NEW YORK -- Charles Johnson's novel "Middle Passage" won the National Book Award for fiction last night in a ceremony that was preceded by one judge's public complaints about the whole process.
Johnson's work is a historical novel about a newly freed slave who stows away aboard a ship that, to his horror, turns out be a slave clipper bound for Africa. It took the honors over Joyce Carol Oates's "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart" as well as the works of three lesser-known authors: 88-year-old Felipe Alfau, for "Chromos," an avant-garde novel that takes place in Manhattan in the 1930s; Elena Castedo, for "Paradise," a story of a Latin American ghetto family; and Jessica Hagedorn, for "Dogeater," set in the Philippines, where the author was born.
"I think I have been waiting my entire life for this moment," said Johnson after the award was announced. Commenting on the fiction prize, the judges said, "The wit, panache and intelligence of Charles Johnson create a spellbinding adventure story that weighs as much as other classic American novels."
In his acceptance speech, Johnson pointed out that this was the first time a work by black male writer had won the NBA since Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" in 1953. Johnson cited the influence and importance of Ellison for his own work and said that "everything one could want in a novel" is in Ellison's classic.
In his lengthy tribute to Ellison, Johnson expressed his hope that "in the 1990s we will see a black American fiction that will be Ellisonesque ... as we as a people move from narrow complaint to broad celebration."
Ellison, who was in the audience, said later, "I'm flabbergasted and delighted for Johnson. I was touched in a personal sense." But he rejected the notion that black writers can only be influenced by other blacks. "You don't write out of your skin, for God's sake, you write out of your imagination."
The nonfiction choice was "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance" by Ron Chernow, of whom the judges remarked, "In his hands financial history becomes the riveting stuff of history itself."
His book, published by Atlantic Monthly Press/Morgan Entrekin Books, defeated "Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School" by Samuel Freedman; "Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician" by Roger Morris; "Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes" by T.H. Watkins; and "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The two winners will receive $10,000 and specially commissioned sculptures by Joel Shapiro.
"If I have a concerned moment, it's that my career has prematurely peaked," said Chernow, the former program officer in charge of financial policy studies at the Twentieth Century Fund. He used the remainder of his acceptance speech to deliver a blistering critique of the modern financial scene. "In 'The House of Morgan' I found myself -- quite unexpectedly -- shaming the new Wall Street with the language and values of the old. We discovered in the 1980s that, yes, there is something even worse than robber barons."
The choice of Johnson was promptly made by the five fiction jurors at a businesslike luncheon yesterday. But emotions had been stirred up earlier in the day by judge Paul West's comments in yesterday's New York Times.
West, a critic as well as a novelist, was quoted as saying of the judging, "There is acute dividedness over nearly everything," and that "ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self-righteousness" compromised considerations of merit.
Novelist Terry McMillan, another of the judges, said yesterday: "That is a racist statement. ... What he said and how he said it was offensive to the people who were nominated."
She also said that West, by speaking out, "violated the confidentiality of the process" -- a complaint echoed by many others.
Both West -- who said that he had been quoted "almost entirely out of context" and that the Times was "just trying to manufacture some kind of news item" -- and McMillan said they did not feel the story affected the voting.
"We all sort of had our minds made up, once we narrowed it down to five," McMillan said.
The chairman of the judges, Catharine Stimpson, in her only reference to the controversy, said, "We had a delightful lunch. No Rolaids were served." The other two fiction judges -- Phillip Lopate and William Gass -- either could not be found or did not wish to comment on the record.
The National Book Awards, like many highly subjective honors, have been a prominent stage for literary resentment, vainglory and bared teeth.
Three years ago, Toni Morrison's sympathizers rose up to protest the slighting, through "oversight and harmful whimsy," of her best-selling novel "Beloved" by fiction judges of the NBA and then by the National Book Critics Circle. (The judges chose instead, respectively, "Paco's Story" by Larry Heinemann and "The Counterlife" by Philip Roth.) Judges of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a couple of months later honored "Beloved" and set the matter to rest.
Just the year before, novelist Peter Taylor, whose "A Summons to Memphis" was a fiction nominee for the American Book Award (as the National was then known), rocked the literary boat. He announced a few days before the awards ceremonies that he would refuse to accept the prize, which he called "a disservice to the arts," were it to come his way. In the event, it didn't. In accepting that 1986 award for his novel "World's Fair," E.L. Doctorow said, "Literature is more than a horse race. ... We would prefer that books be explored and discovered by readers, without an intervening priesthood."
But every year a new priesthood is anointed.
Johnson, 42, who lives in Seattle, is professor of English at the University of Washington and the author of a book of short stories and a book of literary criticism in addition to his three novels. "Middle Passage," his third, met with mixed reaction upon publication. The Chicago Tribune called it a "brief, spellbinding adventure story" that might be a Great American novel "without being grandiose about it"; the reviewer in The Washington Post's Book World remarked that the novel "remains unsure of its tone and direction, falling short of seriousness or high comedy."
Discussion of the West remarks was part of the fare at the $500-a-head black-tie reception for 535 people at the Plaza Hotel that preceded the 40th anniversary dinner and awards presentation. "Basically West shouldn't have said anything," said Lee Goerner, Johnson's editor at Atheneum. "It's a little unseemly that a judge would be talking to the press before the selections are made."
Johnson, unaware that he was soon to be named the winner, remarked, "As for the story, I didn't read it, but I heard about it. I don't know what to say except a little controversy is good for the soul."
Hagedorn, soon to be just another nominee, called the Times story "very ugly," "completely small-minded and uncouth."