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What Does the National Book Award Stand For? What Should It Stand For?

In 1950, the first National Book Awards were held in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. The idea for the ceremony was cooked up as a joint effort between the American Book Publisher's Council, the Book Manufacturers' Institute and the American Booksellers' Association — a public, unabashedly glamorous way to anoint and honor the nation's brightest literary talents. That first year, Nelson Algren won for fiction with his novel The Man with the Golden Arm.

If you've never heard of Algren, don't fret. His work, though considered by scholars to be some of the strongest to come out of the early post-war years, has largely fallen out of cultural circulation. Algren's winning book told the story of a WWII vet who succumbs to the seedy world of card-dealing and morphine in Chicago. Though the novel was controversial upon publication for its romanticizing of a city's underbelly, it was not obscure in its own time or a sleeper hit. It even became a film starring Frank Sinatra.

This year's National Book Award will be announced November 16. The nominations have been unveiled, and sleeper hits abound. In the fiction category, only Tea Obreht's wonderful debut, The Tiger's Wife, hit bestseller lists. The other four nominees — Julie Otsuka's Buddha in the Attic,Andrew Krivak's The Sojourn,Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, and Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision-- are beautiful pieces of work, but not strong sellers or even part of the mainstream literary conversation. (And even that mainstream conversation is pretty ... fringe, on the whole.) Only three of the nominees (Obreht, Otsuka, Pearlman) earned reviews in the New York Times,and only one (Obreht) was interviewed on a national NPR program this year.

If the National Book Award nominating committee serves to shine a light on the year's most worthy novels, then it would seem that the literary establishment — us included — really dropped the ball.

But did we? And that's where the arguing comes in.

As soon as the nominations came out, critics and commentators took to Twitter to bemoan or champion the choices. This happens every year, but this year, the peanut gallery seemed to take on a new vehemence. The frustration was channeled into Laura Miller's Salon piece, "How the National Book Awards Made Themselves Irrelevant." Miller has been decrying the creeping outsider choices of the NBA for years, but she finds this year's fiction titles "undiscovered" to the extreme. People expected to see a nod to at least one of the year's bigger titles — Ann Patchett's State of Wonder,Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding or Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot — but there was only the hat-tip to Obreht's success.

As Miller writes, "Whatever policy each panel of judges embraces, over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of 'writer's writers,' authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside."

No one is going to turn down a National Book Award — the silver sticker on a cover can move serious copies — but beyond sales boosts, what does winning actually mean for a writer? In the past, the NBAs have vaunted literary talent to the forefront: Sontag, Faulkner, Stegner, Styron, O'Connor, Roth, Proulx. Jonathan Franzen won ten years ago, a push towards his superstar status today. But the honor has produced just a handful of breakout names — Julia Glass, Colum McCann, Charles Frazier, Ha Jin — in the last 20 years. Does winning mean you wrote the best book of the year? Or just the best book most people haven't read?

So, the crossroads: Do we want the National Book Award to be more like the Oscars of the book world, or more like the Independent Spirit Awards? Is the silver sticker meant to push an under-the-radar title forward, or should it simply be a beacon to readers regardless of the attention a book has already received?

The judging panel might argue that the missions are one and the same and awards are given without regard to sales. But influence is influence. If you have it, wield it with an idea of what it can do.

In these tough publishing times, any award can change a book's life; even books that are already thriving. When Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squadwon the Pulitzer, it was already a runaway critical hit and a bestseller in hardcover. But the post-prize paperback still moves so many copies that it has remained in Amazon's top 200 for almost a year.

But if the idea is to help lesser-known books and authors, the NBA isn't pulling Pulitzer weight. Jaimy Gordon won in 2010 for her Lords Of Misrule, but Vintage released a reprint of her Bogeywomanin September that entered the landscape with only the tiniest of ripples. Her hot moment seems to have come and gone within months.

Of course, there's also an argument that the idea isn't merely to help lesser-known books, but books whose paths run unfairly uphill. This is the argument that would point out how many amazing books are written and passed over in this country every year due to the pandering tastes of big houses and structural discrimination — especially a problem for books written by women and people of color. White guys dominate bestseller lists and book review sections, and the awards are as public a venue as any to set the record straight and equal the playing field.

But this, too, brings us back to how much an award should have settling scores as its primary mission. Some of those white guys, as privileged and establishment-friendly as they are, write phenomenal books. When awards start Robin Hooding on principle, can they remain credible?

There are book lovers — including me — who would love to see more glitz and star power added to publishing; it would be thrilling to see our big event broadcast somewhere, or even to see it become as big as the Emmys. It's a pipe dream, of course — literary fiction is far removed from the watercooler (a Franzen joke on Parks and Recreationlast season felt like a tiny miracle). But focusing recognition on lesser-known titles can isolate fiction even further.

There's no doubt that small, independent books need recognition, but that's a change of mission for awards originally devoted to simply choosing the most accomplished American title of the year — which, after all, might be a best-seller. Obscurity and greatness don't have to be the same thing. There are always gems that fall through cracks, but there are also plenty of truly brilliant books that readers find on their own.

So what do you think? What should the NBA stand for in the future? Would you like to see it reflect more popular tastes or keep digging for buried gold? Do you trust it anymore as a way to find out about our country's best books?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Syme
Rachel Syme is a frequent contributor to NPR Books. She is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast, and has written and edited for Elle, Radar, Page Six Magazine, Jane,theNew York Observer, The Millions, and GQ.