The place was the South Reading Room of the New York Public Library, the date was last Thursday, the hour was close to 10 p.m.--by which time, had the schedule been honored with even a wink and a nod, we should all have been well into the third cocktail. As yet another speaker droned on into the darkness, the person on my right leaned over and asked in a stage whisper: "Why do these things always have to be so boring?"
Yes, friends, there we were: Back in the brave little world of the literary gala. The occasion was the presentation of the 1983 American Book Awards, for which the winners receive checks for $1,000, small sculptures by Louise Nevelson and the applause of dozens. Only the deepest data bank in my psyche could tell why I was in attendance, and so far it isn't talking, but indisputably there I was: bored, thirsty, hungry, yearning to breathe free.
Certainly I should have known better. Four years ago, when the American Book Awards replaced the distinguished if erratic National Book Awards, they were known officially as TABA (The American Book Awards), which everyone thought was either a diet soft drink or a pussycat, and which received sufficient ridicule to scare away all but the most shameless cadger of free booze. Memories of the first TABA awards, into the bargain, should have been more than enough to keep me about 200 miles away, at home in the bosom of Baltimore.
That first ceremony is still remembered, by those who suffered all the way through it, as the quintessential book-business festive rite. The program was in the Fifth Regiment Armory on the Upper East Side, a grand old building having absolutely nothing to do with books but offering "different" surroundings. Different indeed. What the cumulative wisdom of TABA's high panjandrums had failed to reckon with was daylight-saving time, which poured sunlight through the armory's high windows and directly onto the movie screens that were to do the show-and-tell by which TABA would out-Oscar the Oscars--thereby rendering the screens, and the program, inoperative.
The clock ticked steadily away; the appointed starting time came and went, yet still the stubborn sun insisted on casting its impertinent beams. Soon enough it was close to 8 p.m. and hardly a soul had been seated; my instincts told me to leave at once, and I have been in their debt ever since. Later I heard how each speaker competed to out-drone his predecessor, how the audios and the visuals fritzed and glitzed, how the program at last gasped its final breath with the witching hour well within sight. Then, I learned, there was a mad literary scrum in which authors and editors, agents and publishers, winners and losers fought pitched battle at the bar for drinks that never were poured and shrimp that never were toothpicked. By comparison, Gettysburg was a picnic.
As I say, I should have known; but shortly before 7:30 p.m. Thursday there I sat, in a mercilessly rock-hard chair in a cavernous room more suited to scholarship than to speechification. By 8 p.m. (a mere half-hour late) the business was under way, and at once it became clear that the spirit of TABA was far from dead. The metal-shaded lamps on the library tables at which we were seated like schoolchildren had been left lit, for who knows what reason, with the result that their lights numbed our eyes as we gazed at the speakers--if, indeed, we could see the speakers through the lamps. When the speakers spoke, their voices rose several miles through rarefied air to the ceiling and there vanished. As for the slide display behind the speakers, well, there was this little problem of daylight-saving time . . .
When the master of ceremonies was announced and proved to be Brendan Gill, of The New Yorker, I quite inadvertently emitted what the woman across the table called "an audible snort." Brendan Gill is to book ceremonies what Bob Hope used to be to movie galas; he is almost always there, and his presence is an eternal mystery upon which many a gathering of strangers has broken the conversational ice. Gill is neither as amusing nor as trenchant as the organizers of book galas evidently imagine him to be, but he is certainly there. And say it on his behalf that on this night at least he was brief; hardly anyone else was.
The awards were presented in alphabetical order of categories, except that poetry came first and was followed by autobiography/biography, and if you can explain that you win a two-week trip to the Iowa Writers Center. The end of this particular alphabet was T, the peculiar consequence of which being that the evening closed with the thundering anticlimax of the award for translation. And what lies between poetry and translation? Words, words, words--words interrupted from time to time by the sirens and screams of the Manhattan night beyond, but words that never failed to bore.
There we were in a setting that should have reminded us of the enduring majesty of books, but with few exceptions the words that poured forth from the rostrum reminded us only that the literati, just like the cinemati, have bottomless appetites for the sound of their own voices. The award for fiction went (inexplicably, in my view) to Alice Walker, and so too did the award for recycled '60s rhetoric; she trotted out almost every shop-worn cliche' of that decade, from "the folk all over the world" to "oppression" to "anger" to "oppressed people's blood." The award for oratorical self-infatuation went to a gentleman named Dennis Flanagan, previously unknown to me, who presented the hard-cover and paperback awards for science; not merely did his initial speech smash all records for wordiness, but after introducing each winner he broke in and volunteered another little speech.
But in the immortal words of that distinguished author whom we all know and love: So it goes. The people who hand out book awards want to have their cake and eat it too. They want, that is, to drum up sufficient show-biz glitter to grab the attention of the slumbering great unwashed, but they also want the dignity with which books are usually, if mistakenly, associated. The results, invariably, are slide shows that fizzle and speakers that drizzle; last Thursday evening most certainly was no exception.
Well. The cocktails afterward were fine, even if an hour late, and many splendid friends were encountered; book people may not be able to put on a show, but I love them anyway. There was food to be had too, though precious little of it came my way and so by 11 p.m. a friend and I escaped for a late supper. There, over our sandwiches, we did what all good lit'ry folk do: We talked. Some probably would say we droned, but what do they know?