The winners of the National Book Awards, including a prize for Translated Literature, were announced at an annual event in New York City on November 20. In a year that saw intense discussion of international literary awards—with Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke sharing the Nobel Prize for Literature—it seemed like a good idea to ask what this award means. I published a column about it in Asymptote, but I originally turned in a piece that was twice as long as what they’d asked for, and the finished article omitted all of the context of what’s been happening in publishing in the USA. When I saw the direction the editing process was taking, I considered pulling my work and placing it somewhere else, but ended up going with the program, against the counsel of a friend who read the whole thing and advised me to publish all of it because, she said, “People don’t talk about the background enough.” So here’s the rest, with a link to the published version at the end.
A discussion of the National Book Awards would be incomplete without mentioning the present state of the publishing industry in the United States. To speak of publishing today is to speak of global conglomerates and a system of organization that’s best illustrated by the latest media concentration chart. And to bring up this sector of the economy is also to speak of copyright and intellectual property, gigs, adjuncting, and volunteerism, along with the precarity that results from the concentration of outlets, and the disastrous impact of financialization, regulatory capture, and unstable markets generally.
It’s been estimated that seven thousand two hundred media jobs were cut between January and September. I know of an independent publisher, affiliated with a university, that eliminated their in-house publicist position and outsourced the work to a consultant who operates remotely. The status of the book object itself has changed with the times, as you can see when the price of admission at an event featuring the winner of a National Book Award—Ta-Nehisi Coates—includes a copy of the hardcover, in this case a debut novel, The Water Dancer, which you can pick up at the door on the night of the event.
And how are things going for the rest of the writers in this country? By accident, I happened to see the book contract for one of 2019 National Book Award finalists, a collection written by a younger academic poet and published by a prestigious independent house (the PDF was appended to a digital galley). The advance was USD $2500. Once that amount was recouped by sales, the author would receive royalties at ten percent, payable on a quarterly basis. That isn’t much. But then most writers don’t make money from their work.
It’s a commonplace, but worth mentioning, that in a society without censorship, where freedom of speech is enforceable by law, speech is not necessarily exercised freely. In publishing—which is to say, in media—the financial analyst sometimes plays the role of the censor, by justifying the recommendation not to publish a book, according to the rationale that, if it were included among the other titles in the catalogue, a manuscript under consideration would be, in industry parlance, an “orphan,” that is, a book that doesn’t fit into any of the categories that the press uses to organize its offerings. Such a title might then find an independent publisher. This is what happened with Megan Boyle’s 2018 Liveblog, for example, published by New York Tyrant and carried in both the Biography/Memoir and Fiction sections of my local independent bookstore in San Francisco. But on the award circuit, the coincidence of literary genres and market categories tends to be consistent, making for a smooth interface between the corporation and the foundation.
That consistency has a special significance when it comes to the Translated Literature category, because a stable concept of genre is the eye of the needle that a candidate has to pass through, in order to be admitted. In recent years, there has been some fascinating work, at the intersection of scholarship and journalism, on the ways authors have planned their books and careers, with a strategic focus on the US reading public, particularly in the cases of Imbolo Mbue and Haruki Murakami. But in general, the strait gate of entry is a fortuitous coincidence of domestic and foreign literary conventions and traditions. The largest portal of admittance is a wandering wormhole known as The Global Novel, a term of journalistic convenience, which carries a considerable freight of prejudice, because of the hegemonic position of the English language in the domain of World Literature, itself a concept fraught with racist and imperialist assumptions.
Humanities researchers use quantitative analysis to make inferences about the climate of opinion among readers, publishers and journalists. Their arguments diagnose and prescribe, rather than persuade or predict, spotting trends but not predicting what’s to come. And what about economics? Can we attribute the changes in publishing to the considerations of profit and loss? In the United States—a consumer society with thriving academic and celebrity cultures, but almost no literary culture at all, where notions of taste guide behavior, and where the media is almost totally privatized—the book trade is of course conditioned by financial projections and reports, but the currency that’s exchanged in the publishing business is another kind. It’s interesting how the phrase “the marketplace of ideas”—a piece of copy, or just plain jargon—is used like it meant something real. The capital that’s traded on the book market is symbolic, not financial, but there are no ideas involved! The currency in publishing is not ideas but attention, and a measure of it, to be really accurate, would have to be something like a quotient, factoring in all sorts of variables that are still hard to quantify, such as, for example, fascination, imagination, fancifulness, obsession, rapture, melancholy, dread, horror, and distraction. In exchange for this precious coin—the rapt attention of reading—a devoted reader, immersed in the act, who is also a buyer on a marketplace of attention, acquires an increase in her personal socioeconomic status, particularly in the form of an augmentation of culture.
