One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

October 10, 2010

Backscratching in Our Time: Edwidge Danticat and Amy Wilentz

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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Edwidge Danticat recommends Amy Wilentz’s The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster, 1990)  on the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog on Jan. 14, 2010, calling it a book “which blends current events with cultural history” and “seeks to detail the society beyond the headlines.”

Amy Wilentz recommends Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press, 2010) in the New York Times Book Review on Oct. 10, 2010:
“It’s a miracle, the way she captures the textures of a reality she was a part of for only the first 12 years of her life. The section in which she and her cousin and uncle climb a mountain and visit an aunt in a remote village is filled with small wonders.”

December 18, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time — Jonathan Lethem and Laura Miller

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:40 pm
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books.

Jonathan Lethem on Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book:

“Conversational, embracing, and casually erudite, Laura Miller’s superb long essay is the kind that comes along too rarely, a foray into the garden of one book that opens to the whole world of reading, becoming in the process a subtle reader’s memoir, and manifesto.”

Laura Miller in naming Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City one of the five best works of fiction of 2009 in Salon:

“A great New York novel should aim for the universal by way of the parochial. The Manhattanites in Lethem’s near-future/alternative-now metropolis experience all the crises and travails of 21st-century life in a slightly more concentrated form. (It takes a novelist of exceptional talent and nerve to make you believe that matters of moment can hang on the outcome of an eBay auction.) … On this you can count: Chronic City is the real thing.”

Lethem also appeared in the “Backscratching in Our Time” on Oct. 30, 2009. The series was inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the late Spy magazine. You can nominate authors for it by using the e-mail address on the “Contact” page on this site.

November 17, 2009

A Conflict of Interest Among Judges of the 2009 National Book Awards in the Young People’s Literature Category?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:02 pm
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The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. Will the results in the category of young people’s literature be affected by the sponsor’s decision to allow one judge to judge the work of her illustrator?

This year’s shortlist for the National Book Award for young people’s literature is unusually strong but may be tainted by an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel. The five finalists include Stitches, David Small’s graphic memoir of his youthful experience of throat cancer. One of the five judges for that award is Kathi Appelt, the author of a 2008 National Book Award finalist that Small illustrated, The Underneath.

No one could have known that Stitches would make the shortlist when the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the prize, tapped Appelt as judge. Appelt may have been selected long before any books were nominated. But now that Small’s memoir is a finalist, she should recuse herself or be replaced to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

When Atheneum paired Appelt with Small, he had won the most prestigious honor in the picture-book field, the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal, for his So You Want to Be President?. Appelt had received many honors but had not earned one of the ALA’s top awards. So Small’s willingness to illustrate her book could be considered a favor, however much he was paid for it: It was comparable a Wimbledon winner’s agreeing to be the doubles partner of a someone who had never made the finals of the tournament. Since the publication of The Underneath, Appelt’s career has soared. And Appelt has acknowledged Small’s contributions to her novel. Asked about its characters, she said: “He brought them to life in a million ways.” Small has also praised Appelt. “I was amazed by the twists and turns of the story,” he has said of The Underneath, “by the range of characters, both animal and human, and by the tone of mournful, nostalgic poetry in the prose.”

Does such a connection mean there’s a conflict? Some past National Book Awards judges may have voted for or against books important to people to whom they had close ties – for example, books edited by their editors. But the relationship between an author and illustrator is unique. Judging a book by someone who illustrated your book – and whose work may have had a direct effect on your sales — is different from judging a book edited by your editor and from which you can’t benefit financially.

The issue here has nothing to do with the integrity of Appelt, Small, or the National Book Foundation. Nor does it involve whether Appelt can be “objective.” Perhaps she can be. The issue is that Appelt’s ties to Small raise questions of fairness to the other four finalists: Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma (Holt), Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin (FSG), Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped (HarperTeen), and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic). If Stitches wins, how will the losers know that Appelt’s support for her illustrator didn’t make a vital difference?

Winning – or losing – a National Book Award may be the most important event in the professional life of a finalist. Apart from the money it brings, it has the power to transform careers. All finalists have a right to know that the decision was made fairly. The best way to ensure that literary justice prevails is for judges to avoid not just conflicts of interest but the sort of appearance of a conflict of interest that exists this year.

– Janice Harayda

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland who has been a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted other comments on the 2009 National Book Awards.

