The first in an occasional series of posts that predict the winners of book awards
By Janice Harayda
You know how how Simon Cowell said long before the finale of the fourth season of American Idol that Carrie Underwood would not only win but go on to sell more records any previous winner? Here’s another prediction you can take to the bank:
After reading half of the book, Jan the Hungarian predicts:
Joseph O’Neill will win the next National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his novel Netherland (Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95) www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043.
Netherland is good enough to win more than one major prize. But what it gets may depend partly on O’Neill’s citizenship. He was born in Ireland, raised mostly in Holland, received a law degree from Cambridge University, worked as a barrister in England and lives in New York. If he’s an American, he’s eligible for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If he’s Irish or English, he’s eligible for the Man Booker. This site predicts he will win the NBCC prize because for that one, citizenship doesn’t count. If your book is published in the U.S., you can win if you’re from Alpha Centauri.
It’s true that good novels get passed over all the time for awards, and literary prize–giving is only the loosest of meritocracies. But there’s a kind of “good” that judges can ignore and a kind they can’t.
This is the kind they can’t, especially when you have two dozen or so judges as the NBCC prizes do. The National Book Award for fiction has five judges, so the phrase “Winner of the National Book Award” can mean, “Three people really liked this book.” Or even, “Two people really liked it and leaned hard on a third.” One or two people with a cause can push a National Book Award in a direction that has nothing do with merit. When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, this happened at least once and led to a bitter public squabble after the awards ceremony. A larger panel of judges could favor a writer of high distinction like O’Neill.
You might wonder: How can you predict that a book will win an award you’ve read only half ot it? One answer is that 50 percent of Netherland is far better than 100 percent of most recent novels. Another answer is that – you’ll have to trust me on this one – some awards judges may not read more than half the book. In that sense, half the book could be a perfect basis on predict a winner.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Jan will review Netherland soon. Please see yesterday’s post for why she is using the handle “Jan the Hungarian” for her predictions. She predicted on May 10 that Pale Male will get serious consideration for a Caldecott Medal, but she regards that race as “still too close to call.”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.