November 21, 2014

A call to action: on the 2014 National Book Awards


Built in 1841, the large, Greek Revival building at 55 Wall Street has housed the New York Merchants Exchange, the United States Custom House, and the National City Bank—the earlier, better-spelled incarnation of Citibank—which had a branch at the site until 1992. In 1997, 55 Wall Street was bought by restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani, who sold it two years later and then bought it again in 2006, at which point he converted the building into condominiums, a restaurant, and a huge event space. Every November since 2008, that space has hosted the National Book Awards.

There’s surely no better tribute to the perennial tension between art and commerce than this choice of venue. Holding the nation’s most prestigious book awards in a former banking hall owned by a convicted tax evader is, in its way, a bold move. At this year’s awards, which were held on Wednesday, art and commerce were at war, as they always are. But that wasn’t the only tension.

Over the years, the National Book Awards’ detractors have called the awards both too literary (and also insular) and too commercial (and also insular)—often at the same time!—and 2014 offered plenty of ammunition for each position. Four of the five fiction finalists were published by big houses, and while the ratio was considerably healthier in nonfiction, a single house—W.W. Norton—was responsible for two of the five titles. On the young people’s literature shortlist, all of the books were published by either the big five or by Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books. (Poetry had its usual, healthy mix of big and small houses.)

Yet only one of the ten fiction and nonfiction finalists—Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—can reasonably be considered a smash. And while the winners will benefit from a major uptick in sales, the 18,000 copies of Evan Osnos’s nonfiction winner Age of Ambition that its publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) plans to reprint hardly add up to an earth-shattering number. More than respectable, surely, but a blockbuster it isn’t.

Which is all to say that it’s hard to make grand claims about the state of the National Book Awards—or publishing in general—based on this year’s crop of winners. (Those winners were, in addition to Osnos, Phil Klay for his debut story collection Redeployment; Louise Glück for her poetry collection Faithful and Virtuous Night; and on the young readers side, Jacqueline Woodson, for Brown Girl Dreaming.) Big houses dominated the night, the winners’ books sold decently but unspectacularly, and a victory by a writer of color seemed—distressingly, yet again—like an anomaly, rather than part of a pattern. (More on this later). The center held.

But if the winning books themselves were not radically different from what had come before, the ceremony itself was memorable—in good ways and bad.

The night’s most passionate remarks were delivered by the great Ursula K. Le Guin, who accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. After Neil Gaiman’s warm introduction, Le Guin engaged directly with Amazon’s fight against Hachette, the increasing meekness of the publishing industry, and the perils of the profit motive. Her speech is worth quoting at length:

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. [Thank you, brave applauders!]

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial, I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than what they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa.

And I see a lot of us—the producers, who write the books and make the books accepting this, letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish and what to write. Books—they’re not just commodities. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

I’ve read a lot about writing and publishing this year, but I doubt that anyone has said anything on the subject with as much eloquence and precision. That Le Guin is not a brash upstart but an eighty-five-year-old veteran who has seen the industry from every vantage point only makes her speech more remarkable.

Unfortunately, the evening’s other speakers didn’t all hold themselves to such a standard. I’m speaking, of course, about Daniel Handler, the awards’ host. Though much of Handler’s material was excellent, by Thursday morning, his good jokes were rightly overshadowed by what he said immediately after Woodson accepted her award:

I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind. And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, “You put that in a book.” And I said, “I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying, ‘This guy’s okay! This guy’s fine!’”

Many commentators posted excellent, thoughtful responses to Handler’s words in the hours after the ceremony. David Perry’s blog post is worth singling out, as are some of Roxane Gay’s tweets on the subject. (Handler tweeted an apology yesterday.) But in a blog post already heavy on others’ words, I’d like to give the final quote to Spiegel & Grau executive editor Chris Jackson, who posted the following to his Facebook page yesterday. (I asked Jackson for permission to quote him here.)

My publishing people: There’s a serious problem in publishing, which makes it hard to take it seriously when big publishing pretends toward a higher set of values than its largest retailer. What values were on display last night when the crowd yucked it up to watermelon jokes at the National Book Awards (40 mins in)? We have to be honest: publishing is a radically, inexcusably regressive industry when it comes to racial representation (1% black according to the recent PW poll) and we have to do something about it, starting with thinking more deeply about our hiring and retention practices. I don’t care if you think there are bigger challenges to the industry; if a racially insensitive and occasionally just plain old racist industry dies, no one will mourn its disappearance.

It’s not surprising that a book awards ceremony in 2014 will be remembered more for two very different sets of remarks than for the winning books themselves. This is not a reflection on the books or their authors—it is, instead, a testament to the tumultuous state of the publishing industry.

The business of publishing must reflect—in output and composition—the diversity of its readers. This is essential. Without it, we will be that much closer to the “hard times” Le Guin warned us about.

UPDATE: This morning, a few hours after this piece was posted, Handler tweeted an additional apology and a tribute to Brown Girl Dreaming, which he called “an amazing novel.” (1, 2, 3, 4) Handler also pledged to donate $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books—a campaign designed to promote greater diversity in children’s literature—and match all donations up to $100,000 for the next twenty-four hours. It’s an important gesture, and a substantive challenge to the industry as a whole.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.