ALA Midwinter: A Modest Notable Books Proposal

Don’t kid yourself; the life of an editor is not all glamor. Sunday evening, I had to leave a HarperCollins dinner early with my dinner in a bag, abandoning an interesting table conversation about the realignment of Barnes & Nobles with the independents, the difficulty of planning book talks at libraries in the brave new print-on-demand world, and the keen reception to Tara Conklin’s sparkling debut novel, The House Girl, because I had a deadline.

My subject: the standing-room-only RUSA Book & Media Awards Reception, held Sunday, January 27, just as the sun was setting. (“Didn’t they used to hold this in a bigger room,” I heard someone say plaintively.) I was pleased, if not surprised, to see Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk among the fiction titles on RUSA’s 2013 Notable Books list, even more pleased to see Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager and Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn—smart, fresh picks, those, though Díaz got the biggest cheer.

And though it is no surprise to see Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity leading off the nicely rounded nonfiction list, Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper (gasps for that), Tanner Colby’s Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, and Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis are all thought-provoking additions.

But just two poetry titles? One of them another translation of Dante’s much-translated Inferno and the other Sharon Olds’s Stag Leap, a well-crafted volume but not Olds’s strongest work? Could the Notable Books committee find no other “very good, very readable, and at times very important” poetry books published last year, to give its own criteria? That can’t be right, because poetry in America today is in fact rich and inventive, speaking with many voices. But it’s treated as if it were unapproachable, and so in fact it is; it’s regarded as on the margins, so that’s where it stays.

As I fumed about this to my poetry buddy, NYPL’s Miriam Tuliao, she made a suggestion that struck me as worth considering. Why not give poetry its own platform at the RUSA Book & Media Awards? After all, genre gets its own “reading list.” There’s a real hunger to learn what’s really worth reading in poetry—LJ’s best poetry lists gets more hits than some of the best genre lists. Poetry now gets lost in the fiction and nonfiction rush; giving it a chance would be a real service.


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. Susan Braun says:

    Sorry I missed you at the LJ booth on Saturday morning! I got an exhibit hall pass for Saturday so I could prowl the publishers’ booths and say hello to LJ. I have been a reviewer for decades and have never met any of you! Hope you have a great conference! I’m a member of SLA, not ALA, so the exhibits were all I could manage.
    Fond regards (and keep the books coming!),

  2. Donna Longo DiMichele says:

    I think your proposal to give poetry its own platform at ALA is terrific! Go for it!