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Guest Post by Jack Miles: The NBCC at 35, the 1980s and 1990s

By Jack Miles

Former NBCC president Jack Miles sends us these reminiscences from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The members of the NBCC board in the late eighties and early nineties were a group of vividly individuated characters who would have made a terrific impromptu cast for a sitcom if an enterprising television writer could but have captured their respective quiddities. There were maddening moments at the time, but distance lends a forgiving enchantment. I am reminded of a professor of Latin American studies of whom the legend lived on at Northwestern University. When crossed at a department meeting, he would slam his fist on the table and bellow, “I detest!” At their rare worst, our deliberations sank to that kind of risible detestation, but at the frequent best they added passion to intellectual engagement at the time and enliven the reminiscence today.

As Herb Leibowitz points out in his remarks, the board acted most collectively during those Clinton Administration years on general nonfiction because those who had not read a given book could quickly be brought up to speed about it. Fiction was second-most-collective deliberation because editors in charge of assigning books for review had typically spent time with a good many leading candidates. In history and biography, learning and education could tell heavily at times, and some members articulate in the first two categories mentioned would fall silent. Poetry was, for me, the most interesting category of all.

In our deliberations, the evaluation of poetry came from three quarters: from one or two who knew poets personally in some number and knew the poetry “world”; from one or two who might not have had the temperament for that but were immersed in and splendidly well read in the literature, including some of the critical literature; and from a few—whom I took to resemble the reader most poets write for—for whom poetry was a sometime thing, a treasure perhaps but never a boast. From these, one would hear hesitantly and last but sometimes pivotally.

In my cinematic or videographic recollection of our gatherings, two images live on most brightly. One is that of the mentioned Leibowitz, dean of category #2 in the poetry discussions, head bowed, mumbling slightly, reading beautifully prepared and extensive thoughts on the leading candidates under all the appropriate headings. You had to listen closely, and the first time or two, I didn’t. Then I did, I started reading Parnassus, which Herb has edited, then and now, and more or less apprenticed myself to him from that point on in the poetry deliberations. No one knew more or said it better.

The other memory that still shines so bright, but with a shadow across it, is the memory of “stately, plump” Tom Disch. Tom could bring such joy with him. He was wonderfully clever with his own book titles, but the one that captures his own essence best is “Yes, Let’s!” He could be hilariously wrong. I had a troubled keeping a straight face during one awards presentation when he delivered from the podium a long diatribe against Joseph Epstein, whose 1988 jeremiad “Who Killed Poetry?” had then just appeared in Commentary. I shared his feelings. The trouble was that through the whole of it, he referred to the villain as “Jason Epstein.” I was seated on stage as he spoke in a direct line of sight with Jason Epstein, the expression on whose face could have borne the caption, “What fools these mortals be!” It is no secret, I think, that the press gives the NBCC so little coverage that our awards don’t really push sales much. As a former editor (Doubleday & U. of California Press), I knew well that editors work hard and that it can be a sacrifice to make time for yet another awards ceremony. But a drink and a laugh later probably restored the co-founder of the New York Review of Books and the godfather of the Library of America, a later NBCC winner himself.

I digress a moment for just one more publishing-related reminiscence. It is a truism by now that “acquiring editor” has become a job title with one word too many. Most editors are just acquirers, buyers. Most writers work perforce alone. But there are exceptions, and one of them, surely, is Gary Fisketjon. Working with the NBCC awards program, with the Los Angeles Times Book Prize program, and with the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Awards program of Claremont Graduate University, I have had occasion to notify many publishers of their writers’ good fortune. At the Times, I used to phone them first and allow them to bring the news if they wished to. And I have had occasion, candidly, to hear a fair amount of ill-disguised nonchalance. But Fisketjon’s elation when I phoned him with the news that Cormac McCarthy had won for “All the Pretty Horses” was exuberantly unfeigned and a pleasure to share. And, contrary to the black legend, there are, still, others in the business like him.

