Philip Roth's latest fiction, a first novel by a translator of Canadian Algonquin poetry and an exploration of the science of chaos are among the nominees for this year's National Book Award.
For fiction, the judges selected Roth's "The Counterlife," the fourth volume of what had hitherto been known as his "Zuckerman trilogy," and Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a novel about an escaped slave who is haunted by her desperate, violent attempt to protect her children. Howard Norman, whose previous works have been translations of Cree poetry, was noticed for his novel "Northern Lights," the story of a lonely teen-ager growing up in Central Canada.
Larry Heinemann's "Paco's Story" and Alice McDermott's "That Night" were also nominated for fiction.
James Gleick's just-released "Chaos: Making a New Science" joined Claudia Koonz's "Mothers in the Fatherland," a study of women in Nazi Germany, as nonfiction nominations. In that category, the judges also named David Herbert Donald's "Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe," Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars" by Robert A.M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins.
Born 36 years ago, the NBA by 1980 was financially destitute. Reconstituted as the American Book Awards and administered by a board of publishing executives, the awards were excoriated by many authors and former judges for becoming what current NBA Executive Director Barbara Prete calls "a PR tool." Award categories proliferated, with a heavy emphasis on the profitable paperback market. One year, more than 40 prizes were given at a ceremony more reminiscent of the Academy Awards than a literary gathering.
"It just wasn't appropriate," says Prete. "Writers just wouldn't show up in black tie. You know, they're different from actors."
After several years, the publishers found the award venture was proving to be a cash drain, and last year NBA reclaimed its old name. The NBA Inc. has now achieved tax-exempt status and is welcoming in a new board that Prete describes as "more cultural." Essayist and novelist William Gass will speak at the Nov. 9 $300-a-ticket awards ceremony, which remains black-tie. Presumably, the authors in question have agreed to go formal as long as no one confuses them with actors.
"There's no glitz," Prete insists. "There are no big Hollywood stars. The speech is by a literary person and it's addressing literary issues. We're even forcing the publishers who buy tables to invite their writers, which they really resisted."
Last year's black-tie dinner was tinged with controversy because fiction nominee Peter Taylor refused to attend, denouncing the awards as an example of destructive competition among literary colleagues. At least one NBA judge and a number of fellow authors joined Taylor in his criticisms.
NBA nominees each receive $1,000. The two winners get $10,000, an impressive purse (the Pulitzer bestows $1,000), which the NBA hopes to enlarge in coming years.
"The idea is to build that up and to make it an important prize, to make it so people will see literature as something really important going on," says Prete.
This year's judges in fiction are novelist and screenwriter Hilma Wolitzer, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Richard Eder and 1983 NBA winner Gloria Naylor. Biographer Justin Kaplan, editor and writer Robert Kotlowitz, lawyer and critic Carol Rinzler, Harvard Prof. Frank Freidel and novelist and critic Diane Johnson serve as judges in the nonfiction category.