One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2013

The Ethics of Book Blurbing: What’s OK and What’s Not? A Survey

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:24 pm
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George Orwell called blurbs “disgusting tripe.” What do you say?

By Janice Harayda

A publisher who was trying to promote a book once asked the late novelist Beryl Bainbridge for a quote about it. “Just say whatever you want,” she replied. Few novelists might allow publishers such liberties. But blurbs lend themselves to a host of questionable practices, as George Orwell understood when he called them “disgusting tripe.” Authors trade blurbs. Editors pressure writers they edit to provide them for other writers they edit. Commercial services sell blurbs to authors who have no obligation to disclose that they paid for the praise on their dust jackets.

What’s ethical and what’s not? On Saturday I’ll be speaking about the politics of blurbing and reviewing at the Biographers International conference in New York, and I’d love to know your answers to the questions below. On the following survey, a “blurb” means “praise solicited by an author, editor or publisher before the publication of a book” (not praise extracted from a review after it appears). Please answer any or all of the questions that interest you in the Comments below or tweet them to me at @janiceharayda. Thank you!

Is it ethical for authors to:
provide blurbs for books they haven’t read?
trade blurbs with other authors?
charge a fee for providing a blurb?
accept non-cash favors (such as sex, gifts or meals) in exchange for blurbs?
provide blurbs for authors edited by their editor or represented by their agent?
solicit blurbs from friends, relatives or other groups?
provide blurbs for books they dislike in order to help a friend?

Is it ethical for editors or publishers to:
ask authors whom they publish to provide blurbs for other authors they publish?
add exclamation points or other punctuation to blurbs?
take blurbs out of context in ads – for example, by using only a few words from a long blurb?

Is it ethical for journalists and bloggers to:
quote from a blurb without saying who gave the blurb – for example, by using phrases like “has been compared to” without saying who made the comparison?
review books for which they provided blurbs?

You may also want to read “Backscratching in Our Time,” a long running series on One-Minute Book Reviews that calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books in blurbs or elsewhere.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 30, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time — Jami Attenberg and Julie Orringer

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work

Jami Attenberg on Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which she listed as one of the “5 Best Things” she had “read recently” in Impose magazine: 

“I just cracked open Julie Orringer’s latest book this morning; a very wise and literary friend gave me a galley of it and promised I would love it. It’s gorgeous so far, master-craftsman-next-level kind of writing.”

Julie Orringer on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins in the New York Times Book Review:

“There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, The Middlesteins….The burning question, which Attenberg explores with patience and sensitivity, is why Edie has embarked on her self-destructive path. The answers themselves aren’t surprising: Edie married too early, felt ambivalent about parenthood, became disillusioned with her career. What’s remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie’s despair….largely brilliant.”

Read about other logrolling authors in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

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

May 21, 2012

Ethics Go on Vacation in Nancy Pearl’s ‘Great Summer Reads’ for NPR

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:15 pm
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[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl’s conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]

A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”

By Janice Harayda

You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.

Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.

Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.

This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.

Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 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.

December 31, 2011

Judgment and Disclosure Lapses at the New York Times Book Review

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:58 pm
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By Janice Harayda

In October the sponsor of the National Book Awards did a favor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, an independently run member of NPR. The National Book Foundation allowed OPB to carry the live announcement of the 2011 finalists — and benefit from any related boost in ratings or traffic to its site — instead of a for-profit station.

So you might wonder why the New York Times Book Review assigned a review of the fiction winner, Salvage the Bones, to Parul Sehgal, the books editor of NPR.org. Wouldn’t that create the appearance of a conflict of interest by giving an NPR employee the opportunity to return a favor the National Book Foundation did for an NPR member? If so, shouldn’t the NYTBR have disclosed the link between the awards program and NPR?

You might think so. And there’s more. Before the awards ceremony, Sehgal praised Salvage the Bones on the NPR site. She called Jesmyn Ward’s tale of Hurricane Katrina one of five “splendid books” shortlisted for the fiction prize, admiring its “pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate that endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy.” After the novel won, she reaffirmed her high opinion of it on The Millions, where she wrote: “Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is.” So it’s no surprise that in the Jan. 1 New York Times Book Review, Sehgal again celebrates the book: “Salvage the Bones … is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written.” After all, she’s told us twice before that she likes it.

What is a surprise is that the NYTBR assigned the review not just to a critic employed by NPR but to one who had made her views on the novel well known. Did the editors believe that no other critic could review the book as well? Sehgal is the most recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and was certainly well qualified to review the novel. But so were many other critics, including a half dozen or more recipients of the same honor. Was the Times trying to stack the deck in favor of a good review?

Newspapers often reprint reviews that have appeared in other papers or on wire services such as the AP, just as many bloggers self-syndicate by allowing their reviews to appear on multiple sites. These practices are widely accepted in part because they typically involve no effort to rig the jury. An editor of a paper or site simply reprints what exists. It’s also common for critics to review new books by authors whose earlier work they have praised, and more than 3 in 4 critics see nothing wrong with the practice, according an NBCC ethics survey.

