Of the giving of prizes there is no end, and of the disputation over how to give them there is no end either. Thus it was that last week in New York when the revised and streamlined American Book Awards were presented for the first time in their new format, there was controversy over that format even as there was general agreement that it was, on most counts, a welcome improvement.
These 1984 American Book Awards -- TABA is their some- what awkward acronym -- are the latest in a steadily growing line of efforts to replace the distinguished old National Book Awards, which were killed off in 1979 by the publishing industry on the essentially specious grounds that they were excessively elitist and literary and, more to the point, did precious little to sell books. The industry's real objection to the old NBA was that year after year its juries overlooked best sellers, no matter what their merits, and gave awards to books and authors few people had heard of; it did not seem to matter to the industry that it had been through the NBA that authors such as Walker Percy and Philip Roth, who subsequently made plenty of money for their publishers, were first recognized.
Be that as it may, the industry decided to replace the NBA with TABA, a program that at first seemed determined to give an award to every book ever published -- the theory apparently being that if you give a book an award, everyone will rush out to buy it. By 1983 the awards had ballooned to a staggering total of 27 categories, for both hardcover and paperback books, and not a soul alive could have named all of them without benefit of a prompter. Even among the most passionate proponents of democratization, there was a sneaking suspicion that matters had gotten out of control. The time for another fix was at hand.
Thus it is that, after many months of argument and maneuvering, the 1984 American Book Awards came into being. They are patterned, as closely as the demands of American publishers will permit, after Britain's Booker Prize, which is given annually to only one book -- a work of fiction published in that year by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Ireland or South Africa -- and which carries the rather considerable prize of 10,000 pounds. The demands of American publishers being what they are, advocates of a single TABA prize lost out; instead, three prizes were agreed upon -- fiction, first fiction and nonfiction -- and a prize of $10,000 was settled upon each of them.
The idea was obvious: Reducing the number of prizes, it was assumed, would make it easier to arouse public interest in them and thus to arouse public discussion of books, which presumably would benefit the industry as a whole, as well as the specific nominees and winners. In hopes of advancing those purposes, two other important changes were made: The awards ceremony was moved from the spring to the late fall, to time the announcement to the beginning of the Christmas shopping season; and the disclosure of the winners was delayed until the ceremony itself, to increase suspense and give the occasion a certain amount of drama.
Whether all of this will result in improved sales and public interest remains to be seen, but it certainly did make for an enjoyable occasion at the New York Public Library Thursday night. As chairman of the fiction jury I cannot be wholly objective about it, but there seemed widespread agreement among the several hundred people on hand that the sharp reduction in awards and the eleventh-hour announcement of the winners were clear improvements over past practices. The event was carried off with a degree of elegance not always present in book-industry shindigs, and the champagne was tasty.
But there was also, as always, widespread agreement that things could be better. The chief and most eloquent criticisms of the 1984 TABA came from two people whose efforts had been crucial to its success. Doris Grumbach, chairman of the first-fiction jury, prefaced her announcement by saying that all three members of her panel objected strongly to the $100 entry fee for nominations; this had a chilling effect, she said, especially on small and/or impecunious publishers, and may have kept some deserving books from consideration. Similarly, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., chairman of the nonfiction jury, said that the world of nonfiction is far too diverse to allow a single award, and proposed that next year it be broken down into several categories.
Both complaints are serious and legitimate, and both already had been argued over at interminable length in private discussions. They would be of little interest outside the industry except for one important consideration: They directly affect the effort to create an American literary prize of genuine national consequence. They're going to be argued over a lot more in the months ahead, and how they're resolved will have a lot to do with what TABA looks like next year or, for that matter, whether there's a TABA next year at all; so perhaps a few more words about them are in order.
The point made by Grumbach is especially vexing because it is so accurate. The $100 submission fee did have a chilling effect; a number of worthy titles in all categories were not nominated by their publishers, though the chairmen did have the option of nominating books on their own and of waiving the fee. TABA organizers recognize this problem, but they also point out that the submission fee raises a lot of money (about $30,000) for a program that has precious little of it, and that it deters publishers from nominating books that are patently unworthy -- something they'd ordinarily do just to keep their authors happy. It's a tough question to resolve, though stronger financial backing for TABA from the industry could go a long way toward resolving the first part of the problem.
As for Schlesinger's complaint, it was heartfelt; he and his jury had the heaviest reading load, and the toughest choice, of all, and their feeling that genuinely deserving books had to be passed over for the award certainly was justified. But with respect and sympathy, I have to disagree with him. Going back to a proliferation of awards would only be going back to old problems. There are plenty of specialized awards, many of them distinguished, given elsewhere; the great virtue of the new TABA is its thundering finality, and in fact I would make it all the more so by merging first fiction into fiction -- the more I think about it, the less legitimate the distinction seems -- and making it a two-award program.
The 1984 winners, incidentally, in case you missed the news, were Ellen Gilchrist's "Victory Over Japan" for fiction, Harriet Doerr's "Stones for Ibarra" for first fiction and Robert V. Remini's "Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy" for nonfiction. These three books are the best thing of all about the 1984 American Book Awards: There could not be a more deserving group of winners.