When publishing toffs and literary celebrities opened their invitations to the 48th National Book Awards ceremony this fall and saw the words “Marriott Marquis,” an audible sniff was heard. But they got over themselves, and on the evening of Nov. 18, they gamely made their way to Times Square to mark a year of bombs and best sellers, literature and pulp. They had to admit it wasn’t all that bad. The lamb course was excellent, the coat check ample, Wendy Wasserstein made a funny master of ceremonies, and, in the considered opinion of one New York Times Book Review editor, “the babe quotient” was “unusually high.”
For a few brief hours, they could pretend the occasional clutch of bewildered tourists wandering into the middle of their cocktail hour had come to gawk at them. Kurt Vonnegut mingled with Sally Quinn while New Yorker literary editor Bill Buford showed off a subtly checked tuxedo to Book Review editor Chip McGrath; Murdoch publishing chief Anthea Disney paraded around Jane Friedman, her new hire from Random House Inc.; Grove-Atlantic Inc.’s glamour puss Morgan Entrekin didn’t make a move without a small army; and Harry Evans stood by the dining hall door like an official greeter. The crowd even laughed good-humoredly when the nonfiction winner, American Sphinx author and Mount Holyoke history professor Joseph J. Ellis, joked that when he first heard that the “N.B.A.” had called, he had misty-eyed visions of athletic stardom.
The event brought out more than 750 guests and raised a record $425,000 for the National Book Foundation and its programs promoting literacy, inner-city poetry workshops and a summer writing camp, with Studs Terkel receiving the 1997 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Indeed, the perennial soul-searching about the purpose and point of literary beauty pageants and publishing awards was held to a minimum. Perhaps that was why almost nobody noticed one glaring absence: Henry Holt & Company was missing. Michael Naumann, the publishing house’s president and chief executive officer, boycotted the awards to protest the exclusion of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon from the nominations.
The Holt hole struck an especially odd note given the house’s active participation in the past, particularly while Mr. Naumann’s predecessor, Bruno Quinson, served as a member and then chairman of the book foundation board. It cast an even harsher light, in retrospect, over the media’s feverish pitting of genial newcomer Charles Frazier and his lush Civil War novel Cold Mountain against the creative ambitions of literary idol Don DeLillo in Underworld , both of whom not only rode the best seller list together for several weeks but also spent much of the time before the nominees’ reading the preceding night engaged in intense conversation.
Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, first got an inkling of Holt’s stance when he called Mr. Naumann because he hadn’t heard from the publisher by the R.S.V.P. deadline. Mr. Baldwin was referred instead to a publicist who told him Holt would not attend. In disbelief, he called Mr. Naumann a second time. “Michael told me he was very, very upset and hurt that the Pynchon book wasn’t on the list of nominations,” Mr. Baldwin said, “and that it would be an insult to his friend-not that I know that they are friends-for him to come.”
In vain, Mr. Baldwin tried to explain that Holt’s spending $7,200 for a table would help support the book foundation. Mr. Baldwin recounted that he gave Mr. Naumann his “usual spiel.” “I tried to make the point that, even though this is a very competitive industry and the ferocity of it is great, especially now, we’re a community,” he said. “But he was very angry. He said it was a slap in the face. It’s a matter of principle for him.”
Mr. Baldwin got angry as well: “I said that if everybody subscribed to the idea that if they weren’t nominated they wouldn’t come, there wouldn’t be any more National Book Awards! But Michael just said, ‘Neil, I have no obligation to be anywhere I don’t want to be.’ It’s very frustrating; we’re trying to create a philanthropic mission out of a commercial nexus, and maybe it’s the nature of the culture that we end up in situations where the very people we’re trying to promote don’t get it.”
Mr. Naumann, however, remains focused on the single evening. “I wasn’t there because the jury chose not to put Thomas Pynchon into the list of finalists,” he said. “I felt it was so awkward, not to say nuts . How could they say, To hell with one of the greatest writers produced in this century? And that’s not just my opinion, but of reviewers across the country … I’m not only Tom’s friend but also his publisher, and I couldn’t be part of that. So I’m a sore loser-and proud of it!”
Mr. Naumann has followed up with a letter to Mr. Baldwin, making another point, one that was a subject of much debate both during and after the awards. “I wrote that I just couldn’t have watched the spectacle of the prize not even going to Don DeLillo, who, of the nominees, wrote the most important piece of fiction this year,” Mr. Naumann said. “I’m very happy for Morgan, but there’s only so much a publisher can take.”
Yet spectacle is at the heart of the matter. Commercially minded publishers and their audiences want some bang for their buck, and, as Mr. Naumann recalled of his favorite recluse, “When Tom got the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow , he sent in some professor who made a funny speech, and people got very angry. The institutional memory is very long.” Of course, there is still for Mr. DeLillo-or Mr. Pynchon-the prospect of the Pulitzer Prize. “Wouldn’t that be embarrassing for the National Book Award judges,” Mr. Naumann laughed.
The DeLillo loss continues to rankle many in literary circles, not the least because they feel the award’s outcome is the result, as an editor in the DeLillo camp said, “of soft committees who all have friends or enemies among the nominees. It’s payback time. You wonder what they bring to bear besides grudges.… This year’s vote was really a knock against the postmodernist novel and what DeLillo was trying to do with it.”
It is a criticism that Mr. Baldwin takes to heart. “How can you feel badly about the choice of Cold Mountain ?” he said. “On the other hand, when I read Underworld , I thought there wasn’t even an analogy for it-not even ‘the Moby-Dick of the 90′s.’ It’s truly unique, regardless of whether you like it or think it’s good.” To his relief, the DeLillo-versus-Frazier issue so consumed the other diners at the ceremony that he thought no one picked up on Holt’s disappearing act. “Bruno Quinson was at my table,” Mr. Baldwin said, “and I didn’t even tell him.”
Mr. DeLillo took a rather different approach to the evening. He arrived equipped with printed cards, which he gave to fellow finalists, bearing his name in the upper right-hand corner and the message “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” centered in large letters below. “He said he planned to hand them out whether he won or lost,” one recipient said. And, silently, he did.