But it’s highly unusual for a major newspaper to permit a critic to review a new book that he or she has lavishly praised for a substantial national audience, and it may be unprecedented at the New York Times Book Review. In the case of Salvage the Bones, the results are confusing: Sehgal seems to imply on the NPR site that the book is “pitch-perfect.” But she says of its author in her Times review: “She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.” None of this is intended to slight Sehgal – whose ethics and professionalism are, to my knowledge, unquestioned – but it creates the suspicion that the Times hoped to ensure a favorable review choosing her.

All of this raises questions of fairness – to readers, to authors, and to publishers. Everyone benefits when books receive as many reviews as possible from open-minded critics, because each reviewer offers a unique perspective. The situation might be different if the posts that Sehgal wrote before her Times review had been straight news stories that contained no opinion and consisited of, say, an announcement of its shortlisting and plot summary. But words like “splendid,” “pitch-perfect” and “as good as they say” involve value judgments, not facts, and the NPR description of the novel is indistinguishable from a brief review even if not labeled as such.

It’s hard to believe that the Times would have allowed Sehgal to review Salvage the Bones if she had criticized the book as strongly as she praised it on the NPR and the Millions sites. Readers would have complained that the paper showed an unfair bias in assigning a review of the novel to a critic known to dislike the book. Why wasn’t it equally unfair of the Times to assign a review to a critic known to like it?

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

December 27, 2011

Backscratching in Our Time — Lev Grossman and George R.R. Martin

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:33 am
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The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books in blurbs, reviews or elsewhere:

Lev Grossman on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which he ranked No. 1 on his list of the Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 for Time magazine:

“The artistry and savagery of Martin’s storytelling are at their finest: he has seized hold of epic fantasy and is radically refashioning it for our complex and jaded era, and the results are magnificent. … in the realm of epic fantasy, there is only one true king, and it’s Martin.”

George R.R. Martin in a blurb he provided for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians before Grossman named him to the Time 10 Top Fiction Books list:

“These days any novel about young sorcerers at wizard school inevitably invites comparison to Harry Potter. Lev Grossman meets the challenge head on … and very successfully. The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.

Via Ed Champion (@drmabuse) on Twitter.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes nominations for its “Backscratching in Our Time” series, which has included other prominent authors.

November 16, 2011

Conflict of Interest Questions at the 2011 National Book Awards

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:22 am
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Several conflicts of interest or the appearance of them may affect the results of the 2011 National Book Awards that will be handed out tonight in Manhattan. Here are some ties between judges and finalists and how they may affect the outcome of the awards:

Fiction
The conflict
Fiction judge Yiyun Li provided a blurb for Edith Pearlman’s finalist Binocular Vision that appears on the back cover of the book. Li has said on Twitter that for that reason, she is abstaining from discussions of the book.

How it may affect the outcome
Li has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and other honors that make her the most acclaimed fiction-jury member. Assuming that she would have supported a book she blurbed, her abstention will deprive Pearlman of an advocate and may make victory more likely for one of the two best-known finalists, Téa Obreht and Julie Otsuka.

Nonfiction
The conflict
Nonfiction judge Jill Lepore and finalist Stephen Greenblatt are both professors in humanities disciplines at Harvard University (history and English, respectively).

How it may affect the outcome
Greenblatt was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and may be the most honored candidate on the 2011 nonfiction shortlist. Lepore did not respond to an email message asking whether she is taking part in discussions about her colleague’s The Swerve. But if she would have supported Greenblatt, an abstention could hurt one of strongest nonfiction candidates. And it would further strain a jury reduced to four members instead of five after the unexplained disappearance of Rebecca Solnit, named a judge in April. An abstention by Lepore would leave the panel with just three members participating in some deliberations. And it would mean that Greenblatt could win with two votes in the case of a 2-1 split.

Poetry
The conflict
Poetry panel chair and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander serves on the faculty of the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to its website, which also lists as faculty two 2011 poetry finalists, Nikky Finney and Yussef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa further shares with Alexander the title of honorary directory of the program. A third poetry finalist  listed as a faculty member, Carl Phillips, says his term did not overlap with Alexander’s and he has not taught with her at Cave Canem.

How it may affect the outcome
Alexander should abstain from discussing Finney and Komunyakaa if the Cave Canem website reflects accurately her status as a colleague of both. If she does, four judges will decide the fate of those finalists, which could increase the chances of a hung jury. If she doesn’t abstain, that fact would create the unusual situation of a judge remaining involved despite an apparent conflict with not one but two finalists.

You can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post.  A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the sponsor, the National Book Foundation.

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She will be live-tweeting the National Book Awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2011

Cozy Relationships Among National Book Awards Poetry Judges

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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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.
www.janiceharayda.com

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.

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