But back to Tom. In the Fall of 1990, I was writer in residence with the Humanities Center at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont. Implausibly enough, I prevailed on the Center to pay to bring the board to California for the awards meeting, this in the thought that it would do the board some good to see the USA west of the Hudson. The weather was glorious: warm and sunny in town with snow-capped Mount Baldy in the distance. Spirits were high, but before the idyll ended, I learned that of one the questions to which Tom Disch’s answer was usually was “Yes, let’s” was “Let’s have another round.”

He had had a round too many, I gather, when he came uproariously home to the university accommodations where our guests were lodged. What happened next I really don’t know (I was sleeping at home), but at some point the Claremont police broke a lock and burst in upon stately, plump Tom, nude, sound asleep, and snoring loudly. Now, having the police of a strange town burst into your bedroom must be every gay man’s worst nightmare, and Tom awakened was Tom more uproarious than ever. No arrest was made, but Claremont from that point forward became for him homophobic America incarnate, and some members of the board, back home, weeks later, began talking about a lawsuit. I regretted that this had happened too, of course, and I know Tom thought I took it too lightly. But there wasn’t an ounce of venom in the guy, truly, and I was grateful for that. We had a meal together later in New York and, by tacit consent, talked happily of other things. The truth is that the Claremont cops have never had the best of reputations. My problem was that I could never quite escape the high hilarity of the scene itself. News of Tom’s suicide last year saddened me greatly. As Prince Hal says of Falstaff, we could have better spared a better man.

The 1991 awards ceremony had a couple lively moments, too. Philip Roth, who had won in biography/autobiography for “Patrimony,” had given me his acceptance remarks to read. They began with his extending condolences to us for our mistake and went on to say that the one reliable feature of American book awards is that, afterward, everyone says, “They made a mistake.” So, he was getting that out of the way up front. Jane Smiley won that year for her best, most difficult novel,” A Thousand Acres,” one of whose strongest features is the way its plot eventually makes the pollution of ground water in Iowa a key element. She was then at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the state was making a movie about her, appreciative that she had taken the deep complexity and the dangers of agriculture so seriously. Unfortunately, they had a sent a camera man to film her through every last step of the event, including the reception beforehand and the ceremony itself. Jane is the world’s tallest female writer; offhand, I can’t think of a taller American male writer. Through the reception, she towered over us, while the boom towered over her. You could follow them moving around from fifty feet away. I should add at this point that the camera man was a dwarfish fellow in the filthy black rags that all camera men are issued when they show up for work on the first day. So, when it came time for her to come onstage at the New-York Historical Society Auditorium, the combined effect of winner and camera equipment was that of a giant prehistoric preying mantis descending upon the hapless little bug of an emcee.

My wife says that I only lose my temper when completely surprised. Whether that is a compliment or not (I think not), I lost it then and chased that camera man offstage as one would shoo away a dog. Jane remained her witty and imperturbable self, and the rest of the ceremony came off uneventfully.

Over the years since my brief tenure, it has been a kind of continuing course in American letters to follow the careers of those who were nominated but didn’t win, those who won, and those who were mentioned but never were never listed at all. Mike Davis comes to mind (lost to Shelby Steele). Michael Cunningham comes to mind (“A Home at the End of the World” ruled out with the devastating dismissal “please, no more beautiful prose about beautiful people”). Billy Collins comes to mind (dismissed as “accessible,” a word I have grown to loathe). Thomas Geoghegan comes to mind (nominated: labor writer, now running for congress in Illinois). Book awards exist to launch the good, encourage the better, and consolidate the best. Sometimes this happens for the writing, and such is the outcome proper to a literary awards program. Sometimes, though, it happens for a career that heads in other-than-literary directions; literature is a part of life, and writers are complicated people.

The NBCC was a simple, rather jerry-rigged operation in “my day.” It is impressively well put together now, in much tougher times for books and for reviewing alike, and therefore in times when its work is more necessary than ever. Prosit!