Thomas H. Guinzburg isn't exactly Bowie Kuhn, but give the man credit: He's trying. Kuhn, the Lord High Pooh-Bah of Organized Baseball, permits the game's fans to choose the All-Star teams by filling out ballots they can pick up at big-league ballparks. Now Guinzburg, chairman of the American Book Awards, has announced a "nationwide contest" in which publishing's fans will be able to participate in the awards by filling out ballots they can pick up at bookstores and libraries.
Ah, but there's a difference. If the fans of baseball, in their wisdom, select an All-Star lineup that includes eight designated hitters for the American League and eight bat boys for the National, Kuhn has to grin and bear it; the guys will start the game, by edict of the fans. But Guinzburg has come up with a nifty little switch that solves this problem: The votes of the great unwashed don't count. In the magic world of books, where a new surprise awaits you every day, readers will be allowed only to guess what books will win the awards; the actual awards will be determined, privately, by small panels of judges. All the contest will prove, in other words, is that some readers have better ESP--and better luck--than others. According to the press release:
"Millions of ballots will be available listing nominees in all 18 categories. People can check which books they think the judges will choose as the 1982 award winners. The bookstores and libraries will return the ballots to the Marketing Council by April 12th. After the awards ceremony on April 27, a special publishing industry committee will cull entries for the correct ballots. The actual contest winners will be chosen by a random drawing at the American Booksellers Association Convention in Anaheim in May. The first five prizes will be autographed sets of the winning books and the 20 second prizes will be sets of the winning books. Everyone who submits a correct ballot will receive the 1982 American Book Awards collector's poster. Celebratory prizes will be given to the bookstores and libraries who submitted the winning ballots."
So there you have it. With one sweet stroke, the panjandrums of American literature have solved a problem that has befuddled the American elite since the Founding Fathers: How can the masses be given the illusion of democracy without the actuality of it? Simple, according to Guinzburg & Company: Let the masses indulge in an orgy of meaningless guesswork while the elite goes about the real business of choosing the winners. The ordinary reader out there in Dubuque or Baltimore or San Jose gets to pretend he's participating in a major awards program, and a couple of dozen people end up with some free books; the actual judging, meanwhile, is done by-thus-far-unidentified men and women selected in the expectation that the results they come up with will not be embarrassing to the industry--the fiction award will not go to Harold Robbins, that is, or the poetry award to Rod McKuen.
How sinfully clever! And how perfectly consistent with the shabby history of the American Book Awards, a 3-year-old attempt at a marriage between commerce and culture which has thus far begotten much of the former and none of the latter. The awards--TABA, as they were originally called, to general hilarity--were established as a replacement for the National Book Awards, which the industry had come to feel were too "literary," which is to say they often went to books that no one had heard of and, far worse, no one had bought. The idea was that TABA would more accurately reflect the interests of ordinary readers--while in the process giving some additional sales juice to the kind of books the industry thinks it can sell.
That first TABA was a sight to behold. There were umpteen dozen categories and umpteen thousand voters; just about everyone with a publishing connection, however remote, had a vote. A gaggle of self-consciously "serious" writers got themselves into a mighty snit and refused, collectively, to have a thing to do with the balloting or the ceremonies or even the $1,000 prizes that went to the winners. As for the ceremonies, they were just the icing on the cake; they started about an hour late, went on about two hours too long, and ended with a banquet in which many present never got either food or--all the more painful at this stage of the proceedings--drink.
Even among the industry's Philistines there was a sense that commercialism was out of control, so in 1981 the overlords of TABA tried to manage a more nimble balance between culture and commerce. They reduced the number of categories, eliminating some of the more blatantly egregious, and put the vote solely in the hands of the judges. Yet the something-for-everybody attitude still dominated the awards, the ceremony was another long-winded bore, and hardly anybody anywhere paid any attention.
So here we go again, this time with a sly blend of elitism and democracy, conjured up in the nether reaches of Park Avenue where TABA works its little mysteries. The finalists for the 18 awards have been chosen and announced, and the winners will be chosen in April by the judges; this takes care of the "literary" end of things, and permits the industry to put on a gala, self-congratulatory ceremony in April at which it can make the obligatory bow in the direction of culture. Meanwhile, out in the provinces, ordinary readers will be getting the thrill of false participation through the "illustrated catalogues" that will contain descriptions of the nominated books and ballots for entering the great guessing game.
What it all adds up to, as the press release quite proudly announces, is a "total marketing program for the awards." The key word, need it be said, is "marketing." As this transparently cynical attempt to involve the public in the awards makes plain, the business of TABA--or The 1982 American Book Awards, or whatever you want to call it--is not literature but hucksterism. The program exists not to honor notable works of literature or distinguished examples of publishing, but to hype books.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Publishing is an industry, not an eleemosynary enterprise, and selling books is its business. In the past several years it has not been very good at that business; if it can come up with some more effective strategies for increasing interest in books, more power to it.
What's wrong with TABA isn't the commercialism of it, but the hypocrisy. The industry pretends that it is honoring books, not hustling them, and it flares into righteous indignation when the suggestion is made that the contrary is true. Now the industry is further pretending that a place has been found for the ordinary reader in these weighty deliberations, when in point of fact the little guessing game it is sponsoring treats that reader with precisely the same contempt that is too often the industry's view of him. And adding insult to injury, the press release says: "Newspapers will . . . be asked to run the ballot as a service to their readers." Service to whom?
It's a service to the industry, folks, and don't for a moment forget it. The American Book Awards have as much to do with literature as Muzak has to do with music. Perhaps even less.