One-Minute Book Reviews

July 10, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time: Denis Johnson and Michael Cunningham

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,Book Awards,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 pm
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The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Michael Cunningham says that he and the two other jurors for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction found it “upsetting” that the board that oversees the awards rejected all three of the books they nominated, including Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Here’s what others might find upsetting: In a 5,000-word post on the controversy for the Page-Turner blog for the New Yorker, Cunningham doesn’t mention a conflict of interest: As I noted in April, Johnson helped to launch Cunningham’s career by providing a blurb for his first book and did him another favor by allowing him to reprint his work in an anthology. Some people would argue that, given these conflicts, Cunningham should have recused himself from judging Johnson’s work for the Pulitzer. His New Yorker post makes clear that he participated actively in the process.

Here’s what the two writers say about each other:

Denis Johnson on Michael Cunningham’s Golden States:
“Michael Cunningham writes with wisdom, humor, and style about a difficult part of any life.”

Michael Cunningham on Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams:
“Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and—in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West—a profoundly American book.”

Read other posts in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

As noted on the “About This Blog” page on this site, comments on posts must relate directly to their content,  must contain no more than 250 words, and must  have a civil tone.  They must also include a name, a photo avatar, or a link to a site what includes these, unless their author is known to the moderator of One-Minute Book Reviews. 

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 19, 2012

Pulitzer Nominee Helped a Juror Who Chose Him as a 2012 Finalist

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:33 pm
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Pulitzer juror Michael Cunningham received help at least twice in his career from Denis Johnson, a novelist he helped select as a 2012 fiction nominee (the term the awards sponsor prefers to “finalist”). Details appear in this update to yesterday’s post defending the Pulitzer Prize Board’s controversial decision to give no fiction award this year.

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2012

10 Famous Novels That Didn’t Win a Pulitzer Prize

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Newspapers,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 am
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The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics

By Janice Harayda

Consider this if your favorite book doesn’t win one of the Pulitzer prizes that will be announced at 3 p.m. today: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:

1962
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor

1957
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

1952
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

1941
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.

1937
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

1930
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

1928
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

1926
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

1921
Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is a re-post in slightly different form of an article that appeared on this site in 2007.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

The latest in a series of posts about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

 © 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2012

American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best

Why are women winning fewer Caldecott medals than at any point in the 74-year history of the ALA’s top prize for picture books?

By Janice Harayda

Four out of five librarians are women, but when it comes to children’s book awards, nobody could accuse them of an excess of sisterhood. For decades the American Library Association has had a dismal record of honoring female artists with its Caldecott medal, given each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” That record just got worse.

Last week the ALA named the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and three Honor books, all four of whom were men. Long before that shutout for women, the number of female winners had sunk to its lowest level in the 74-year history of the prize. Women won 10 percent the Caldecott medals from 2000-2009 compared with 30 percent in the 1950s and 40 percent in the 1960s. They are also doing worse than men by virtually every other measure of the award. Male artists have won roughly twice as many Caldecott medals and Honor awards overall as their female counterparts. They have won all the Honor awards four times as often. And the women whom librarians have passed over aren’t second-rate artists: They include some of the greatest illustrators, living and dead, who have worked in the field.

This neglect of women is startling given the wealth of female talent that has existed in picture books since Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott medal in 1938 and Virginia Lee Burton soon earned one for The Little House. It is that much harder to understand because women are claiming more awards from others, including  75 percent of the 2011 National Book Awards and 83 percent of the most recent National Book Critics Circle prizes. And outside of library sites, the trend has received little notice, perhaps because it is to some extent masked by the profusion of ALA prizes added since the Caldecott, including the Coretta Scott King (for black authors and illustrators) and Pura Belpré (for Latinos and Latinas). Many of the newer awards have gone to female artists and allow the library association to say that it honors women while denying them its showpiece award for picture books, which has more prestige and impact on sales.

Caldecott judges snub women’s books on other year’s-best lists

Librarians have defended their Caldecott record with arguments that collapse under scrutiny. Some have suggested that women win fewer Caldecotts because they are staying home and having babies instead of working on the next Where the Wild Things Are. If only female artists were all gay and childless like Maurice Sendak! Never mind that in the 1950s – when far more women stayed home – women won twice as many Caldecotts as in the past 13 years. And never mind that in England, where women also have babies, they won 60 percent of the Kate Greenaway medals (“the British Caldecott”) between 2000–2009 compared with 10 percent of Caldecotts.

Other librarians blame publishers for the medal gap. They speculate that fewer picture books by women get published, although they cite no evidence of it. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of children’s literature magazine The Horn Book, punted when he heard in 2007 that men had won four times as many Caldecott medals as women in the past two decades. “I wouldn’t argue that sexism is at work here without a lot more information – what percentage of picture books are illustrated by women, for starters,” he said.

The publishing industry offers much to blame in how it treats women, but it isn’t causing the medal gap. Consider the best-picture-books-of-the-year lists in major newspapers and trade magazines. In late 2011 virtually all lists included multiple books by female artists. Every year their editors and reviewers find outstanding books by women: It’s the Caldecott judges who have trouble. Then perhaps librarians have higher standards than the critics for the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? Not likely: This year School Library Journal had several female artists on its best-picture-books list.

The idea that publishers are causing the medals gap loses more ground when you consider the books spurned by Caldecott judges. This year the also-rans included a book that made the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books list: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which has unique and beautiful paper cuts by Pam Dalton and a text by Katherine Paterson, who has won the National Book Award and Newbery medal twice each. Librarians also rejected a book named one of the year’s best by School Library Journal and other publications: Mouse & Lion, illustrated by 1973 Caldecott Honor artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose work has appeared in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and who is one of the greatest living picture-book artists. The judges instead gave a second Caldecott medal to Chris Raschka for his A Ball for Daisy, which has a bright crowd-pleasing appeal but lacks the depth and originality of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mouse & Lion. Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.

Favoring books because they’re by men … or because they’re about boys?

Some librarians counter the accusations of favoritism by saying that the Caldecott committees change annually. But rotating the judges doesn’t help if a long-term institutional bias affects decisions. And ALA judges have shown such a pattern: They lean toward artists who are popular with children or who they think should be, so their awards may reflect children’s well-documented prejudices about sex roles. Many librarians are also desperate to promote reading among boys and may honor books by men because they are more likely to depict male characters. This idea gains plausibility from the medal count for Newbery awards for books for older children, which skews in other direction: Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.

None of these reasons is acceptable. If the librarians want to reward books that they believe will interest boys without slighting women, they have a simple way do it: Give more medals. The Caldecott committee has often named four or five Honor Books but this year listed only three.

Whatever the reason for the medals gap, the ALA is sending a message to children that women are second best. Librarians can’t say “We want children to see that Caldecott medals on books have meaning” and, at the same time, “We don’t want that meaning to be: Women are also-rans.” Children will see in the medals what they see.

Caldecott judges don’t discuss their deliberations, so we may never know why they found all women unworthy this year and honored a male artist’s book about a dog that lost its favorite red ball. But judge Michele Farley offered a clue on Twitter soon after the ALA denied the medal to a woman for 11th time in 13 years. Farley tweeted: “I am so happy it was a dog book!”

A note about the sources for this article: The U.S. Census Bureau says that 4 in 5 librarians are women. The 2-to-1 ratio of male-to-female Caldecott medalists came to my attention through a comment by Peter, editor of the Printz Picks blog, on the Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal, and my math confirmed it. All percentages and ratios come from my calculations and can be confirmed through the winners’ lists on the prize-givers’ sites or on Wikipedia. Some comments grow out of my conversations with librarians and publishing executives.

This is the second of two posts on the 2012 Caldecott awards. The first dealt with the scarcity of Caldecott medals for black artists.

Janice Harayda is a novelist award-winning critic who has been book editor the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been reviewing books for children and adults for two decades. Jan tweets about books for all ages at @janiceharayda.

Comments on this site may not exceed 250 words, must relate to directly to the post, and must be civil. They must also include either a full name, a photo avatar or a link to the commenter’s website, unless their author is known to the moderator. Comments that do not meet these guidelines will be deleted or edited.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 30, 2011

The 2011 National Book Awards Debacle Was an Accident Waiting to Happen — 7 Ways to Restore the Credibility of the Prizes

Filed under: Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:39 am
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The National Book Foundation operates more like a private club for the publishing industry than a nonprofit organization supported partly by taxpayers 

By Janice Harayda

Literary awards cause controversy as regularly as calls by umpires in championship baseball games do. But the debates rarely hurt a prize-giver as much as a recent furor has damaged the reputation of the National Book Foundation, which styles itself in a pseudo-British manner as the “presenter” of the National Book Awards.

