Book Awards Give Historic Glow to a Beacon of Beat
A landmark bookstore here was the site Wednesday of a significant literary occasion: For the first time in its 57-year history, the National Book Awards finalists were announced in California -- and appropriately enough, a number of writers from the state were among those chosen.
Unveiled at City Lights Books was a list of nominees that included five California writers -- among them a Bay Area high school teacher whose graphic novel was the first of its genre to be recognized by the National Book Awards -- and excluded such literary lions as Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.
The announcement took place in the large central room of City Light Books beneath posters of Beat icons Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and a very naked Allen Ginsberg, his right hand raised in a shy wave. Fifty years ago, City Lights Books published “Howl,” Ginsberg’s poetic rant against the status quo that led to obscenity charges against City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Proving how much had changed since then, it was Ferlinghetti, the eminence grise of a rebellious literary generation, who announced the nominations.
“It’s sort of like we’ve just been discovered by Magellan, or Lewis and Clark,” the 87-year-old Ferlinghetti joked from behind a spare black lectern before the finalists were announced. “We’ve been discovered at last.”
The crowd of about 50 -- including prominent Bay Area authors Anne Lamott, Barry Gifford, ZZ Packer, Ishmael Reed and Kim Addonizio -- laughed appreciatively at the remark. For many, the event was an opportunity to showcase California to a literary culture that still seems highly New York-centric, even in an age when writers and independent presses increasingly operate outside the Northeast.
It is a point driven home by the list of 20 finalists itself, which included only one New Yorker but seven from the West. Three of the five poetry finalists are Californians. Two years ago, by contrast, the fiction category comprised five relatively unknown writers -- all women -- from New York.
For the last three years, the New York-based National Book Foundation, which sponsors the book prizes, has taken its nominations on the road -- first to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Minneapolis, then to William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Miss.
For National Book Foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, rotating the nominations among cities is a way to recognize a shift in the landscape of American literature, to frame the awards as a truly national event.
“We should be engaging the entire country, not only New York,” he said at a reception at the venerable Cafe Tosca, across Columbus Avenue from City Lights. (Still, let there be no misunderstanding: The awards themselves will be announced on Nov. 15 in New York City.)
City Lights was chosen, Augenbraum said, because it is “one of the great legendary venues of American literature.” Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” literally changed the face of American poetry with its radical social vision and its exuberance. Ginsberg would later win a National Book Award in 1974 for his collection “The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971,” which was published by City Lights.
The decision to hold this year’s announcement at City Lights -- declared a San Francisco landmark in 2000 -- grew out of a conversation Augenbraum had last fall with Ferlinghetti, when the publisher-poet-bookseller accepted the first “Literarian” award at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York.
“I’m not sure that we’re ever going to find a place as appropriate for this announcement as City Lights,” Augenbraum said. “When I told people about it, their eyes lit up.”
Sitting at a small back table at Cafe Tosca after the announcement, Ferlinghetti said “New York has always been the center, and this is the first acknowledgment by the establishment that we have a great literary tradition here as well.”
This year’s book award finalists are an eclectic, and even unlikely, mix. It’s not just a matter of geography but also of aesthetics; the books reflect a national literature in transition, with shifting perspectives, shifting priorities.
Several books, fiction and nonfiction, draw their inspiration from the events of Sept. 11, but even more there are experiments in style, in format, as well as forms and genres that had gone unrepresented. Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese,” a finalist in the Young People’s Literature category, is the first graphic novel ever nominated for a National Book Award. Yang teaches computer science at a Bay Area high school.
This sense of the unconventional is particularly prevalent in the fiction category. The list of finalists featured none of the highly regarded works from big names that one might have expected. Missing are “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “Everyman” by Philip Roth and “Thirteen Moons” by Charles Frazier. Many expected to see a nod for Thomas Pynchon’s long-awaited novel “Against the Day.”
Perhaps the most surprising finalist was Los Angeles writer Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions,” an experimental, nonlinear novel involving two parallel narratives, one running front-to-back, the other back-to-front. The book comes with instructions, advising readers to move back and forth between the storylines in eight-page chunks.
The biggest name on the fiction list was Richard Powers, a highly regarded novelist whose “The Echo Maker” is about a man with Capgras syndrome, a rare condition that leads its sufferers to believe that their loved ones have been swapped with doubles or robots.
Fiction judge Marianne Wiggins, a Los Angeles writer who was nominated in 2003 for “Evidence of Things Unseen: A Novel,” said she and her colleagues winnowed 258 novels. She argued in vain on behalf of McCarthy’s “The Road.” As for Pynchon, she said, “It was patently obvious it wasn’t a contender.”
Only two years ago, the fiction list was widely criticized when it was revealed that, of the five finalists, only one had sold as many as 2,000 copies. In 2003, literary critic Harold Bloom decried the National Book Foundation’s decision to give a special award to Stephen King, calling it an affront to literature.
Others view the decision to honor a popular writer like King as an example of forward thinking, which is the general idea behind announcing the nominees in California.
“We’re in the wrong part of the country,” said Reed, a poet and novelist. “I think this is a step forward. American literature is no longer confined to that part of the country. That’s an outdated 1950s model.”
Times book editor David Ulin reported from San Francisco and staff writer Robin Abcarian from Los Angeles.
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The 2006 National Book Awards finalists were announced Wednesday at City Lights Books in San Francisco. The awards ceremony is to take place Nov. 15 in New York City.
* Mark Z. Danielewski, “Only Revolutions” (Pantheon)
* Ken Kalfus, “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country” (Ecco/HarperCollins)
* Richard Powers, “The Echo Maker” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
* Dana Spiotta, “Eat the Document” (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
* Jess Walter, “The Zero” (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins)
* Taylor Branch, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68" (Simon & Schuster)
* Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” (Alfred A. Knopf)
* Timothy Egan, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” (Houghton Mifflin)
* Peter Hessler, “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” (HarperCollins)
* Lawrence Wright, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" (Alfred A. Knopf)
* Louise Gluck, “Averno” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
* H.L. Hix, “Chromatic” (Etruscan Press)
* Ben Lerner, “Angle of Yaw” (Copper Canyon Press)
* Nathaniel Mackey, “Splay Anthem” (New Directions)
* James McMichael, “Capacity” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Young People’s Literature
* M.T. Anderson, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party” (Candlewick Press)
* Martine Leavitt, “Keturah and Lord Death” (Front Street Books/Boyds Mills Press)
* Patricia McCormick, “Sold” (Hyperion Books for Children)
* Nancy Werlin, “The Rules of Survival” (Dial/Penguin)
* Gene Luen Yang, “American Born Chinese” (First Second/Holtzbrinck)