Picking a winner? Harder than you think!

Special to the Times

By Marianne Wiggins

The winners of the National Book Awards were announced this month -- did anyone notice?

Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Tony, Golden Globe: award shows deemed worthy of TV. But what about the poor relation at the table -- books? Anybody want to watch a three-hour black-tie dinner of 700 people at the Marriott Marquis near Times Square honoring the best writers the nation has to offer in the categories of children’s books, nonfiction, poetry and novels? No?

Imagine my surprise when I first moved to England and turned on the tube one evening to discover a live broadcast of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s leading book awards. There must have been people in pubs grabbing remotes. But this was the nation that televises darts and a weekly program called “One Man and His Dog,” a show about Welsh border collies herding, well, sheep. After the hit movie “Babe,” people in the United States started to understand this kind of herding. Far more than they understand the business of books.


How many hardcover copies do you think Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy sell? 100,000? Think again. A first novelist’s average advance? Less than what a TV writer takes home in a month. Prizes have a significant effect on a writer’s earnings -- even when they don’t come with cash attached -- so any discussion of book awards is also a discussion of how writers of serious fiction manage to survive.

Three major literary prizes dominate our national scene, the largest and rarest being the Nobel, which is not really indigenous but inclusive of a hefty number of Americans, nonetheless. I gave my creative writing students at USC a list of years that Americans had won a Nobel in the 20th century and asked them to name the Nobel laureate for the corresponding year -- winners included Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. They drew a collective blank.

For the year 1978, I gave them the clues, “Emigrated from Poland, wrote in Yiddish, lived on the Upper West Side in New York City.” They guessed Shel Silverstein. (It was Isaac Bashevis Singer.) When this year’s Nobel laureate was announced, I offered extra points for anyone who could name the winner. One intrepid soul ventured that it was someone from “Poland or Turkey or someplace like that.” (It was Orhan Pamuk. Not from Poland. From that country that shares a name with the bird we eat at Thanksgiving.)

The Nobel brings with it buckets of money, whereas for the Pulitzer, all the winner gets is a certificate, dinner and a $10,000 honorarium that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the Nobel’s million-dollar-plus cash prize. When I was a finalist, I got a letter, two sentences long, on Columbia University stationery (no certificate, no dinner), but on every subsequent novel I write, my publishers can print “Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize” under my name on the cover. And guess what? This sells books (if only a couple).

The National Book Award is regarded by many as the mother of the homegrown prizes. Nominees in four categories are chosen by panels of their peers (novelists judge novelists), cash is awarded, and the nominated books get nifty silver decals, which sell more books.

This year, I was a judge. What that means is that between the beginning of May and the middle of August, I (and my four fellow judges) read 258 books. Each. The same 258 novels. To put that in perspective, it’s pertinent to note that outside of a Bible and a phone book, many households in the United States probably own (and read) zero works of serious fiction.


Nonfiction outnumbers fiction in new titles published each year by 4 to 1, so the nonfiction judges read twice what we did -- 500 submissions. One judge remarked that she came home one day to find her children had constructed a fort out of them. In my case, I constructed an elaborate system of piles: read, unread, couldn’t get past Page 10, crap, bloated, vomitous, kill-me-now and praise God.

The criteria for submission was that the publisher pay $100 to the National Book Foundation for each book submitted and then send a copy of the book (or manuscript) to each judge. The author had to be a citizen of the United States. In our first conference call, we began to try to define what we were looking for. A “national” book? A work of fiction that spoke to the “American” character? Judge No. 1 wanted “readability,” and No. 5 wanted “a sense of discovery.” I just wanted writing that would set my hair on fire.

To be eligible, all novels had to be published in 2006, and the list included books by Roth, Updike, McCarthy, Richard Ford, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Edward P. Jones, Mary Gordon, Dave Eggers, Charles Frazier, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tom McGuane, Joyce Carol Oates. (Only two from her. Musta been a slow season.)

Through conference calls and e-mail, the five of us started to get a sense of one another’s tastes and personalities, and we discovered that we had more in common than not. Peter Behrens’ “The Law of Dreams” was an early favorite, as was “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers (my hair-on-fire favorite and the eventual winner) and “White Guys” by Anthony Giardina. All of us were in favor of Roth’s “Everyman,” though we agreed it was not his strongest book (except for No. 4, who called it equal to Tolstoy). Judge No. 2 kept pressing for “The Zero” by Jess Walter.

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” made me cry but left everyone else unmoved. Judge No. 4, an admitted friend of Roth’s, had another favorite -- “Only Revolutions” by Mark Danielewski, which none of the rest of us could fathom but he would not give up on. We began to know that in every conference call No. 4 would speak at length and very movingly in support of the book, and I finally said, “If Danielewski had written the novel you’re describing, he’d deserve a Nobel, but I can’t find a wormhole into that experience on the page.”

Nevertheless, he was persistent -- a strategy that, in the end, paid off.

Thomas Pynchon’s 1,000-page doorstop came in after deadline owing to last-minute rewrites, but by the first week in September, we had five books we all more or less liked.


And we were uniformly underwhelmed.

There were no women on the list, and the titles themselves read like an anti-feminist haiku -- “White Guys,” “The Echo Maker,” “Everyman,” “The Law of Dreams,” “The Zero.” After months of thinking that we had to find individual books we endorsed, we suddenly realized that we needed to start thinking about a list we endorsed.

Roth, who has won the award twice, was never the front runner (except with Judge No. 4), and it seemed insulting to keep him on the list knowing he would lose. So we dropped him and allowed No. 4 to place Danielewski on the list instead. “White Guys” and “The Law of Dreams” we replaced with “Eat the Document” by Dana Spiotta and “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country” by Ken Kalfus.

When this newspaper ran a front-page article with the final list, a friend e-mailed me: “Who are these people? I don’t know any of them!”

Well, exactly.

Wonderful, under-read writers. No longer so foreign. On the map, finally. Like Poland or Turkey or someplace like that.

Marianne Wiggins is a professor of English at USC. She was nominated for a National Book Award in 2003 and served as a fiction judge for this year’s prize.