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Debating the rewards of so many awards

November 18, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When a very surprised William T. Vollmann received a National Book Award for fiction for his widely praised novel "Europe Central," the awards accomplished what they are designed to do -- honor serious literary works of merit, and propel them to the readership they deserve.

Or did they? As literary awards in America grow by leaps and bounds, so does the critical backlash, which now begins before the ceremonies.

"Last year, the grave concern was the prizes would go to the wrong people. This year, it's, 'Do literary awards mean anything?' " said Robert Polito, the director of the New School Creative Writing Program, speaking at an event for Book Award finalists on the eve of the ceremony. Polito added that he couldn't wait until the year's "pontificating" is over, so critics can "go back to serious literary coverage."

At the awards Wednesday night, host Garrison Keillor quipped: "We're still a little chastened by criticism of last year's awards," adding, "the 'National Book Awards' has a real ring to it. Like the 'National Cash Register.' "

Yet even the most ardent critics of the trappings of literary prestige seemed to melt into their embrace Wednesday night. As Norman Mailer held court, a tuxedoed Lawrence Ferlinghetti eagerly sat down for a tete-a-tete. Ferlinghetti and Mailer -- whose raft of awards includes two Pulitzers and a 1968 National Book Award -- were lifetime honorees. His two canes at his side, Mailer discussed his heart condition. In the meantime, Ferlinghetti's qualms over the literary establishment seemed to have momentarily evaporated.

"I'm 82 now," Mailer said to the poet, as if his advanced age was a surprise, even to him. "I'm 86!" Ferlinghetti replied, as if he, too, couldn't believe it.

"It's an honor to be here with Lawrence Ferlinghetti," Mailer said. "It's the other way around," Ferlinghetti shot back.

The mutual admiration society continued, sort of, with Toni Morrison's rather nuanced introduction of Mailer, in which she quipped: "I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women, which I have to say even he admits to."

"I'm obtuse about women, but also wary of them," Mailer replied.

This kind of patter, of course, is part of the draw.

But so is the recognition.

"There was a time when everything was books," said E.L Doctorow, a fiction finalist for "The March," a Civil War novel. Now, "there's a storm of distractions. But books are written in silence, and read in silence. They are the finest and most uncensored form of communication that we have. That's why book awards are important, to bring attention to this aspect of culture."

There is also a communal aspect to the awards ceremonies.

"When you're a poet in America you write alone," said Brendan Galvin, 67, who has been writing poetry for 40 years. "No matter how many friends you have or how popular you are, it's always you and the page. When you get some recognition, you take it."

There's another incentive: "to sell more books, to put it bluntly," said Mary Gaitskill, who was a fiction finalist for "Veronica." "You get an award, and suddenly you explode."

Even if you don't win, being a finalist "feels very supportive," she added. "Anything that's run by committee is going to be a complicated decision-making process. Often it's the second choice that wins. It's just a crapshoot."

The awards are "an imperfect process," agreed Walter Dean Myers, a finalist for young people's fiction for "Autobiography of My Dead Brother," a gritty urban tale of the loss of childhood innocence. Nevertheless, "we're still celebrating books" -- and opening doors to new points of view.

Mailer said it is important to celebrate the kind of serious literature that has imbued societies with powerful but intangible rewards, but is endangered today.

"Would England be a great nation without William Shakespeare?" Mailer asked. "Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today without James Joyce?"

Literary celebrations -- like many other awards -- have mushroomed, according to James English, whose new book is titled "The Economy of Prestige." Fifty years ago, there were only about 20 U.S. literary awards; now there are at least 1,000, he said. (As for feature films, he said, there are twice as many awards as films produced worldwide.)

With so many awards, "everybody feels there's a place for them," English said. "And it's true."

It's also true that marketing is a subtext -- the National Book Awards and the Man Booker Prize grew out of the publishing industry, English said.

What's more, artistic assessments are influenced by social networks, meaning many books considered significant today were not honored 50 or so years ago. In one era of British romantic poetry, the poet laureate was not Shelley or Keats, but the more obscure Southey.

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