I think there are lots of ways to look at the recent changes to the National Book Award and the various statements made by people associated with it, but I do agree that the most compelling reading is that the NBA is going to be more mainstream than ever and wants to become a sales vehicle for the book industry. As ever, hope this isn’t the case, but my gut tells me it is.
Board members had come to feel that the awards needed a model more like that of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary honor, which is more integrated into popular literary culture.
“When a book is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it sells another 50,000 copies,” Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press and vice chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board, told The New York Times last November. “It can transform the fate of a book.”
Admittedly, there’s a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” aspect to this. If you do go the direction of “cultural relevance” then you run the risk of alienating the people who actually care about literature and basically coronating that year’s hot thing. If you don’t, then you have to hear about your cultural irrelevance, due to the fact that your imprimatur can’t move books. Of the major awards, I think the NBCCs has been better than most at navigating this, though the last decade of fiction winners/finalists hasn’t exactly been stellar.