Award season is here and along with the celebrations come the mutterings and complaints. This book or that book was overlooked; it was the right author, but the wrong book; this author or that author didn’t deserve their prize. According to a November 12 New York Times article, the National Book Foundation is reviewing changes to its procedures in order to “create more splash” and in particular to address criticisms that “in recent years judges had preferred little-known authors, which diminished the award’s stature.”
This familiar complaint is always something of a surprise. For the link between literary merit and sales has always been tenuous at the best of times. And don’t we already have the bestseller lists and Nielsen BookScan for sales and rankings? Surely we want our literary prizes to reflect the independent judgments of an informed team who have read the nominated books closely and considered each book on its own merits, irrespective of sales history?
All year long, the media are full of reviews, profiles, and advertisements promoting books and authors, and “big publishers” with “big books” by “big-name authors” get the lion’s share of attention. The annual national awards provide an opportunity to audit the year’s books and to come up with lists that either echo the year’s noise and/or illuminate books that for whatever reason have remained under the mainstream radar. The element of surprise and discovery, we would argue, is absolutely part of the value of these awards.
At Coffee House Press and Graywolf Press, we have been very fortunate to have had four books (two fiction, one poetry, and one nonfiction) between us named as finalists for the National Book Award in the past five years. Other smaller publishers, such as Bellevue, Copper Canyon, and McPherson & Co., have also had books selected. We think this is in part because many authors and agents who used to find homes at larger houses are now knocking on our doors. Literary fiction and poetry, as everyone knows, are among the hardest books to sell, so in many cases, a smaller house is the only outlet. They are also, in some cases, the best books published in a given year.
Awarding prizes based on sales is necessarily backward looking. However, we would hope that the NBA and other prizes would continue to have the confidence to be forward looking. Take the example of Salvatore Scibona. His novel, The End, was named a finalist in 2008 and at the time had only sold a few thousand copies, and review coverage had been thin. But the NBA judges recognized the novel’s richness, and since that nomination Scibona went on to win the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, a Whiting Award, and a Guggenheim Award, and he was selected as one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40.” What may have looked like an idiosyncratic choice at the time subsequently came to seem prescient. We wonder how well first books by Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and James Joyce would be selling in today’s (and even in yesterday’s) marketplace, and would like to imagine the possibility that the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award committees could pick out today’s equivalents if they were on a small-press list or were underperforming on a larger publisher’s list.
The New York Times article went on to report that the NBA wants to model itself on the Man Booker Prize. But of course, that prize is not immune from causing disappointment either. Remember the ruckus when Howard Jacobsen won? The Booker Prize does not always pick the big book of the year. It identified Life of Pi by Yann Martel from independent publisher Canongate at a time when neither had the reputation they have now. This year, Zadie Smith’s new novel was overlooked.
The fact is, it is impossible to come up with objective criteria for picking the winners. There are always going to be surprises and omissions. We have to celebrate if we are selected and not criticize the prize if we’re overlooked. At Coffee House and Graywolf, we set great store by these annual awards. Being present with our authors for an NBA dinner is a highlight of any publishing year. We wait anxiously in October to hear if one of our authors will be a finalist. We are sometimes not on the lists. This doesn’t change our belief in these books or our commitment to these authors. For whatever reason, the judges this year weren’t a good match. Maybe next year.
Sure, overhaul the process a bit, introduce long lists, increase the glam and the glitz—we want these books, authors, editors, agents, and publishers to be royally celebrated—but keep the playing field level. The wins taste sweeter for it.
Chris Fischbach is publisher of Coffee House Press and Fiona McCrae is publisher of Graywolf Press.