Secrecy shrouds selection of most major book awards

The Argument

Unlike the Pulitzer and National competitions, the Critics Circle is open about its tumultuous judging process.

October 14, 2001|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Every year -- as an author, book reviewer and avid pleasure reader -- I reflect upon the decisions of judges who select the best books of the previous season. Why in the world did the judges in the biography category of the Pulitzer Prize select Biography A over Biography W? I muse. I read both, and I thought W was so much better researched and written. Why did the National Book Award judges choose Novel D over Novel M? I ask myself. I found D nearly unreadable.

I could stop at the easy answer: Tastes differ. Or, as my widely read mother says, "That's what makes horse races." Yet the easy answer answers nothing. At best, the contest administration might publish a statement from the judges containing boilerplate praise for the winner. But nothing is said about why so many other seemingly worthy books in each category ended up as also-rans. So, all year long, I remain puzzled.

There is a better way. It is called disclosure. I will not suggest that Congress federalize book contest judging by approving a law to force full explanations from each contest administration. But I will call out, now and in the future, for publication of the judges' deliberations.

I have a model in mind. It is not perfect, but it is an excellent start. The model is the National Book Critics Circle annual contest.

I can take no credit for devising it. It was in place when I started serving as a National Book Critics Circle contest judge in 1993 after being elected to the 24-member board of directors.

Some background: The Critics Circle award is considered the third most prestigious general book prize in the United States, after the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Authors and publishers cannot "enter" their books in the traditional meaning of that term. Instead, the 24 directors and the rest of the Critics Circle -- roughly 500 dues-paying members -- remain vigilant all year long, reading books, then deciding whether any of them are worth suggesting as potential winners.

The winners in five categories (fiction, general nonfiction, biography / autobiography, criticism, poetry) receive no money. They do, however, attend an awards presentation in New York City during March, receive national publicity and -- frequently -- increased marketing attention from their publishers.

Now, here is the good part: The process of getting from thousands of potential winners to the winner is disclosed throughout the year. One member of the board is the central repository for suggestions in all five categories. Suggestions originate year-round from the individual board members (who split into five committees, with multiple committee membership allowed).

The rest of the membership, authors, publishers and anybody else who cares can contact any or all of the 24 board members to suggest titles for consideration. To actually make it onto a list in progress, however, at least one of the 24 board members must pronounce the book worthy.

The lists in progress for each category appear in the Critics Circle newsletter, which is published and mailed as needed throughout the year. There is information on the Critics Circle Web site as well (www.bookcritics.org).

In December, the full membership votes on which books in each category deserve finalist status. If a book receives at least 20 percent of the membership vote, it automatically becomes a finalist. (Such consensus at this stage has occurred, but is infrequent.)

In January, the board convenes. Members of each committee discuss the best books in that category, then listen to the rest of the board members who want to approve, dissent or mention entirely different titles in that category. Eventually, by written ballot, each committee completes the selection of five finalists in its category, then publicizes those finalists. Furthermore, the newsletter contains ballot-by-ballot deliberations from each category. That means even the authors eventually can learn how close they came to making the cut by reading the minutes in the National Book Critics Circle Journal, the group's newsletter.

In last year's fiction deliberations, to cite one example, Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein ("incredibly moving," said one of the deliberators) received two votes in the first round. That was not enough for inclusion in the second round of balloting. Does Bellow want to know that? Does his publisher? Does anybody at all? I am unsure about anybody else, but I want to know.

As deliberations continued in the fiction category, the world now knows from the superb minutes kept by Linda Wolfe (a true-crime author who serves as a vice-president and secretary of the board), two novels excited the most passion: Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

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