Dispatch from Name That Author Contest, Brooklyn Book Festival

By Jane Ciabattari

The National Book Critics Circle “Name that Author” contest at a rainy Brooklyn Book Festival featured two champs (Brigid Hughes, who won the first ever “Name that Author” contest, and Martha Southgate, who won last year's contest) pitted against three NBCC board members–Eric Banks, David Haglund and Steve Kellman. (Their bios here.)

All the clues were from the past 36 years of National Book Critics Circle award winners and finalists in Fiction, each round covering four decades (the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 21st century). John Reed, emcee, started off with the first clues. 21st Century, Round 1:

Clue #1:   “He has fruit trees already, but he wants cherries and plums like the ones he has eaten abroad, and late pears to use in the Tuscan fashion, to match their crisp metallic flesh with winter's salt cod.”

Clue #2:    “Once in Italy, when he was young, he had joined a burial party.  It isn't something you volunteer for; you're just told.  They had bound cloth across their mouths, and shoveled their comrades into unhallowed ground; walked away with the smell of putrefaction on their boots. Which is worse, he thinks, to have your daughters dead before you, or to leave them to tidy away your remains?”

None of the panelists had a correct answer, so Reed went to the audience. Still no correct answer. (The author is, Hilary Mantel, whose novel Wolf Hall won the NBCC fiction award last year.) 

Here's a clue from Round 2, the 1970s, no correct answers from contestants or audience.

Clue #1: “She believed in silence at breakfast, and used to enforce it by staring craftily at a bread knife with jam on it.”

Clue #2: The final line from the novel: “It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime.” No one got this one, contestants or audience.  Answer: Renata Adler, Speedboat ,NBCC fiction finalist 1976

In a speedy set of 16 clues, covering four rounds, the panelists were frequently wrong or unable to answer; the audience came through for a number of authors (Joan Didion, Alice Munro among them.) Here are the Alice Munro clues, from Round 4, the 1990s:

Clue #1: The opening line from the title story in this collection:  “For the last couple of decades there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain and glass insulators that were used on telephone poles.”

Clue #2: The ending line if the same story. “Everything is black, but that is only paint. In some places where the optometrist’s hand must have rubbed most often, the paint has disappeared and you can see a patch of shiny silver metal.” Answer: Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman, Fiction winner, 1998.

At the end of the four rounds, Steve Kellman and Martha Southgate were in a dead heat.

Playoff questions came next. What do each of the authors mentioned in the clues have in common? Both contestants were stumped, ditto the audience.  Answer: All were female.

Another playoff question, from defeated panelist David Haglund: Who was the most recent female winner of the National Book Award? No correct answers from any corner. Answer: Lily Tuck.

After all rounds of play the audience joined in agreeing, this year's winner is…..   A tie! Co winners Steve Kellman and Martha Southgate will be on the spot next year.  The winning award was split between the two, with Southgate carrying off the NBCC championship necklace, and Kellman the Library of America Edmund Wilson volume.