Win Some, Lose Some

City Lights hosted the announcement of the National Book Awards finalists this month. But do book awards even matter?

The fiction picks did seem a bit obscure to me, which is a common complaint against book awards in general. I'd heard of three of them: Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions (an amazingly designed road trip narrated by two 16-year-olds), Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document (about a '70s radical in hiding), and Ken Kalfus' A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (what the award's press release describes as "a black comedy that follows the unraveling of a marriage in the aftermath of 9/11"). (The other two are Richard Powers' The Echo Maker and Jess Walter's The Zero.) Only Danielewski had already been on my reading list. The one book that got an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd was a "young people's literature" offering: Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival. (Fremont's Gene Luen Yang got the nod for his graphic novel — the first in the award's history — for American Born Chinese.) The winners will be named on Nov. 15 — at a ceremony in New York City, of course.

The selection process for all of these awards seems pretty arbitrary, and even the National Book Awards' Augenbraum acknowledged that he had to persuade people to serve as judges: "No one says, 'Yes, yes, I want to read 300 books in two months over the summer.'" For his award, five judges in each category read a total of 1,259 nominated books — 177 in poetry, 270 in young people's lit, 276 in fiction, and 536 in nonfiction — starting in June. Even for someone who loves books, that schedule is brutal. Back when I was evaluating unpublished novels, I'd sometimes take home eight 250-page manuscripts on a Friday with the intention of delivering my take on Monday. At that rate, you simply have to skim.

Maybe awards don't matter much here because awards don't matter much anywhere, to anyone but the author and his publisher. They do increase sales — it's hard to ignore a shiny sticker on the cover — but they don't inspire a lot of buzz. A Nobel? Ho-hum. The Booker? Blah blah blah. A National Book Award? No time. Oh, but an Oscar? Now that's news.

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