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Critics throw the book at national award panel

Who says people don't care about books? For the second year in a row, controversy has swirled around the National Book Awards. Last year literary lions were scandalized when horror novelist Stephen King received the medal for outstanding contribution to American letters. This year eyebrows rose among some critics, authors, and publishers over the five finalists in fiction.

The main beef seemed to be that the finalists, all New Yorkers, are not well known, and that their books are obscure or esoteric or both, as well as poor sellers -- this in a year when several literary heavyweights published books.

"I realize that I'm the heathen at the gate here," Laurence J. Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Book Group, said in an interview yesterday, "but I believe that books which resonate in our society and -- yes, to use that awful word -- that sell should be recognized in awarding these honors." For a committee of five writers to make the choice, Kirshbaum said, "is much too limited to reflect the book business and the role of books in our culture."

The winner, announced Wednesday night, was Lily Tuck for her historical novel "The News From Paraguay." The other finalists were Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for her first novel, "Madeleine Is Sleeping;" Christine Schutt for "Florida"; Joan Silber for "Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories"; and Kate Walbert for "Our Kind: A Novel in Stories."

Rick Moody was chairman of the fiction panel, which also included Randall Kenan, Stewart O'Nan, Linda Hogan, and Susan Straight.

After the finalists were announced last month, novelist Tom McGuane was quoted in The New Yorker as saying the award was "apparently tanking." Last week, in The New York Times Book Review, critic Laura Miller wrote that none of the finalists "could be reasonably expected to please more than a small audience." Citing Nielsen BookScan, a rating agency, Miller noted that four of the five books had sold fewer than 2,000 copies. She also suggested the panelists had deliberately thumbed their noses at the "literary establishment" by tilting toward previously unnoticed books.

Not surprisingly, Tuck herself felt that she and her cofinalists were being unfairly dissed. In an interview yesterday, she called the controversy "completely misguided." The purpose of the award, she said, is "to recognize good writing." She added: "The idea that the quality of a book should be judged by sales figures is ridiculous."

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, defended the process and the panel. "The integrity of the judges is beyond question," he said. "I have spoken to them all, and they all said, 'We have read every book, worked hard on our decision, and we believe these are the best books of the year.' " The foundation staff appoints the judges for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature, with input from the board.

Augenbraum said the judges' mandate is straightforward: "We asked them to look for the best books of the year. Each committee each year defines what it is looking for. This year the consensus was to look for two things: excellence in style, and imagination."

The controversy reflects two key facts in contemporary publishing -- first, that awards are increasingly important to book sales; and second, that book-award judging is about as unpredictable and subjective as awarding medals for synchronized swimming in the Olympics.

With intense competition from television and other entertainments, book sales are growing slowly at best from year to year, and book reviews and advertising have much less impact than in the past. Oprah's Book Club is no more, at least for new books. That makes such awards as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award more important than ever in getting attention.

"It helps on many levels," said Helene Atwan, director of the Beacon Press and co-chairwoman of the writers organization PEN/New England. "Once you're a winner, or a finalist, publishers have to take you seriously. The same is true of book review editors."

In the National Book Award, the panels make the choices. In the Pulitzer Prize, a three-person jury gives a short list to the full board, which makes the final call. The National Book Critics Circle has subcommittees for different genres, but the full board of 24 debates and chooses the winners. In all contests, the judges are the pivotal variables.

"Different judges come to it with different agendas," said Rebecca Miller, an editor at Library Journal and president of the Book Critics Circle, "but we hope they put them aside and function as judges, and keep returning to the books. Sometimes a committee will wind off into whether a book has already gotten attention elsewhere, or the author is too famous. But the idea is to mine deeply and consider many books, representing everything that is published, not just the bigwigs or the major publishers or who you know and have read in the past."

Anyone who has been a book judge will attest that the mandate to anoint the best book of the year sometimes feels overwhelming. "It's an impossible task to pluck, from the heap of hundreds of novels, four or five that you want to call attention to," said Jay Parini, a poet, novelist, and biographer who served on last year's National Book Award fiction panel, which chose Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire." "So many books are wonderful. I was enormously enthusiastic about Hazzard's work, but all the finalists -- books by Edward P. Jones and T.C. Boyle -- could be recommended without reservation."

While some publishers doubtless share Kirshbaum's gripes, many have a more relaxed attitude.

"I think controversy is healthy," said Paul Slovak, associate publisher of Viking. "It gets people talking about books and literary culture, which is a good thing. You can analyze these choices endlessly, but once a jury is chosen, you have to trust that they will pick books they believe in strongly, which is what they have to do."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com. 

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