NEW YORK – Lily Tuck (search), this year's winner of the National Book Award (search) for fiction, has a long history of writing about women at a loss in foreign lands. Over the past few weeks, she has been ensnared by one of this country's quirkier cultures: the publishing industry.
Tuck, who won Wednesday night for her novel "The News From Paraguay," has found herself and her fellow nominees — Joan Silber, Kate Walbert, Christine Schutt and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum — criticized for being too obscure to deserve the award, an unusual handicap for a literary prize.
In accepting her NBA, Tuck referred to her fellow "unknown finalists" and said they "all agreed how allied we are and how very supportive we feel of each other." Tuck's novel is the fictionalized tale of Ella Lynch, the Irish-born mistress of 19th century Paraguayan leader Francisco Solano Lopez.
The National Books Awards are modeled after the Academy Awards, with the book world putting on its evening wear and gathering to hear live who wins in four competitive categories — fiction, nonfiction (given Wednesday to Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice" (search)), poetry (Jean Valentine's "Door in the Mountain") and young people's literature (Pete Hautman's "Godless").
But the New York book world is a long way from Hollywood in more ways than one. Publishers and book sellers do worry how to connect with an increasingly hurried public, and count on the awards to attract more readers. NBA judges, however, sometimes care more about simply picking the best work.
While all winners were warmly applauded Wednesday, the ceremony dramatized the ongoing debate over what the awards should mean: promoting the industry or honoring excellence, regardless of sales.
Both sides were heard from.
Children's author Judy Blume received an honorary medal, the second straight year the prize went to someone as notable for popular success as literary greatness. Sales of her books exceed 75 million and her work is loved by young people, and eyed by censors, for its frank narratives about families, religion and sexuality.
"The urge to ban is contagious," she warned. "It spreads like wildfire from community to community. Please speak out. Censors hate publicity."
But although Blume has received numerous children's books prizes, critics have been divided about her work, with some finding it heavy-handed and others praising her honesty and accessibility.
The 2003 honorary winner, Stephen King, accused the industry last year of snobbery against himself and other popular writers. But he clearly didn't impress this year's fiction committee, which included his friend Stewart O'Nan, who just collaborated with King on a book about the Boston Red Sox. Bypassing such high-profile works as Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," the panel instead chose five little-known books for the stated reason that they liked those books the most.
It's hard to label someone a snob who shows up for a literary ceremony in a Red Sox cap, but O'Nan was still anxious to defend himself, carrying around a brief, handwritten note: "I would hope that our caring more for the quality of a work than its sales figures make us a friend of books, not an enemy."
None of the other winners Wednesday have had great luck commercially, but nonfiction judges could not be accused of entirely ignoring mass appeal. Finalists included Stephen Greenblatt's best-selling Shakespeare biography, "Will in the World," and "The 9-11 Commission Report," which stood out in a year defined by political books.
Released last summer by W.W. Norton, it quickly topped best seller lists — even though it could be downloaded for free from the commission's Web site — and was praised as an unusually readable government document. About 1.2 million copies have been sold.
First prize in the competitive categories was worth $10,000. Finalists received $1,000. The awards, now in their 55th year, were sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization which uses money raised by the ceremony to fund its educational programs.