Awards and Sales

If, like me, you had neither read nor heard about the novels nominated for this year’s National Book Awards, then you’ll be interested in Edward Wyatt’s piece in the NYTBR. The novels on the list did not fare well commercially. They sold between 150 copies (Christine Schutt’s Florida) and 2,500 copies (Kate Walbert’s Our Kind: A Novel in Stories). One might look at the choices as a bold answer to the growing commercialization of literature, but there are some who see them as symptomatic of a disconnect between the literary establishment and popular taste.

Still, however uneasy the alliance between literary culture and commercial publishing, it is not clear that literature benefits when one of its signal awards involves only books read by a few hundred people.
The relative ineffectiveness of the National Book Award in publicizing new American literature contrasts strikingly with the Man Booker Prize, the British literary award whose winner will be announced this Tuesday. The Booker is a cultural event in Britain, the subject of radio and television commentary, even betting and the occasional pub fight.

None of this is likely to happen with the National Book Awards. Despite claims that it may be because Americans are so busy with alternate forms of entertainment, it’s hard to imagine that Britons are any less busy. The answer lies elsewhere, perhaps, and it might be time for innovative ways to bring literature back into the mainstream.