Wouldn’t it be great if the book industry had its own Oscars?

[The New York Times]

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I’ve got an essay on the short and inglorious history of the American Book Awards. Actually, it’s also a history of the short and inglorious rebranding of the National Book Awards, for the two were one in the same: in the 1980s, the publishing industry tried to turn its awards into a media-friendly Oscars for books, with predictably disastrous results. My essay details many of those disasters. But I came out of this pretty sympathetic to the publishers’ goals — or at least more sympathetic to them than to the way the National Book Awards are currently handled.

Since authors (and especially literary authors) were the ones who fouled things up for the American Book Awards (or the TABAs, as they were called), it seems only fair to spend some time quoting the authors who did make it to the first ceremony. TABA winners didn’t give speeches — this was one of several admittedly baffling choices by the event’s organizers — but co-hosts William F. Buckley and John Chancellor, along with a number of celebrity presenters, indulged in some painfully scripted banter. And thanks to the Hoover Institution’s archive of Buckley’s Firing Line (the only TV coverage the Awards got was a rebroadcast on this show), you can read the Awards’ full transcript here.

  • Erica Jong, presenting the first novel award: “It was said by some 19th century wag that a publisher would rather see a burglar in his office than a poet. This istrue, alas, of first novelists. The world never needs another first novelist. Every first novel is the triumph of hope over despair, a desperate leap in the dark.”
  • John Towland, presenting the history (hardcover) award: “And the TABA award goes to Henry Kissinger. (applause) And now the nominees for History Paperback.” (Actually, Kissinger got lustily booed by the 1600 or so in attendance.)
  • Lauren Baccall, presenting the biography award: “I think I might die right here, I’m so nervous. I have really no jokes at all to tell, except that I can only say that the fact that I’m even included in the evening is quite sufficient for me, and that anyone should call me an author is more than I ever thought would happen to me in my life.” (Bacall won the autobiography [hardcover] award — the closest the TABAs got to the rampant commercialism predicted by the literary community.)
  • Buckley, presenting presenter Isaac Asimov: “The award for science will be given by Issac Asimov, whose own achievements make him a legitimate object of scientific curiosity.”

Asimov, who appeared to be more comfortable with the award show format than the other author-presenters, shared a good-natured account of his first publication. (“It was on October 21st, 1938 — 41years, six months and 10 days ago, which will probably strike you dumb with amazement in view of the incredibly youthful appearanceI present.”) But Buckley got the best line of the night — an ad lib after his Stained Glass won best mystery (paperback). “I’m pleased,” he quipped, “by this documentary evidence of the incorruptibility of the [Awards].”

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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