This is the first of two posts on conflicts of interest of the appearance of them among 2011 National Book Awards judges. The second will deal with the fiction and nonfiction juries.
By Janice Harayda
You might think the National Book Awards couldn’t look worse than they did last month when their sponsor shortlisted the wrong book and, instead of taking full responsibility for the error, pressured the erroneously named finalist to drop out. But that acidic fruit may not hang lower on the tree of ethics than an apparent conflict of interest on the poetry jury that casts a shadow over the prize ceremony to be held Wednesday.
Each National Book Awards jury normally has five judges, including one who serves as the panel chair. This year the poetry jury has as its chair Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale professor who is also one of 20 faculty members at the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to the website for the organization. Two of the five finalists are among Alexander’s 19 colleagues on the Cave Canem faculty, the site says: Nikky Finney and Yusef Komunyakaa (with whom she also shares the title of honorary director of the program).
Were 40 percent of the year’s best poetry books written by people who teach with the panel chair? It’s possible: Phillips was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and Komunyakaa won Pulitzer Prize, and Finney, if less honored, is widely respected. And you might think that Alexander alone couldn’t have pulled her two colleagues onto the shortlist, given that the award has five judges. The truth is that she could have done it if the other four judges split 2–2 over a finalist and she cast the swing vote.
Many awards programs have a clear policies for handling apparent conflicts like Alexander’s, often posted on their websites: They require such judges to abstain from the discussing or voting for the winner or both. The National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the awards, doesn’t post its policy. And statements by its staff suggest that its way of dealing with conflicts is more subjective and less comprehensive than that of other major literary prize-givers. The foundation “forbids anyone that has a blood family, current business or romantic relationship” from judging the finalists, its executive director told Motoko Rich of the New York Times.
Is it a “business relationship” if you serve on a faculty with 19 others? You might think so. And Alexander may have recused herself from judging her colleagues. But that would leave the award, in effect, with only four judges, because she couldn’t judge most of the candidates. At the same time, her failure to recuse herself would lead to a worse situation: It would taint the 2011 prize and do further harm to the reputation of a foundation lowered by its tawdry handling of the young-people’s-literature prize.
No matter what happens Wednesday, the obvious management failures by the sponsor have the damaged the credibility of the National Book Awards. This year has brought new books from former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout, National Book Award winners Robert Bly and Charles Wright, and other acclaimed poets passed over by the jury that chose two faculty members who teach with its chair in a relatively small program.
The problem with all of this does not involve the integrity of Alexander or her colleagues at Cave Canem. Nor does it relate to whether she can be an “objective” jury member. Every literary-awards judge brings tastes and biases to his or her task. The issue is that a shortlist long on people Alexander teaches with raises questions of fairness to the other finalists and to all the worthy poets snubbed by her panel. If one of Alexander’s colleagues wins, how will the losers and nonstarters know that her support didn’t make the difference that deprived them of the most coveted honors in American literature?
[Note: This post has been updated. An earlier version listed Carl Phillips as a third National Book Awards poetry finalist who serves on the Cave Canem faculty with jury chair Elizabeth Alexander. Phillips says his time as a teacher at Cave Canem has never overlapped with that of Alexander, although the website for the writing program lists them both as faculty members.]
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You may also want to read her post on why the National Book Awards are broken and 7 ways to fix them, which deals with the uproar after the botched young-people’s-literature nomination.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she has posted further comments on the National Book Awards, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.