If it's fall, it must be book awards time. Early October saw the Nobel in literature go to Doris Lessing (and a share of the Peace Prize to activist/author Al Gore); last week was the awarding of the Quills and the Whiting Writers Awards.
Coming up: the National Book Awards, the NBCC nominations and, in the spring, the Pulitzers.
But if it's the time of year to give out awards, it's also the time to start wondering just why we do it, and whether or why we should care. Do book awards sell books? Most book people will tell you they don't, but they do raise “awareness” of certain titles, which may, some day in the future, lead to greater sales for that author. (Or, some agents tell me, awards give them leverage to parlay into larger advances on the author's next work.) But if book awards don't influence readers, at least not initially, there's one group of people they make plenty anxious and ultimately happy: the many authors who hope to get—and the few who win—them.
But some also make other book folk glad. I loved, for example, that Michael Weinreb's book about competitive chess, The Kings of New York, took the sports Quill last week, and not just because I am generally mainstream-sports challenged (except for tennis). It made me feel good because when we at PW picked it as a nominee, this interesting and insightful title on a little-explored “sport” seemed like a long shot. The Quills voters saw it as a winner, which was validation. Ditto the Whiting Awards, which are intended for “emerging writers” and, not incidentally, carry a $50,000 prize—useful, indeed, for writers who are struggling to make their mark. That most of us had never heard of some of them is actually the point, and the Whiting people are smart to let it be known that one-time winners grow up to be such “name” authors as Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides and Denis Johnson.
So despite our grumbling, there is value to some book awards, not least because they get us talking. Come on, admit it, you may complain about having to put on black tie and eat rubber chicken at events, but that's a small price to pay for the real fun, which, at PW (and I bet in most publishing houses), is the pre-game banter and handicapping. We've spent many a meeting around here arguing, for example, about whether Denis Johnson is going to win the NBA for fiction for his weighty Vietnam tome, or whether it will go to Junot Díaz for his delightful Oscar Wao. (When the Mann Booker shortlist was announced a while back, I was furiously Blackberrying from out of town with my colleagues over who would win. I voted for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I was fundamentally wrong.)
So that's why we're starting a new feature this week, in which we ask our readers to go online and vote for who they think will win the NBA; we're calling it Betting on Books, even though there's no scratch involved. We'll keep a running tally of your votes and compare them both to our vote and to the winners when they're announced on November 14. The prize? As I said, no money will change hands. But no matter: the person or people who get it closest to right will have the intangible pleasure of knowing they had their fingers on the pulse of publishing today.
And that, as we all know, is no small accomplishment.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson