Awaiting the National Book Awards: Best Book or Best Known?

This morning, while bolting down my tea as I contemplated how quickly I could get out this newsletter, I read a story in the New York Times called “Book Awards Seek a Bigger Splash, Red Carpet and All.” The gist: the National Book Awards dinner, to be held this Wednesday, November 14, will be glammed up in an effort to bring the awards ceremony and its celebration of good books back into the spotlight. A few years ago, the dinner was moved downtown to chic Cipriani’s, and numerous events, like an in-demand post-dinner party aimed at the younger set, have been launched successfully. More plans are afoot that could significantly increase the event’s impact.

And I say bravo; anything that gets people to pay more attention to books is good, and we know that in the current hyped-up climate getting people’s attention can be a challenge. Still, a few comments in the story troubled me, and I stopped outright when I read, “Critics had complained that in recent years judges had preferred little-known authors, which diminished the award’s stature.” New instructions are said to have suggested that there was nothing wrong with nominating “widely read authors,” and the Times seemed pleased that the result was “the best-known list of nominees for fiction in years.”

Now wait a minute. This is not an award for the best-known books or authors; for that, just turn to the best sellers list. The National Book Awards, along with other such prizes, is meant to single out the most affecting, most insightful, most significant writing done in America in a given year, letting readers know what they ought to read if they haven’t already. It’s guidance, not a group hug.

So you didn’t read Jesmyn Ward’s astonishing, jaw-dropping Salvage the Bones, last year’s fiction winner? Shame on you, and how insulting to suggest that giving it the award somehow diminished the proceedings. Ward’s book gives context to a shattering national event, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, while offering a sobering look at the little-known lives of rural Southern black—all in clear, beautiful, and exceptionally well-wrought language. It’s important reading.

Before we invited Ward to speak at 2011’s Movers and Shakers Lunch, I passed Salvage the Bones to then LJ editor in chief Francine Fialkoff for her assessment. Like other people with whom I’ve shared that novel, she came back to me with her eyes popping. Trust me, it’s hard to get a reaction like that from Francine, who always takes an admirable (if occasionally maddening) prove-it-to-me stance about anything written. Folks at the lunch gave Ward a standing ovation.

As the Times story said, in the old days the NBAs “spotted and promoted major talents like John Updike and Philip Roth.” That’s exactly right; Updike’s first win was for 1963’s The Centaur, early in his career and after only one “Rabbit” novel; Roth’s first win was for his debut, Goodbye, Columbus. Why can’t Ward, who won for just her second novel, or 2010’s Jaimy Gordon be seen as sharp, significant talent to promote?

Maybe the trouble lies with how the story gets reported, as the media hunt down boldface names as an easy hook. I remember feeling that Gordon’s win for Lord of Misrule got overshadowed in the press by Patti Smith’s for Just Kids—an estimable and exciting book but not the only one with a medal that year. Would it have been too much to highlight Gordon as an exciting novelist to watch—and explain why?

And here’s my final complaint. Smith notwithstanding, the Times story discussed fiction only; and Gordon notwithstanding, it’s usually fiction that grabs the headlines, which is itself slanted. Agreed, I couldn’t hope for mention of poetry, and young people’s seems to exist on another plane, but nonfiction isn’t glamorous? Good luck to the nominees, but whatever books wins, read them because they’re good.




Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Carrie Randall says:

    Well said; thank you. On my way to check out Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

  2. Sally Bissell says:

    Three cheers Barbara! The thought of such a prestigious award going to someone well known simply because he or she is well known? Yikes! Salvage the Bones brought me to my knees. How fortunate we readers are that writers of this caliber, writers who will be able to shock us with their talent for years to come, are discovered through award nominations like the National Book Awards.