One-Minute Book Reviews

November 20, 2008

Why Were So Many More Nonfiction Books Than Novels Nominated for the 2008 National Book Awards? (Late Night With Jan Harayda)

It costs $125 to nominate a book for a National Book Award. Why were so many more publishers willing to pay it for nonfiction than for fiction or poetry?

Do recent nonfiction books outshine novels? Many critics think so. And publishers seem to agree, based on their willingness to pay the $125-per-book entry fee for the National Book Awards.

The prize sponsor reports that in 2008 publishers nominated the following numbers of books by category: 540, nonfiction; 274, young people’s literature; 271, fiction; and 175, poetry. Publishers may have submitted nearly twice as much nonfiction as fiction because more of it gets published. Yet that explanation begs the question, because publishers presumably buy books for the same reason they nominate them for awards: They think they’re good.

More evidence of the superiority of nonfiction might seem to come from Wednesday night’s fiction winner: Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, a reworking of an earlier trilogy. If this year’s novels had been stronger, would the judges have considered a book that includes previously published material? Was Matthiessen’s shortlisting a sign of desperation in judges who wanted a strong book on the final list even if it meant exhuming some work published as long ago as 1990?

Probably not. It’s more likely the judges wanted to reward a distinguished author in his 80s for his fiction and didn’t know if they’d have another chance. (Matthiessen won the 1980 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Snow Leopard.) It’s also possible that the judges just didn’t like some of the novels that many critics ranked among the best of the year, such as Netherland.

Then why did publishers nominate so much more nonfiction? Two possible explanations. One is that nonfiction books have more opportunity to catch fire in the media or elsewhere: They don’t depend on reviews as much as novels do. And publishers know that momentum can affect judges. In paying those $125 entry fees, some may have invested in what they considered the safest bets.

A related explanation for all the nonfiction nominees is that fiction has two main genres: novels and short stories. Nonfiction has many — including history, memoirs, biography, essays and journalism — and more ways to make an impact. This year’s nonfiction shortlist reflected some of them: The Dark Side (exposé), Final Salute (feature writing), This Republic of Suffering (social history), The Suicide Index (memoir), and the winner, The Hemingses of Monticello (family history).

Yet nonfiction dates faster than nonfiction. This is why novels tend to define their eras better than works of nonfiction do. So the answer to “Were this year’s novels better than the nonfiction books?” rests with history. Decades from now, this year’s best nonfiction books may have yielded to others that have more recent reporting or more up-to-date research, while some of the novels may seem as fresh as ever, just as Jane Austen’s do nearly two hundred years after they appeared.

For a list of the National Book Awards entry fees and eligibility requirements, click here

Janice Harayda is a former judge of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction, nonfiction, biograhy, poetry and criticism.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2007

Great Small Presses #4: CavanKerry Press

Fed up with the quality of so many books from major publishers? This is the fourth in a series of posts, appearing each day this week, on small or independent presses that have shown consistently high standards. The series will continue after this week on an occasional basis.

Publishing “gifted though unrecognized” poets and others in attractive books

By Janice Harayda

CavanKerry Press is a not-for-profit literary press that specializes in attractively designed books by “gifted through unrecognized poets,” though it also issues anthologies, essay collections and other works. Based in New Jersey, it has a network of outreach programs that bring art to “underserved communities,” such as prisons, public schools, underfunded libraries and homeless shelters. These efforts include donating a portion of each print run to groups or individuals who might otherwise lack access to books. Noteworthy CavanKerry books include the poetry collection Common Life, by Robert Cording, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and many other magazines.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept free books from publishers.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 18, 2007

A Small Press That Looks for ‘Gifted Though Unrecognized’ Poets — Coming Thursday

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The “Great Small Presses” series on One-Minute Book Reviews through Friday, when the site will also have a review of and Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants, a No. 1 bestseller. Coming this week:

Wednesday, 9/19, Great Small Presses #3: A small press with specialties that include murder mysteries and early novels by famous writers.

Thursday 9/20, Great Small Presses, #4: A publisher that looks for “gifted though unrecognized” poets and others.

Friday 9/21, Great Small Presses, #5: The press that James Joyce might turn to if he were alive today and couldn’t find a major publisher willing to take on Ulysses. Also on Friday: a review of and reading group guide for Water for Elephants.

Saturday Children’s Corner, 9/22: A review of The Summer of the Pike, a novel for ages 9-to-12 from Jutta Richter, one of Germany’s most admired children’s authors, who makes her American debut with the book.

Also coming soon: A review of Lloyd Jones’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Mister Pip, and a reconsideration of Agatha Christie.

To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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