The debacle began when the foundation listed Lauren Myracle’s Shine as a finalist for the 2011 award for young people’s literature instead of the book the judges had chosen, Franny Billingsley’s Chime. When the error became known, the organization said it would keep both books on the shortlist. Then came what National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum called “pushback” from an unspecified quarter. Instead of accepting full responsibility for the embarrassment, Augenbraum made Myracle complicit by pressuring her to withdraw. In return for her reluctant exit, the organization agreed to donate $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which honors a young gay man whose murder helped to inspire her novel.

These blunders may have no precedent, but they should have surprised no close observer of the National Book Foundation. Michael Orthofer, managing editor of the Complete Review, has noted that the organization has “repeatedly shown itself inept at carving out its identity and marshaling the resources at its disposal” for making its annual awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. Those resources include a federal tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and more than $75,000 in government grants, according to its IRS Form 990 for the year May 1, 2009–April 30, 2010, the most recent available for free from the charity-rating service GuideStar.

The National Book Foundation operates more like a private club for the publishing industry than an organization supported partly by taxpayers, handing out its awards at a black-tie dinner that will take place at Cipriani Wall Street on Nov. 16. It has shown too little of the “transparency and accountability” that a major report by the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector called the “core strengths” of nonprofits. It has also failed to adopt some of the best practices of other prize-giving organizations. And although it has said that this year’s problems won’t recur, its 2011 nonfiction jury no longer includes the award-winning author Rebecca Solnit, whom it  named a judge in April. Did she leave voluntarily or was she, too, forced out as Myracle was?

It may be hard for the foundation to regain the trust it has lost through its missteps, especially if it refuses to explain why it has four judges for one category and five for all the others.  But the organization could restore some of the goodwill by taking these seven steps:

1. Commit to financial transparency
Nothing shows the values of a nonprofit more clearly than how it spends its donors’ money. And much of the National Book Foundation’s praise for books rings hollow when it hasn’t given its prize winners a raise in more than two decades while paying its executive director some $200,000 a year, well above the $144,948 median salary for a foundation director in the New York area. The organization has also done too little to make available to everyone the financial documents it must by law make public. Its lapses include failing to post on its website “links directly to or information on how to find” its Form 990 and other statements about its budget, as the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector urges.

The foundation must increase a winner’s purse that just isn’t competitive by international standards, as Michael Orthofer has written. But it must also correct the lopsided financial priorities that caused it to deny authors a raise for so long while throwing a plush annual dinner hosted by stars such as this year’s John Lithgow, whose fee if not waived or reduced is “$100,000 and above.”

2. Create a discussion forum on its website
The National Book Foundation shows startling indifference to honest feedback compared with sponsors of other major prizes. The clearest example is that it does not routinely allow people to comment on its awards on its website. Compare that approach with the blog on the National Book Critics Circle site, which permits anyone to comment on any post without prior moderation by administrators. Or compare it with the Man Booker Prize site, which asks on its home page, “What Do You Think of the 2011 Man Booker Prize Winner?” and links to an on-site forum for comments.

One of the National Book Foundation’s efforts to involve the public consisted of a contest to select “The Best of the National Book Awards” for fiction, an orgy of self-promotion that sought votes from the public via its website and “up to 10 million emails” sent by Barnes & Noble and others. But saying “Tell us what you love best about our work” isn’t the same as having a website that is always open to praise or criticism as those of the Man Booker Prize and NBCC are. If the National Book Foundation values its support from taxpayers, it should acknowledge that many of them would prefer not to comment on its Facebook page or via Twitter, and it should enable comments from or create a forum for them on its main site.

3. Spell out its criteria for selecting awards and judges
Taxpayers deserve to know what makes a book a National Book Award winner. But the National Book Foundation says little about this beyond making eligibility rules and offering the unenlightening comment that “juries develop their own criteria for awarding the National Book Award,” a laissez-faire policy that diminishes the credibility of the prizes and fosters untrustworthy results.