The National Book Awards were established “to celebrate the best writing in America.” What constitutes the best is unstated. The entry fee is USD $135 and you still have to pay if the judges ask you to enter, which they’re allowed to do. The purse of USD $10,000 is small, but not insignificant; it’s the size of a modest grant. (It’s also the same amount awarded to the winner of the Foundation’s prize for Innovation, which is an interesting indication of its values.) The difference, again, is the prestige and its encoded significance: grants don’t project a meaning beyond their disciplines. Within the publishing industry, the National Book Awards have a reputation for being a prize for insiders; but it depends who you consider to be on the inside. For a practitioner’s perspective on translated literature in particular, for example, we might note that the American Literary Translators’ Association awards prizes of its own every year, and that, in 2019 at least, there is no overlap whatsoever between the NBA and the ALTA candidate lists. The significance of the National Book Award for Translated Literature, in an industry that has suffered an estimated total decline of twenty-three percent in the last decade, and where translated works remain at about three percent of the total books published, is something quite different. Here the winning title, and to a lesser degree the finalists as well, along with the authors who wrote them, establish themselves as having crossed the threshold from special to general interest, from the niche to the mass, from foreign to domestic. And this is where the symbolic capital of the publishing business, in a dual economy that threatens the survival of the middle class (traditionally the largest producer and consumer of literature, in the bourgeois capitalist West) has the potential to be converted into other, more quantifiable kinds of capital, by endowing the individual foreign author with the economic agency of a domestic brand.
The sine qua non, again tacit, of inclusion in this brand—the Global Novel subcategory of World Literature—is an ultramodern version of the Classical notion of the good. The good of world literature, as Gloria Fisk has noted, is its capacity to improve the individual, to edify and instruct, to develop the empathetic faculty, to conceive of society as a grouping of unique individuals, and then to view that society as an entity that, like the individual, is worthy of betterment and capable of being improved, progressively, for the benefit of one and all. This high ethical concern for civic advancement is the domain of the National Book Foundation.
Since she took on the role in 2016, the National Book Foundation’s current (and third) Executive Director, Lisa Lucas, has brought charisma, youthfulness and relatability to the organization.
The Foundation’s supporters include the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, The Ford Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Barnes & Noble, Penguin Random House, the Amazon Literary Partnership, Facebook, Google, Hachette, HarperCollins, Scholastic Inc., Simon & Schuster, Audible, Creative Artists Agency, Grove Atlantic, IBM Media & Entertainment, Macmillan, The New York Times, W. W. Norton & Co., Europa Editions, Graywolf Press, Oxford University Press, William Morris Endeavor, and the Author’s Guild. The Board of Directors includes the Publisher of Graywolf Press, the Chairman of W.W. Norton & Co., the CEO of Penguin Random House, the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at Alphabet Inc., the President & Publisher at Grove/Atlantic Inc., the Chairman of the Board at Snap Inc., the President of the New York Public Library, a Partner at Janklow & Nesbit, the President & CEO of Simon & Schuster Inc., the Head of the Worldwide Literacy Department at William Morris Endeavor, and the Head of the Books Department at Creative Artists Agency.
The NBF offers a number of public programs intended to help make books and reading a vital part of the social fabric of life in the USA, by bringing Award winners to libraries, colleges, festivals and performance venues; promoting a reading list and putting on a series of events to raise public awareness of mass incarceration; presenting an extended consideration of a single author from the Awards archives; holding an annual conference devoted to the theme of the importance of reading; hosting a series of dinners that feature a reading and discussion; and offering a series of discussions on reading with local New York City celebrities at the New York Public Library. The Foundation also operates as an educational institution, by connecting middle and high school students in New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles and Huntsville with local authors for reading groups; providing books and other resources to people who live in public housing in partnership with publishers and libraries; training New York City Department of Youth and Community Development staff to organize book clubs and provide reading resources to parents; holding an annual literary conference for teens; and granting a prize for innovation to an individual or organization that brings literature to a new audience. Since it’s a nonprofit you can look at their financials from last year with a click; the figures are modest.
Their influence extends far beyond the power of the dollar amount shown on the form.
There are five judges this year. Not surprisingly, a glance at their profiles reveals a common status quo orientation that aligns with the Foundation’s entrenchment. Keith Gessen is a novelist and translator, Founding Editor of the journal n+1, a 2008 National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, and a journalism teacher at Columbia University. Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator and the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association. Katie Kitamura is a novelist, Lannan Foundation Fellow and creative writing teacher at New York University. Idra Novey is a novelist, translator and creative writing teacher at Princeton University. Shuchi Saraswat is a writer, and editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a writing instructor at Grub Street, and an independent bookseller. Here’s what the judges share: at least four of the five attended Ivy League universities (Saraswat’s website doesn’t list educational institutions). These are elites.