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Book World Live: Making Books

First-Time Joint Appearance

Sig Gissler and Neil Baldwin
Executive Director of the Pulitzer Prizes and Fmr. Director, National Book Awards
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; 3:00 PM

"Winning a major literary prize -- the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award or the United Kingdom's Man Booker Prize -- can be a bonanza. It can launch a career or jump-start a stalled one."

"The impact, particularly for fiction winners, can be concrete: paperback sales, movie deals and a longer life for the winning book. But with so much at stake, one can't help but wonder: Who exactly sits on those juries? How do they get there? How do they make their choices? And why, if prizes go to the best of the best, do different prize boards rarely crown the same title?."


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Readers Are Talking About...

Making Books (Book World, April 17)

Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and Neil Baldwin, former director of the National Book Awards will be online Tuesday, April 19, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the literary awards, the task of picking the best ones and the impact of winning on the authors.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Charleston, S.C.: I had to laugh when I saw Yardley's comment (and he's a Pulitzer winner himself!) that prizes are just so much "back-scratching and back-stabbing." How do you ensure that those juries are not playing out their own--mean-spirited--agendas?

Neil Baldwin: The perennial issue on both ends of any award -- Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, CMA, MTV, etc etc etc -- has always been and is always going to be 'buzz' about how the nominees or finalists were chosen considering what else was out there in a given year; and then, after the winners are announced, why those particular films or tv shows or songs were selected. This is a syndrome of the awards culture that serves to attract more attention and hopefully stimulate more interest, be it commercial or cultural. This kind of awareness is unavoidably present in the minds of the judges from the moment they know they are responsible for making their decisions. At the National Book Awards, we go into the process - and I am not being ingenuous here - assuming that the judges will exercise their considered opinions about quality. There is no way to legislate whatever other factors enter in.

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Washington, D.C.: Arc of Justice, which won the National Book Award this year, is a fine book, but does anybody really think it's going to have a more lasting impact than the also-rans, especially the 9/11 Report?

Neil Baldwin: Again, this goes to the question of the earlier question in the queue -- i.e., how do we anticipate the opinions of posterity? The National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2004, to which you refer, was, as usual, arrived at as a result of the collective sensibilities of five distinguished authors. Needless to say I was not privy to their deliberations; I stepped down from the directorship of the Awards at the end of 2003, but even so, all deliberations are confidential. When we start to get into the realm of 'lasting impact,' then the question becomes, 'on the basis of what criteria?'

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Santa Monica, Calif.: I am writing a book on major literary awards for fiction. Starting with Kipling's 1907 Nobel and Poole's 1918 Pulitzer one sees the same awards (James Tait Black and Hawthorndenprozes were added in 1919 but then there was not much action until the late '60s). Now we have prizes announced nearly weekly and extensive longlists published (24 for the Booker in 2001, 20 for the NBA). Clearly marketing is one factor and another is the (hoped for)prestige attached to giving an award -- especially prestige to a company which perhaps has little on its own (no names please). Do you gentlemen believe that we have reached a critical mass and that, for the awards to have a significant cultural or literary (as opposed to consumer) meaning . . . enough is enough? Or is talking of culture in this context simply naive?

Sig Gissler: Well, there are a lot of awards out there these days. However, we focus on the integrity and the quality of the Pulitzer Prizes, which is probably the most prestigious of awards. That keeps me busy enough. One thing you might be interested in is our modest,low-key awards ceremony. It has the feel of a graduation, with family members in attendance. There are no speeches by recipients and we have declined offers to turn the occasion into a TV extravaganza.

Neil Baldwin: The National Book Awards went through an 'enough is enough' period in the mid 1980's, when they reached a saturation point, more than twenty-five different awards, including best book jacket and best cook book. Over the years following, the number was gradually winnowed down. On my watch we reinstated Poetry and Young People's Literature, as a reflection of the expanded educational mission of the National Book Foundation. I think that Awards do breed on themselves, however. As long as there are funds provided by willing donors - in some cases corporate, in other cases private sector - interested in seeing their names attached in sponsorship to a cause they deem culturally important, the awards realm will continue to grow. I do not see how it would be possible to legislate this kind of enlightened self-interest.

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Washington, D.C.: Hasn't the quality of the award winners gone sharply down over the past few decades?

Neil Baldwin: I do not agree. I think the question strikes to the heart of the entire awards dilemma, is there is one, as was discussed in the Post piece on Sunday. Literary standards - or, what is considered 'great' - rise and fall with the passage of time. I remember when I first took responsibility for administration of the National Book Awards in 1989, we advised the judges to seek out books that, in the words of William Faulkner, would 'not only endure, but prevail.' Who is to say what books of today will be considered classics fifty years from now?

