The first annual presentation of the American Book Awards was something like a basketball game, something like a rock concert, but most of all it was a show trying hard to be a television extravanganza like the Academy Awards or Emmy progrms and not quite making it.
A successor to the lamented National Book Awards, which staggered through the 1970s plagued by budget problems and finally died of fiscal anemia, The American Book Awards ran into controversy from the original announcement because they were entirely funded by publishers and booksellers, and some critics and authors thought they would become a promotional extravanganza rather than a serious literary award.
As it turned out, they were a mixture of both. The awards turned up a respectable list of titles as winners, including such celebrity authors as William Styron ("Sophie's Choice," fiction, hardcover), Julia Child ("Julia Child and More Company," current interest, hardcover), Lauren Bacall ("By Myself," autobiography, hardcover), and Tom Wolfe ("The Right Stuff," general nonfiction, hardcover); such scholarly stars as Barbara Tuchman ("A Distant Mirror," history, paperback), and Douglas Hofstadter ("Godel, Escher, Back: An Eternal Golden Braid," science, hardcover); and cult favorites such as John D. McDonald ("The Green Ripper," mystery, hardcover), Louis Lamour ("Bendigo Shafter," western) and Frederick Pohl ("Jem," science fiction, hardcover).
Only one of the awards was roundly booed when it was announced -- Henry Kissingers' "The White House Years," which won the hardcover award for history. Most of the other books nominated had cheering sections, often concentrated in one section of the large auditorium, but disgruntled fans were generally polite to the winners when their favorites lost.
To judge by the volume of audience applause, the most popular winners were among the paperback nominees -- John Irving's "The World According to Garp," which won as best paperback novel, and Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissim," which won in the category of current interest (paperback), beating out, among other titles, one book on pregnancy and another on baby care.
The show was carefully stage-managed, with lavish use of movie and still projections on a giant screen over the stage and two side-screens, and an attempt to give a bookish air to the extravanganza was made by the use of enormous painted flats, representing the facade of the 42nd Street New York Public Library at the entrance to the hall.
An effort was made to have the ceremony broadcast on television, but, according to a publisher associated with the awards, the networks "wanted too much singing and dancing."
The show's producers were still running sound checks 10 minutes after it was supposed to start at 7 last night, while the crowd milled about impatiently outside. A waitress circulated among the waiting audience distributing small cheese sandwiches, and waiters passed out glasses of white wine. The sound of breaking glass occasionally punctuated the proceedings, and once in a while a metal tray could be heard clattering in back of the stage, where dinner was being set up.
The show began, finally, 56 minutes behind schedule. The sound system was still not working well. Eudora Welty's acceptance speech after winning the $15,000 National Medal for Literature, was almost completely inaudible, as were most of the one-line jokes delivered by various announcers. Also inaudible were the 34 recipients of $1,000 prizes, but that was not the fault of the sound system. They were simply not allowed to speak.
The awards were presented in the Seventh Regiment Armory, an enormous building that occupies a whole block of expensive midtown Manhattan real estate at the corner of 67th Street and Park Avenue. More than 1,600 persons associated with the book trade attended -- attracted, as one publishing executive admitted, by the controversy surrounding the awards and the hope that there might be a scandal.
Co-hosts of the event were William F. Buckley and John Chancellor, and they introduced a long series of stars to make the individual presentations, including Isaac Asimov, Lauren Bacall, Ray Bradbury, Dee Brown, Betty Friedan, Gail Godwin, Pete Hamill, John Houseman, Townsend Hoopes, Erica Jong, Edwin Newman, Sylvia Porter, Theodore H. White, and others. Each was allowed to make brief, humorous remarks lasting about 30 seconds, but the pattern was broken by poet Peter Viereck, who criticized the "dirty political deals" associated with the old National Book Awards, criticized the new American Book Awards as a "plastic Disneyland extravanganza" and suggested that some kind of award system should be found to eliminate the bad features of each.
The only author who was able to speak after winning an award was Buckley, who came back on stage as co-host right after the award to his "Stained Glass" as best paperback mystery had been announced.
"I am pleased," said Buckley, "by this convincing evidence of the incorruptibility of the awards."