You may be hearing a lot about the National Book Awards this week — at least that's what the National Book Foundation hopes. That's because they've made some changes to the awards that they hope will get more people talking about them. Over four days starting Monday, they will roll out their nominees in four different categories — beginning with Young People's Literature and ending Thursday with Fiction.
It isn't the first time the National Book Awards have tried to raise their profile. These glamour awards of the book industry are a chance for writers and poets to leave the solitude of their studies, and mix and mingle with some of the movers and shakers in the publishing world. But Carolyn Kellogg, who writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times, says the National Book Awards have an image problem. People in the book world know that N-B-A stands for National Book Awards, but "everybody else in America thinks National Basketball Association," Kellogg says.
In recent years, the National Book Awards have been criticized for nominating obscure authors whose books don't sell as well as winners of the Pulitzer Prize or the Man Booker Prize. Thus the changes instituted this year: nonwriters such as librarians, book sellers and critics have been included in the judging panels. And instead of one announcement of five nominees in each category, this week's rollout of longer lists, 10 in each category, followed in about a month by a short list.
"I love books, and I'd love to see some of these great books get more readers," says Craig Fehrman, who has written about the awards for The New York Times. "We'll see if the new format achieves that or not, but it's certainly not going to be any worse than what happened in 1980, I can promise you that."
Back in 1980, Fehrman says publishers, who fund the awards, decided to revamp them entirely. The National Book Awards became the American Book Awards, new categories were added, and the event was televised with William Buckley and John Chancellor as the hosts. The model, says Fehrman, was the Oscars:
"One of the changes in 1980 was: Let's create an academy just like movies, a big group of a couple thousand people to vote on this. They even went so far as to steal technical categories from the movies, which makes a lot of sense when you are talking cinema, but with books you end up with an award like 'best cover' ... so all these changes are an attempt to make the awards more popular, and easier to market."
Several literary heavy hitters were nominated that year.
"So [Norman] Mailer, [William] Styron and [Philip] Roth were all up for best fiction that year. They tried to withdraw their books and say, 'We don't want to have anything to do with these new awards.' More than 40 writers signed a petition saying: We don't anything to do with this; this more popular and populist direction isn't right for us, and isn't right for literary culture."
The awards ceremony was not a success. The event was scaled back over the next few years, and by 1987 the National Book Awards were restored. The changes introduced this year are nowhere near so drastic, which is a good thing, says Kellogg.
"If you try too hard to have what you think are people-pleasing choices, then the essence of what you are doing gets lost, and that is finding great books," she says.
Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, says there is no danger that the National Book Awards will become too populist. He believes the changes that were made this year have led to a rich diversity of writers and books.
"The judges had the ability to be as diverse in voices as they wanted to be," he says. "So when I'm looking at the lists, and as I'm reading through the books, I was thinking: My God, this one is so different from the one I just read."
Among the authors of young people's literature who were nominated today are David Levithan, perhaps best known for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (co-authored with Rachel Cohn), which was made into a film; and Kate DiCamillo, who won the Newbery award for The Tale of Despereaux.
Correction Sept. 17, 2013
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, neglects to note that David Levithan co-authored Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with Rachel Cohn.