Sig Gissler: I agree with Neil. The quality of many winning books remains high. I know our juries often ask: Will a nominated book stand the test of time? They do their level best to answer the question but times change and so do tastes. A seemingly great book might not seem so great years hence. But over the long haul, I think the Pulitzers have a good track record of honoring high-quality work.

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Washington, D.C.: Good day, gentlemen.
Your prizes are certainly prestigious, and, as Marina Krakowsky lays out in her piece, they can make a huge difference to a book's welfare and success, but at the end of the day, when all is said and done, how can you be sure you've conferred the prize on the best books of the year? Aren't there dozens of extraordinary books, published by tiny houses that haven't had the wherewithal or prescience to bring them to your attention? In other words: How do you guys sleep at night?

Sig Gissler: A good question. The Pulitzer Board does not pretend to omniscience but it does try to sift and winnow carefully. Three-member books juries are chosen with an eye toward knowledge and open-mindedness. We also have a two-tier judging process. Each jury nominates three finalists and then the Board, after deliberation, picks a winner. Most Board members do not see themseleves as book experts. Rather, as some of them say, they see themselves as intelligent members of a book club that recommends books that other intelligent people might like to read.

Neil Baldwin: I agree with Sig. That is a good question. And the National Book Award judges have to look at hundreds of books every year as it is. I think it helps to take a broader view here of the cultural intent behind the awards themselves irrespective of what is chosen. A high tide lifts all boats, and surely, all the attendant discussion and controversy and disagreement/endorsement is good for American literature in general. Surely the high-profile activity and critical discourse engendered by the awards helps attract attention to some good books that are out there.

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Elgin, S.C.: This comment is going to sound so cozy you'll think I soaked it in liquid fabric softener, but I thought "Gilead" was the perfect choice for this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. I couldn't have been happier for Marilynne Robinson. It topped off a great year for her, and it was perfectly just, given both the years she spent on the book and the superb result. (I'm so lame.)

Neil Baldwin: I do remember several years ago calling Marilynne Robinson to ask her to serve as a judge for the National Book Award. She demurred, because she said she was deep into her labors on a new book, which clearly was Gilead.

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Washington, D.C.: Any memorable events that took place during the award ceremonies over the years?

Neil Baldwin: I will tell a story that can now be told, since the biography of Ray Bradbury has just been published. In November of 2000, the National Book Foundation gave him our Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. I talked with Ray several times on the phone in the weeks leading up to the ceremony in November. Steve Martin was lined up as the MC. The hype was tremendous. Then two days before, Ray called to say that his wife would not be able to come; she was ill. And then the day before, Ray suffered a mild stroke, and he told me he 'wasn't sure' he could make it. Then I heard he had gotten on the plane, and was on his way. Then the evening of the ceremony, his plane was delayed and so we reconfigured the entire evening so his remarks would come at the end of the affair instead of at the beginning. And then just as everyone sat down to dinner in the Ballroom of the Marriott, the doors swung open, and Ray appeared, walking down the aisle on the side of the room, on the arm of Jane Friedman, his publisher. He was using a cane and walking slowly, but smiling broadly and wearing a red bow tie. The place erupted into applause.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you keep track of books that aren't issued by the houses with the biggest budgets or the strongest publicity machines? On the other hand, I'm sure there are small presses that are known for high-quality work, but how do you take notice of the gem that was put out by neither a big behemoth or a reliably-good independent? I'm particularly interested about this when it comes to non-fiction books.

Neil Baldwin: At the National Book Foundation, we made an early and concerted outreach effort to the entire membership of the American Association of University Presses, encouraging them to participate. We also assigned an intern about ten summers ago to page through the entire Literary Market Place as well as the International Directory of Small Presses and add all eligible publishers to the database. There is no doubt in my mind that the Awards guidelines, which have been in the past few years posted on the Foundation's web site, www.nationalbook.org, reach the widest possible array of publishers.

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Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Baldwin,
Could you please explain why the NBA got so bloviated with all those categories in the 1980's. What were they trying to achieve?

Neil Baldwin: I made a start on that a few questions ago. If my memory serves, at the time of the major expansion of the National Book Awards, they were either under the general umbrella of the Association of American Publishers or recently had been. This was before my time. In any case, the intention on the part of the trade publishing industry was to create more awards in order to bring more attention to the trade, which was logical in theory but not as it turned out in practice. One of the major reasons for creating the National Book Foundation in 1989 and bringing me on board was in fact the realization that the National Book Awards needed a free-standing, independent, not-for-profit organization to sponsor them, something they had not had before. This was a wise and salutary decision.

