The National Book Awards: A Judge's View

The recently concluded National Book Awards always stirs up serious book lovers: this author was undeserving, that author a charity case, another far too young for such a prize. But this year, from an unfortunate error in the announcement of the Youth Literature finalists, the National Book Foundation (NBF) has already taken its fair share of abuse. As a judge on this year's youth lit panel, I thought it might be useful to pull aside the literary curtain. Explain how the whole process works -- on the whole, I found, quite well.

Publishers (not authors) from the Big Six to very small houses sign in with the NBF by June 15, pay a $125 entry fee per title, then send the actual books directly to the judges by August 1. This year the four categories of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and youth literature garnered 1220 submissions -- a lot of reading.

If you're a writer who has established some literary cred you might eventually hear from Harold Augenbraum, director of the NBF, about becoming a judge. He will contact you by email (not wax-stamped letter or telegraph as some have suggested). Mr. Augenbraum will explain that you'd be part of a five-person panel, and that judges are new each year. That you'd be paid $2500, but that you'll have to read full time for several weeks, if not months. You should not have a book of your own coming out during your term as judge, he'll add; if so, it cannot not be submitted to the NBA contest.

For most writers, accepting this offer is a no-brainer. It's an honor to be, at least briefly, a serious player on the American literary scene, plus there's an expenses paid trip to New York City for the November, black tie book awards night. The reading commitment requires you to put aside your own work, but if there's any good excuse for not writing, it's reading hundreds of new books.

The youth lit panel, assembled by Mr. Augenbraum, was an extraordinarily well-balanced array of authors in terms of age, ethnicity, race, gender, geography and literary expertise. And while we knew of each other, most of us had not met, or met only in passing at literary conferences (authors have far less time to hang out than most people think). A committee chair was appointed by Mr. Augenbraum. The Chair then initiated discussions -- private to the panel -- on how we might approach the task of judging other people's books. At this point, our panel up and running, Mr. Augenbraum and the NBF receded. We were now the deciders.

To get acquainted, our panel gathered on its own dime in New York City. Over lunch we rather quickly agreed on what we were not about. Not about rewarding career achievement. Not about lifting up lesser known authors. Not about rewarding a beloved author in the twilight of a career. Not about quotas or literary politics or the buzz certain authors had created for books coming our way. We were not much interested in authors, we agreed- but we cared deeply for their books.

We returned home (this was early summer), cleared our professional decks, and soon enough the postman began to ring twice. Boxes of books arrived, by publisher, along with individual titles from smaller publishers. During the reading period our panel communicated by email, conference calls and by an online, secure spreadsheet. After reading a book we logged on, gave each title a numerical rating along with a mini-review: strengths, weakness, great bits, serious fails. We did not lobby or cajole each other. That would come later, as we narrowed the 278 submissions toward the five finalists.

For a National Book Awards judge, lurking behind the sheer volume of reading is, always, the math. My group needed to read 3-4 books each day, every day, to stay on schedule. However, if reading 278 books in a row (the nonfiction panel had close to 400 titles) was Shakespearean in scope, so, too were the range of emotions they induced. Often, despairing at a run of mediocre titles, a book would, "like to the lark at break of day arising," sing to me -- wake me up beyond the strongest cup of coffee. Give me gooseflesh at its beauty and intelligence. On those occasions it was difficult not to flash a "Eureka! You gotta read this one!" email to my fellow judges. However, we tried not to do that. We all believed that a good story, extraordinarily well told, would catch all of our attentions. We did set in place, however, a safety net called "Second Look": if one judge really really loved a title, and the rest of us just didn't get it, we honored that outlier opinion by re-viewing that book.

In mid-September we narrowed to a list of ten. We did this through a series of conference calls, always with our spreadsheet open, though by then none of us needed it. We knew the books. All of them. We focused on the contenders, about thirty or so, in terms of their plot, voice, assemblage, style, and all the other literary elements including the one which has no name: the magic that happens when the right author has found the right subject at the right time in his/her life and the right manner in which to present it. We debated, arm-twisted, groaned, laughed, sighed but gradually got to ten books.

Getting to the final five was truly painful -- like pushing loved ones away from the life raft. During a long conference call we advocated, dug in, gave ground, offered to do laundry, sighed, cajoled, but ultimately got to five choices. It was wrenching. None of us got all of our favorites; all of us got some. Our committee chair, per instructions from the NBF, immediately called in the five finalists. The phone call designed to forestall an email leak; however, as is well known by now, an NBF staffer mistook one homophonous title for another book not on our list. Perhaps because we had so long been on a first name basis with the books, our committee chair did not read off the authors' names or ISBNs of the final five (nor did the NBF staffer ask for them). The mistake was carried forward to its announcement several days later on national public radio.

The NBF should have corrected the error immediately. However, the five finalists had been notified privately immediately after our panel made its decision. This was a courtesy designed to give the authors more time to make travel arrangement for the awards ceremony (one of our finalists lived above the Arctic Circle). All the harder, then, to correct the mistake the longer it went on.

Mr. Augenbraum at first suggested that the mistaken title remain as a "sixth finalist," but this sat poorly with the judges. We had agreed that the novel in question was not a contender, so what, then was our work for? While we had sympathy for the author, it was obvious that there was no good solution. At Mr. Augenbraum's request she belatedly withdrew, though the incident was at the expense of the other finalists -- beautiful books overshadowed by an ugly scene.

Still, things do work out. The error will result in procedural changes at the National Book Foundation. Additionally, for a few days it greatly amplified the national conversation about books for young adults -- certainly a good thing. As for the NBF, one of its goals is "to raise cultural appreciation of great writing in this country," and in my experience the NBF achieves this and more. Seeing all the authors, publishers, critics, agents, publicists and readers -- the entire ecology of books -- gathered in one ballroom at the November 16th awards night was to feel the heartbeat of American literature.