The National Book Awards: Big Guns Go AWOL

O.K., it’s official: The National Book Awards are publishing’s version of the Oscars, right down to the it’s-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated demurrals by authors when they don’t expect to win the $10,000 prize, and the overlong, prepared speeches when they do. And then there’s the special Lifetime Achievement Award-this year it’ll go to Philip Roth, but one year a special, special award went to Oprah for her contribution to reading; how glam is that?-and the fourth consecutive appearance by Steve Martin as M.C.

But until Vanity Fair starts hosting the only decent after-party, no matter how Hollywood the awards ceremony becomes, no matter how many black-tied publishers, agents and authors show up at the Marriott Marquis on Nov. 20 for a $1,000-a-head rubber-chicken dinner and some jokes by Mr. Martin, the most attention-grabbing moment in the yearly publishing extravaganza will always be now, when the nominees are announced.

Typically, the pre-ceremony talk-especially about fiction, which along with nonfiction is the only category most book people really care about-centers on the books that didn’t make the short lists. “Where’s the new Donna Tartt novel?” asked one critic, referring to the long-awaited and ambivalently reviewed The Little Friend , which, with a publication date of Nov. 1, got in under the deadline of Nov. 30. Where, for that matter, is Knopf’s very expensive and, for a few weeks, best-selling The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter? Also nowhere to be seen: Jeffrey Eugenides’ widely praised Middlesex , just out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

According to Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, literary opinions are not his job. He’s around to choose the judges-whom he culls from lists of recommendations given by previous winners and judges. (He makes those decisions as early as the spring; judges begin reading hundreds of submissions in early summer.) “I tell the judges it’s their sensibilities that we want, and that the decisions are theirs alone,” Mr. Baldwin said. Judges are also not supposed to talk to the press, but one former judge said that she was told by her committee chairman to try to ignore reviews, blurbs and “buzz” as much as possible.

Except for the fact that one of the fiction judges, Jay McInerney, was the author of a rave review for Mark Costello’s Big If (before-miraculously-that book appeared on the fiction list), the panel seems to have taken a publicity-blind approach. Sort of. Mr. McInerney and his teammates-Bob Schacochis, Adrienne Brodeur, David Wong Louie and Jacquelyn Mitchard-chose authors that the National Book Foundation which administers the awards, calls “relatively young writers-none of whom have published more than one other novel.” (Somehow they forgot about the 25-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated , and also about Alice Sebold, whose first novel, the commercial and critical hit The Lovely Bones , has sold 1.6 million copies and counting.) But most of these nominated writers have some pretty powerful media connections. Mr. Costello, after all, is the partner of Scribner’s editor in chief, Nan Graham. Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here was chosen for the Today show book club by his former teacher (and last year’s fiction winner), Jonathan Franzen, and one of the stories in the book was originally published in Zoetrope , whose founding editor is one Adrienne Brodeur. Martha McPhee ( Gorgeous Lies ) is one of those McPhees. (Extra-credit tidbits: Another of père John’s daughters, Sarah, has a forthcoming book on architecture, and her step-sister, Joan Sullivan, just published a memoir of working on Bill Bradley’s failed Presidential campaign.) As for Julia Glass, her Three Junes was a Good Morning America book-club choice. Brad Watson-a visiting writer in residence at the University of West Florida and author of the nominated The Heaven of Mercury -seems to be the only nominee out of the big-publishing loop.

The fiction list lacks not only a clear favorite, but also a controversial anti- favorite-think In America , by Susan Sontag, in 2000-that could provide what contest-watchers live for: a big fat upset. By contrast, the nonfiction judges-Christopher Merrill, Anthony Brandt, Gail Buckley, Mary Karr and Michael Kinsley-put a strong front-runner on the nonfiction list: Robert A. Caro’s Master of the Senate , a 1,000-plus-page installment of the author’s L.B.J. magnum opus that took almost a decade to produce. Most National Book Awards–watchers have barely heard of the other nominees.

Then again, sometimes the National Book Awards committees like sleepers. That’s how Cold Mountain won the fiction category in 1997. And it’s how, the next year, Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy won over Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate , although I suspect the big guys just canceled each other out that year. If this becomes the year of the underdog, I’d root for Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Last American Man ; she’s every thinking person’s favorite magazine writer (in GQ and elsewhere) and a funny, pretty novelist ( Stern Men ) to boot. I haven’t read the other three nominees-Devra Davis’ When Smoke Ran Like Water , Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science and Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History -but their titles, at least, have that eat-your-vegetables quality. Whether this will help or hurt depends on the judges’ mood on the day of the awards ceremony. That’s when the foundation sends the committees to lunch-just don’t look for them at all-too-visible publishing hot spots like Michael’s or the Union Square Café-to make their final decisions.

Of course, nobody ever said the National Book Awards are supposed to reflect popularity, although they do-at least for a minute-increase it, despite what one publisher who wasn’t nominated told me: “Prize-winners are not usually best-sellers.” But this wouldn’t be publishing without a healthy dose of Schadenfreude . Publicly, publishers say nothing but nice things about the nominated titles. Privately, they bicker and bitch about who’s been excluded. And who came blame them? If I were at F.S.G. or Scribner’s, I’d be miffed at being shut out in all four categories. Both of those prestigious houses have, in past years, gotten many nominations; last year, they were winners with The Corrections and The Noonday Demon , respectively. But maybe that’s the point: While house-proud publishers think the National Book Awards are reflections on them, the authors and agents who supply them with books know otherwise. How else could the partner of Scribner’s editor in chief get away with publishing his book at Norton, and the student of F.S.G. star Jonathan Franzen end up at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday?

Sheesh. Doesn’t anybody have brand loyalty anymore?