Setting clear guidelines matters all the more now that graphic novels may enter. The 2011 nonfiction finalists include Radioactive, a graphic biography of Marie and Pierre Curie that has illustrations far superior to its writing. Will the judges give the words and pictures equal weight or count one more heavily? Caldecott and Newbery medal rules spell out  how judges must treat the art and text of illustrated books. By not doing the same or or creating a separate category for graphic books, the National Book Foundation has set up a contest  — and another potential fiasco — in which a book may defeat a better-written one because of its pictures, turning the prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

Criteria for  prize juries might appear to be more clearly defined. Judges are nominated by past winners, finalists, and judges and “chosen for their literary sensibilities and expertise in a particular genre.” But recent juries suggest that National Book Foundation defines “expertise” far more narrowly those words imply. It can’t be a coincidence that all four 2011 nonfiction judges are full professors in humanities disciplines either at Ivy League schools or the University of California (one each from French and English and two from history departments). Why does the jury include none of the many award-winning authors in the fields of science, journalism, or narrative nonfiction who might have done the job brilliantly? What is the point of having two American history professors on a panel when the nominated books cover so many additional topics? Are two history scholars better qualified than an outstanding medical writer to judge the accuracy of the table of the half-lives of radioactive nuclei and other scientific facts in Radioactive? It hardly appears that way. It appears, rather, than the National Book Foundation values certain kinds of “expertise,” such as doctoral degrees, above others. If so, it would be fairer to say so directly.

4. Disclose how it handles conflicts of interest
Few things undermine trust in an organization more than conflicts of interest or the appearance of them. The National Book Foundation has long abounded with these and failed to explain satisfactorily how it handles them. Its Form 990 for 2009–2010 says that employees must disclose “all outside employment and/or volunteer work that may conflict or overlap with the goals of the National Book Foundation.” At face value that statement precludes no activities but says only that people must disclose some. And the foundation seems to view such activities generously.

Some apparent conflicts involve the cozy relationship between Augenbraum, the executive director of the foundation, and its largest donor, Barnes & Noble, represented on the board by its chief merchandising officer. It’s common – and often beneficial — for boards to include major donors. But Augenbraum also writes for the bookseller’s the Barnes & Noble Review. This relationship raises questions such as: Is Augenbraum working for free, or is he earning extra income from a company with a seat on its board? Ethics codes of large foundations should “prohibit the use of one’s position at the foundation for personal financial gain or other benefit,” the Council on Foundations says in its proposed governance principles. That test that might rule out the acceptance of payment. But if Augenbraum is writing for the Barnes & Noble Review for no pay, it raises another question: Does his free work affect a board member’s view of his leadership when writing reviews and managing a nonprofit require different skills?

Judges are similarly required to “divulge all personal and professional relationships that conflict or overlap with the goals of the National Book Foundation.” But Kathi Appelt served on a 2009 jury that shortlisted the illustrator of her The Underneath. After asking about this potential conflict, Motoko Rich quoted Appelt as saying cryptically that “I or any other judge might well have recused ourselves from voting on any particular book.” Rich also said that the National Book Foundation “forbids anyone that has a blood family, current business or romantic relationship” from judging its awards. Judges clearly may have other types of conflicts, such as being friends with nominees. So any prize-giver must do more than require employees and judges to disclose potential biases: It must handle the conflicts in a way that inspires trust.

Staff members of the National Book Foundation at times have responded to complaints about biased judging by saying in effect: We can’t eliminate all conflicts because publishing is too incestuous. Nobody is asking the program to end all conflicts, which may be impossible when judges often don’t know what conflicts they have until they see the nominated books. What the foundation must do is show that it has a fair way of dealing with conflicts when they emerge instead of using the “confidentiality” of the process as an excuse to avoid giving out basic facts about policies that other organizations disclose as a matter of course. At the very least, it should post or link to its written policy on what types of activities constitute conflicts and how it manages them.

5. Develop whistleblower and other policies recommended for nonprofits

This year’s blunders “won’t happen again,” Augenbraum has said. But the foundation’s Form 990 shows that it hasn’t adopted two basic tools for avoiding trouble that the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector recommends for all nonprofits: a whistleblower policy that protects employees from retaliation and a document-retention policy that defines how long it must save records.