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Washington, D.C.: I was surprised to learn how little money your prizes actually dispense. I would think raising money for such distinguished awards would be easy. Certainly the beleaguered authors could use to win more. . .

Sig Gissler: In recent years, we raised the award to $10,000 but frankly it's the honor and the prestige, not the monetary sum. Of course, a Pulitzer-winning book can result in greater interest from publishers and can, in effect, "make a career." It also can increase a book's sales (the 2005 poetry award resulted in an overnight sale surge of orders). The prize can revive interest in previous books, perhaps lead to a movie. One never knows what the ultimate impact might be.

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Anonymous: Okay. Full disclosure. I was a judge on one of your juries once. It amazed me how quick we were (I don't for a minute excuse myself from this) to dismiss books. One judge would say "That book is a waste of our time" and the rest of us would say fine, and though we hadn't ourselves looked at the book, we'd move on. I still feel guilty about not checking the material myself.

Neil Baldwin: I will say that one of the important instructions we provided to the judges for the National Book Awards - and one of the reasons we expanded from three judges to five - was to encourage discourse and interaction between judges. The advent of email made this much more viable and continuous, supplementing the conference calls which are regularly scheduled. One of the benefits of having more than three judges - contrary to what was expressed in the Post piece on Sunday - is that it makes it less possible for one judge to hold too much sway over the others. It also makes it possible for judges to 'complement' each others' reading, and recommend titles that a colleague may have overlooked, or encourage a colleague to take another look at a book that he or she may have set aside.

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Columbia, S.C.: Rolando Hinojosa-Smith doesn't tolerate a bad book beyond 25 pages; Michael Kinsley apparently doesn't even do that much. It does seem like a daunting task -- plowing through all those nominees. What can you fairly expect of a judge in a contest between several hundred books?

Sig Gissler: Excellent question. There are many routes to a decision.
But jury communication is always important. As books are read, a consensus tends to develop as to which books are truly outstanding. After this benchmark or "gold standard" is found, it is easier to move more quickly -- but still fairly -- through other books. Juries often say it is not difficult to get down to a dozen of so serious contenders. Reaching the final three is more challenging. Sometimes books are re-read as part of the final deliberation. The jury submits its three nominations without statement of preference to the Pulitzer Board, but does send along a substantive statement on why each nominee is potentially worthy.

Neil Baldwin: One can expect a judge to give a book a fair look. The typical amount of submissions for the National Book Award in nonfiction is between 400 and 500 titles, and these books arrive on the judges' doorsteps during a three to four month period. Everyone knows that it is physically impossible to read every page of every book in the time frame alotted. However, I will say that in the final weeks, when the reading lists are winnowed down, there is increased and intensive scrutiny of a smaller universe. And in the five or six weeks between the announcement of the Finalists and the Awards ceremony, the judges are considering five titles, and those finalists are of course deeply probed and analyzed.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there authors who come to mind who you now think should have won one of the big awards but never did?

Sig Gissler: As administrator, I must demur. However, the Pulitzer Prizes always stir up arguments about the "overlooked."
The Board, which adheres to a policy of confidentiality, never debates or defends it decisions.

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Mountain View, Calif.: Hemingway said that no one ever wrote anything worth
reading after they won that Swedish thing.

Do you think your awards help or hinder authors? I mean,
as Gore Vidal said, the problem with American writers is
that they try not to be good but great and therefore are
neither.

Don't your awards put an impossible burden on a writer?

Can someone sit down and repeat such a performance?

Neil Baldwin: It is so interesting that you quote Gore Vidal, who won the National Book Award for his collection of essays UNITED STATES about a decade or more ago. And I remember we had a public reading at The New York Public Library, right after the California earthquake, but this did not stop Mr. Vidal from making his way to NYC in the middle of the coldest winter in years. I introduced him and compared his work to Henry James, which he quite liked, and then he went on to give a wonderful and inspiring speech about the writers' life before a standing room only crowd. Over Champagne later in the Trustees Room, Mr. Vidal couldn't have been more cordial. He posed for photo-ops proudly wearing his National Book Awards medal.

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Neil Baldwin: The electronic 'information age' has made it possible for the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards to answer questions on common ground for the first time. Thanks to the Washington Post and to Sig Gissler for the unique opportunity. -- N.B.

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