 250-page manuscripts on a Friday with the intention of delivering my take on Monday. At that rate, you simply have to skim.

Maybe awards don't matter much here because awards don't matter much anywhere, to anyone but the author and his publisher. They do increase sales — it's hard to ignore a shiny sticker on the cover — but they don't inspire a lot of buzz. A Nobel? Ho-hum. The Booker? Blah blah blah. A National Book Award? No time. Oh, but an Oscar? Now that's news.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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