These tools are all the more important given that another potential controversy  looms: The foundation lists only four judges for the 2011 nonfiction prize on its website when it named five in April and says on its tax forms that winners are “selected by four panels of five judges each.”  What happened to the missing judge, the National Book Critics Circle award winner Rebecca Solnit? If the foundation hopes to persuade anyone that has put its house in order, it needs to have safeguards in place for people who may have answers to such questions.

6. Use an independent legal counsel
Nonprofit organizations often get free legal advice through groups such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts or firms that do pro bono work. The National Book Foundation’s website says that it instead uses as its lawyer the general counsel for Random House and gives a seat on its board to the chairman and CEO of that publishing firm. Random House is a perennial contender for prizes with three books on the 2011 shortlist, including a young-people’s-literature finalist from its Knopf imprint. What would happen if a potential legal dispute involved a category in which the firm had a shortlisted book?

That’s exactly what did happen this year when the foundation initially made the controversial decision to accommodate the mistakenly nominated Shine by having six young people’s literature finalists instead of the usual five. This move would have given the Knopf imprint at Random House a 1-in-6 instead of a 1-in-5 shot at winning if the judges seriously considered the extra book. Augenbraum said the judges “unanimously” wanted the six books on the list. So it’s fair to ask whether the “pushback” came instead from a lawyer or board member. National Book Awards judges normally work independently of the board, which does not influence their decisions. And the “pushback” that doomed Shine may have come from someone with no ties to Random House. But the appearance of a conflict exists because of the business relationship between a Random House lawyer, Random House board member, and Random House/Knopf  book that stood to benefit from having fewer competitors. It shouldn’t be hard to find highly qualified  New York lawyers willing to represent the foundation on a pro bono basis and banish doubts about its impartiality.

7. Use its money for the intended purposes

A pillar of nonprofit ethics says that tax-exempt organizations must use donated funds for their intended purposes. This principle applies especially to earmarked gifts, but well-run groups make it a high priority to respect donors’ wishes with all of them. And while nonprofits may under some circumstances give to other organizations, the National Book Foundation pushed its luck with donors by giving $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which runs “educational, outreach and advocacy programs” for purposes other than those of the National Book Awards. That donation has won wide praise. But a furor might have erupted if the foundation had mistakenly nominated a book about a conservative Supreme Court justice and, to placate the author, donated to reactionary group.

Besides sponsoring the National Book Awards, the National Book Foundation engages in other activities described in the “Education” section of its site, some of them worthwhile. But donors, grantmakers, and taxpayers have a right to expect more from its centerpiece prizes.

Augenbraum told the Denver Post that the National Book Foundation has come up with a way to avoid putting the wrong book on its shortlist next year: Judges who call in lists of finalists will spell for the office liaison the nominated book titles and authors’ names, and a different staff member will call back to confirm them. That plan amounts to replacing a doorknob on a house with a corroding roof. If the foundation staff believes that its simplistic plan can repair the vast loss of credibility it has suffered, it needs to ask: How do you spell, “We’ve learned nothing”?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly.

April 18, 2011

‘The Great Gatsby’ and Other Books That Didn’t Win the Pulitzer

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:22 am
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Perhaps the most perversely elite club in American literature consists of the great novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among the members: Main Street, The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls. A list of other losers and the books that defeated them appears here. The winners of the 2011 Pulitzers will be announced today at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Using the statistical technique of regression analysis, a research scientist and book collector have predicted that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad will win the fiction prize, finishing just ahead of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule. A list of their 16 books most likely to receive the award appears at PPrize.com.

January 10, 2011

2011 Caldecott Goes to ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee,’ Newbery to ‘Moon Over Manifest’ — Full List of ALA Winners

Filed under: Book Awards,Children's Books,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 pm
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A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook, 2010) has won the 2011 Caldecott Medal for the year’s most distinguished picture book. Erin Stead illustrated and Philip Stead wrote the book, which the New York Times Book Review called “gently absurd comedy.” Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) has won the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of literature for children. The American Library also named other winners today.

November 30, 2010

Franzen Snubbed Again — Loses Bad Sex Award

Filed under: Book Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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First the National Book Awards judges declined to shortlist Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Now comes another snub, albeit one that probably makes the novelist happier: Franzen has lost the annual Bad Sex in fiction award to Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her. Franzen has at least two more chances to come up with a major award: The National Book Critics Circle awards shortlist will be named in January and the winers of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in April.

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