It's been two weeks since the National Book Award for fiction was presented to Larry Heinemann (who?) for "Paco's Story" (what?), and up in New York they're still buzzing about it. The publishing industry hasn't had so hot a scandal buzz through its gossip mills since Dick Snyder and Joanie Evans split, and Joanie left Simon & Schuster for Random House, and Random House sacked Howard Kaminsky, and Joanie replaced Howard, and ... well, l'affaire "Paco" is right up there with that one, which should tell you approximately how many megatons of juice we're talking about.
The scene in the ballroom of the Hotel Pierre on the evening of Nov. 9 was one for the book, and it's a pity Tom Wolfe wasn't on hand to write it. There, gathered under one roof, was the cre`me de la cre`me of the publishing industry -- black ties, long gowns, Perrier, white wine -- all gathered in high and confident expectation that the fiction award would be presented to Toni Morrison for her novel "Beloved." But when the chairman of the fiction jury came to the microphone, it was to announce that the award had been given to ... a novel that nobody in the room had read! (Pardon me for borrowing your ellipses and italics and exclamation point, Mr. Wolfe, but it's the only way to tell the tale.)
You couldn't have cut the collective astonishment with a machete, nor dislodged it with a thermonuclear explosion; that's how startled were the assembled illuminati. Truman over Dewey was nothing as to Heinemann over Morrison; it was, if not the upset of the century -- remember Clay over Liston? -- enough to shake the Pierre to its Frenchified foundations. At last the gathering regained its wits -- Morrison herself having displayed far more poise than many of those in her claque -- and managed a feeble round of applause for Heinemann as he was handed the ghastly Louise Nevelson "sculpture" that is, for reasons far beyond my comprehension, the NBA's mark of distinction.
Heinemann then proceeded to speak at considerable -- nay, interminable -- length, and when at last he got around to the antiwar part of his speech all was well; in publishing as in academia, there's nothing like a solid jolt of retrograde '60s flower power to set matters right -- and when Richard Rhodes, accepting the nonfiction award for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," provided a second jolt, all seemed to be well.
But alas it was not. In the two weeks since the great-event word has filtered down from New York, both in print and by phone, that leaves no doubt Manhattan has not yet fully recovered. How could this have happened? is the question of the hour: How could the jury have passed Morrison by and given the award to an utter unknown? Were the judges determined to be contrary and go against the literary grain? Did they pick an obscure book just to roil the waters and call attention to themselves? And -- most of all, perhaps, since not a soul had read the book -- was "Paco's Story," well, was it really, uh, any good?
Such are the questions that now echo through the literary landscape. The answers to them are in some measure lost in silence, since the three jurors -- Hilma Wolitzer, the chairman, Gloria Naylor and Richard Eder -- have to their immense credit declined to talk to the press about their private deliberations. Though that in and of itself seems to me ample evidence that they do not wish the lens of publicity focused upon themselves, others seem determined to find a devil theory to explain the conclusion they reached; but if such a theory exists, its machinations have yet to take visible or identifiable form.
Rather, what happened is almost certainly that two of the three jurors -- Wolitzer did acknowledge that the decision was "by majority vote" -- simply preferred "Paco's Story" to "Beloved" or any of the three other novels they had put on their short list of finalists. Believe it or not, things really can work that way: Two perfectly intelligent individuals, with motives as pure as a day-old baby's, really can read through about a hundred books and come to the conclusion that the one they most admire is not -- gasp! -- the one that everyone else most admires. Perhaps they tussled with their consciences a bit before making this conclusion public, but they stuck to their guns.
To which we should only say, three cheers for them. A decade and a half ago I was the chairman of the National Book Awards fiction jury, and I did not stick to my guns, and in the end not merely did the prize go to neither of the two books I most admired, but it actually was divided between two other books of dubious merit -- books that, I note with a certain guilty satisfaction, have now been quite universally forgotten. I lost that round, but I learned a valuable lesson: Stick to your convictions. The judges for this year's award did just that -- the two who voted for "Paco's Story" and the one who refused to make it unanimous -- and for that they deserve not our censure but our admiration and respect.
Was their choice the "right" one? Of course not: There is no such thing. Books cannot be rated in clear lines of descending excellence, much though some of us in the rating business are from time to time tempted to do so; though each individual book's strengths and flaws certainly can be identified and analyzed, it is quite another thing to weigh them against the strengths and weaknesses of other books and then declare a single one to be "best." It is an entirely subjective process, dependent upon the tastes and whims of a small group of judges, and it should be regarded as nothing more or less.
So if you're going to ask me if I think the award should have gone to "Paco's Story," you're not going to be satisfied with my answer: No, I don't, but then I wouldn't have given it to "Beloved" or, for that matter, any of the other books this particular panel nominated. I respect all three judges and admire their own work, but in this instance I disagree with their taste. "Paco's Story" and "Beloved" deserve honor for their seriousness and compassion, but neither seems to me -- let's put seems to me in italics, just so the point is as clear as can be -- to have elevated good intentions into wholly successful fiction.
It's purely a matter of taste, and my taste -- at least so far as American fiction of 1987 is concerned -- is not the same as these judges'; neither, obviously, is the prevailing taste within the publishing industry. But what's the big deal? Instead of moaning about poor Toni Morrison -- poor Toni Morrison is probably a shoo-in for one major award or another this year -- why can't the publishing crowd do as she herself did two weeks ago, and applaud Larry Heinemann for his good fortune? Thanks to two determined judges, a promising writing career has taken a giant step forward, and the National Book Awards are in the news as they haven't been for years. On both counts, that's cause not for disgruntlement but for celebration.