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Popular Vs. Literary Again (and Again)

December 16, 2008

328241_ph2008121503295200x260An article in this morning’s Washington Post (Dec. 16) explored the question of whether the Newbery Medal, the world’s oldest and most prestigious award for children’s literature, is actually discouraging reading. The core of the question? Are the award winners not just unpopular with kids but, worse, inaccessible to them. Today’s article stems from another story, “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way” by Anita Silvey, published in the October School Library Journal. Silvey cited last year’s Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village, as inaccessible to young readers, for example, and she told the Post, “If you don’t think of the children at all in the equation, what you get are books that work for adults.”

On the other side of the debate, here’s a representative from the Newbery itself, Pat Scales of the American Library Association: “The criterion has never been popularity…. It’s about literary quality. We don’t expect every child to like every book. How many adults have read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning books and the National Book Award winners and liked every one?”

Scales’ comments may unwittingly do less to support the Newbery criteria and recipients than to call to question (again) the disparity between popularity and literary quality in the very awards she calls to her defense (and the Nobel too, in case anyone has forgotten all the controversy leading up to those awards this past fall). 

With regard to the National Book Awards, how about a few words from another Washington Post writer, critic Patrick Anderson, quoted here from his book The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction:

triumph1“The literary world reached a dubious milestone in October 2004 when a National Book Award panel nominated five little-known women writers who all live in New York City for the annual NBA fiction award. Two were first novelists, and according to the Times only one of their books had sold more than two thousand copies. no doubt all parties involved are good people with the best of intentions, but what about all those other good people out there who are looking for interesting accessible fiction and getting precious little help from the alleged experts? The novelist Tom McGuane called the nominations a “meltdown” for the NBA, and that estimable critic John Leonard expressed dismay that The Plot Against America wasn’t nominated.

“Clearly, judges who snug Philip Roth aren’t likely to consider Pelecanos, Furst, Littell, Leonard, Lehane, or Connolly, and we are left to wonder if our literary establishment has drifted into the outer realms of irrelavancy. If we are going to have book awards that purport to be national, they should be open to all comers, not just to regulars at the 92nd Street Y. Personally, I’d rather see the National Book Awards decided by the next ten people who walk into my neighborhood public library than by the geniuses who picked the five white chicks from the Big Apple.”

Nothing against those “five white chicks” intended by my quoting Anderson here, but I think the core of his point is a good one, and worth repeating.

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3 comments

  1. This is the same conversation I have had for almost two decades about books, music, wine, booze, and numerous things subjective. As our society continues to embrace the instantly but ultimately shallowly fascinating, it is a conversation that will continue without resolution. I am happy that I came across your post – to me, it presents a hopeful reminder that middle ground exists.


  2. one (not me, necessarily) can argue that pop lit already goes through a natural award process whereby folks vote with their amazon shopping carts. so then what is the job of major “lit” awards? to recognize excellence in an undervalued book? to recognize influence/resonance within the art form? or are we really just trying to promote an industry? I have no problem with any of these goals, but I think they’d all produce different results.


  3. These are both great comments, and I’m not sure my brain will allow me to try go sum them up here. Let me say only that I don’t think book awards have so much weight in the wide world, as Laura Scott says, but are great for the authors with those big purses. People DO “award” with their wallets. I’d like to look back in history–and I know someone’s written a book on this–and find out just how many NBA winners, Pulitzer Prize winners and the like are remembered today.



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