TABA or not TABA: that is the question

The presentation of the first American Book Awards May 1 in New York will probably not spell an end to the controversy in which the awards were born, and may, in fact, be only a prelude to more serious troubles ahead.

Past controversy over literary awards has usually revolved around the appropriateness of the winners. This year it is the program itself, the way in which the awards are organized and books selected, that is the focus of criticism. Some authors, publishers, and critics are boycotting the awards, and at least one awards program similar to the National Book Awards is reportedly already being planned.

The war of words started when initial plans for the American Book Awards (TABA) were first released last year. The National Book Awards (NBA) shut up shop after 30 years when the American Association of Publishers withdrew financial support in favor of the new program, which it hopes will gain a wider audience.

On one side were the writers, critics, and others who felt the new system would honor popularity rather than excellence and who depicted TABA's supporters as profit-conscious entrepreneurs interested in using the awards as one more marketing device to sell books.

TABA's supporters, on the other side, say there was a need for a new kind of awards; that the NBA was too exclusive, recognizing books that were usually outside the interests of the general reader. They portray their critics as a group of elitist authors who feel that no one else is capable of choosing good books.

The National Book Awards began in 1950 by recognizing the preceding year's outstanding fiction, non-fiction and poetry. By 1979 there were 7 categories. The NBA winners were decided by three- to five-member panels of authors and critics, who sometimes created controversy, or at least surprise, by their choice of lesser-known works over best sellers. Only one top-selling book of the past decade -- "Roots" -- received recognition from the NBA.

The 33 American Book Awards in 17 categories will be chosen by a ballot of 2, 000 authors, critics, and librarians, editors, and booksellers. Each winner will receive $1000 and a sculptured plaque.

There are 3 technical awards for book and cover design, and 13 for papervacks. An omnibus category headed "current interest" includes among its nominees a cookbook and a diet book. Alongside more traditional categories such as fiction, nonfiction and poetry, there are categories for first novels, mysteries, westerns, and science fiction.

In a letter sent to TABA's board of directors last July, Roger Straus Jr. and Aaron Asher, president and editor in chief, respectively, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, criticized the format of TABA and announced that their firm would not submit books for consideration.

"The American Book Awards . . . promise to be nothing more than a popularity contest, another ratification of the best-seller lists . . . the new prizes reflect an emphasis on marketing and industry public relations offensive to anyone concerned with the disinterested recognition of literary merit," the letter stated.

Parker Ladd, executive director of the American Books Awards, disagrees: "We had felt that part of the reason there had been fewer people reading today than in the past was that they were not aware of what books were being done . . . We never wanted to honor the best-seller list, or marketing techniques," he said.

In most categories, five nominees have been chosen by an 11-judge panel of 3 authors, 2 critics, 2 booksellers, 2 librarians, and 2 editors. Other categories were chosen by smaller juries of experts. The approximately 2,000 ballots were sent to a "balanced proportion" of the same five groups represented on the nominating panels and will be tabulated by an accounting firm to determine the winners. The nominating judges and those voting will remain anonymous.

"We wanted to eliminate the possibility that one judge could prevail over another judge," Mr. Ladd said.

A letter drafted by an author, Alison Lurie, and signed by 37 former judges and winners of the National Book Awards was also sent to TABA, protesting the awards.

"The books are selected by an anonymous group of people," Lurie said recently. "The people can't have read all the books they will vote on. They can't help but judge simply from the books they have read."

P.E.N.-American Center, an organization of some 1,800 authors, the National Book Critics Circle, and the Authors Guild, also decided not to participate in TABA.

Bernard Malamud, president of P.E.N.-American and a two-time NBA recipient, said, "What we were objecting to was judging . . . by a vote, no matter what the qualifications of the people were."

"You pick competent people who know how to read, who have standards of excelv lence and can pick books according to those standards. The vote of 2,000 people means very little," he said.

Three of the five authors whose books were nominated in the general fiction category -- Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and William Styron -- asked that their books be withdrawn from consideration. Later four of the authors in the nonfiction category -- Frances Fitz-Gerald, Frederic Morton, Calvin Trillin, and David Halberstam -- also asked that their books be withdrawn.

Mr. Ladd said that the books would not be withdrawn. "We had always intended to honor the book and not to honor the publisher or author," he said.

Mr. Ladd said the balloting may be eliminated in the future so that that panels of judges select both the five nominees and the one winner.

"I hope that [those] who have felt alien to the process will sit down and try to philosophically come up with a program that is acceptable to everyone . . . well, not to everyone, but to more," he said.

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