October 30, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Jonathan Lethem and David Shields

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Jonathan Lethem on David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed. It’s a pane that’s also a mirror: as a result of reading it, I can’t stop looking into myself and interrogating my own artistic intentions. It will be published to wild fanfare, because it really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume.”

David Shields on Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (back cover of the hardcover edition):
“I’m reminded of the well-rubbed Kafka line: A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us. Lethem’s book, with incredible fury, aspires to do little less. It’s almost certainly his best novel. It’s genuinely great.”

“Backscratching in Our Time” was inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy Magazine. Posts in the series appear on Fridays when examples of reciprocal blurbs are available. If you’d like to nominate authors, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page. You’ll find more examples of horse-trading in the “Backscratching in Our Time” category.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

October 23, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Aleksandar Hemon and Gary Shteyngart

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

Aleksandar Hemon on Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan:
Absurdistan is not just a hilarious novel, but a record of a particular peak in the history of human folly. No one is more capable of dealing with the transition from the hell of socialism to the hell of capitalism in Eastern Europe than Shteyngart, the great-great grandson of one Nikolai Gogol and the funniest foreigner alive.”

Gary Shteyngart on Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles:

“Hemon can’t write a boring sentence, and the English language (which he adopted at a late age) is the richer for it.”

The “Backscratching in Our Time” category on this site has other examples of logrolling by contemporary authors.

October 16, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time — Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Frank

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

Barbara Ehrenreich on Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?:

“What’s the Matter with Kansas? is the most insightful analysis of American right-wing pseudopopulism to come along in the last decade. As for Kansas: However far it’s drifted into delusion, you’ve got to love a state that could produce someone as wickedly funny, compassionate, and non-stop brilliant as Tom Frank.”

Thomas Frank on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided:

“We’re always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it’s a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless—why, they just aren’t thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves. Barbara Ehrenreich has put the menace of positive thinking under the microscope. Anyone who’s ever been told to brighten up needs to read this book.”

More examples of reciprocal blurbing appear in the archives for “Backscratching in Our Time,” inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine. “Backscratching” posts appear periodically on Fridays. If you’d like to nominate authors for it, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page on this site.

October 9, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Mitch Albom and Harold Kushner

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Mitch Albom on Harold Kushner’s Living a Life That Matters:
“A wonderful, much-needed primer on the truly important things in life. Many thanks to Harold Kushner for reminding us what we should never forget.”

Harold Kushner on Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith:
“Once again, Mitch Albom has given us a heart-warming true story, about the power of love to triumph over death, and the power of faith to guide us through the worst adversity.”

These blurbs seem to be another example of a first principle of backscratching: The Less They Need It, The More They Do It. After a series of bestsellers and a movie of his Tuesdays With Morrie, why does Mitch Albom need blurbs?

To read more examples of backscratching by authors, click here. One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes nominations for this this series, which was inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine. To suggest authors who should be included, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page on this site.

October 8, 2009

More Horse-Trading by Authors in ‘Backscratching in Our Time’ — Tomorrow

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:05 pm
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A Delete Key Awards finalist returns tomorrow in the latest installment in the series “Backscratching in Our Time,” which calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books.

September 20, 2009

Another Installment of ‘Backscratching in Our Time’ Coming Friday

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:23 am
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On Friday I’ll have another post in my “Backscratching in Our Time” series, which calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books. In the meantime, I found an interesting comment on this sort of logrolling on the site for literary agent Nathan Bransford.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted wrote a lively guest post for Bransford about dust-jacket blurbs that dealt in part with the question: Whom should you ask for these? She advised against putting an all-points-bulletin on your Web site* seeking people who might like to compare you to Lord Byron or Joan Didion, then added:

“I’ve also seen novices offer publicly, ‘Hey, if anyone wants to blurb my book, I’ll blurb theirs!’ Again, please don’t do this. It’s unprofessional in so many ways. For starters, there’s already an unpleasant impression in some circles that blurbing is a corrupt process involving log-rolling and political back-scratching and every other awful name you can think up for it. Don’t help perpetuate that negative perception. Further, let’s say Ian McEwan or Nora Roberts – or why not both? – are the sort of authors you’re going after. No offense, but do you really think it’s going to influence their decision, the promise that you’ll gladly blurb them in return?”

If you’re wondering why it’s unprofessional, the simplest answer is: It’s a conflict of interest — or the appearance of one — and as such could damage your credibility and that of the other party to the horse-trading.

*I agree with this only under some circumstances, but Baratz-Logsted made a good case for her view.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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