Criticism & Features


Harold Augenbraum on the National Book Awards

By Harold Augenbraum

We asked National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum (pictured left) to describe the home stretch for the National Book Awards, which culimate in a gala award ceremony at New York's Marriot Marquis. Here's what he had to say.

In the midst of National Book Awards Week, which is actually only four days at this point (but growing) and the night before the National Book Awards announcement. We have presented 5 Under 35, the National Book Foundation’s “indie rock” evening of open bar, music and literature, which was jammed to the rafters at Tribeca Cinemas and where I finally met 2001 Fiction Finalist Jennifer Egan, who is just finishing a reading of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; then the jammed-to-the gunwales National Book Awards Teen Press Conference this morning at the Donnell Library, and I just got home from the rootin’-tootin’ National Book Awards Finalist Reading at The New School where poet Robert Hass, nonfictionist Christopher Hitchens, and fictioneer Sherman Alexie traded political comments to varying hisses and catcalls and laughter from those present. In the meantime a lot of good writing has been read, from writers between 30 and 80, so perhaps the Awards are fulfilling their goals.

The Awards process culminates tomorrow at a black-tie affair at a big hotel in midtown Manhattan, where writers, editors, publishers, publicists, literary agents, readers, reporters, librarians, financiers, and other people will congregate to eat good food and drink a lot of Champagne to toast the Winners and Finalists. It’s the end-point of about eleven months of work. We began in January when we wrote to 450 former Winners, Finalists and Judges to request suggestions for judges. Then recruitment of about eight weeks. Then pulling the panels together on a conference call. That’s where our involvement ends. They develop their own criteria and process and we stay out of it. They spend about four months reading books, as many as 530 in the case of the nonfiction judges, and take part in several conference calls. I have a great deal of respect for the judges’ work and one of my favorite parts of the job—‘though always the hardest—is recruiting them. It gives me an opportunity to talk about books, unabashedly, and I learn most when they make recommendations. Even though they all come to the National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner, sometimes I never get to meet them in person.

In early October the panels pared their lists down to five. That’s where we are now. Five Finalists in each of four categories. Tomorrow each panel will meet in a restaurant somewhere in New York City and they won’t get up from the table until they have selected the Winner of this year’s National Book Award. Nobody but they will know the outcome until the panel chair announces it from the stage that evening. Generally there are one or two surprises of the four. I have my favorites, but don’t ask me who they are because I’ll dissemble.

I’m also looking forward to the awarding of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to the inestimable Joan Didion (by the wonderful Michael Cunningham) and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to the elegant Terry Gross (by charming Ira Glass) and particularly to a second year working with Fran Lebowitz as emcee. Fran may be known for her wit but I have come to know her as a great reader, my favorite class of people. We share a love for the work of David Markson and admiration for the book-publishing arm of The New York Review of Books (she recommended John Horne Burns’s The Gallery recently, and I lapped it up).

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing my teenage daughter as one of the stage escorts. If you’re there—or watch it later on C-Span or on our web site—she’s the one in the red flapper dress, the red snakeskin shoes, and the reddish hair. It’s a theme.

Harold Augenbraum is the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. He is currently translating José Rizal's “El Filibusterismo” for Penguin Classics and editing the collected poems of Marcel Proust for Viking, with translations by Richard Howard.