Awards gala honors newcomers

Every chair at the long trestle tables in the South Reading Room of New York City's main library was occupied. But no one was reading. Instead, this half-acre space was filled with publishers, editors, and writers gathered April 28 for the literary community's spring rite: the American Book Awards. As dusk fell outside the grand windows, writers accepted awards in 14 categories, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history, science, biography, and first novel.

Tangible benefits accruing to each winner were $1,000 and a Louise Nevelson sculpture the size of an LP album. Among the intangibles, which may have counted for more, was praise from peers like novelists John Irving and Belva Plain, who were among those presenting awards, and applause from a warm, spirited audience familiar with the particular rigors of a literary career.

Author Wilfred Sheed said he considered the awards to be ''a wave of encouragement to writers - nothing more.'' Judging by this year's winners, anyone who is young, female, black, or writing a first book should be encouraged. Judith Thurman, whose first adult book, ''Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,'' won in the biography category, agreed.

''It is wonderfully encouraging. I'm going to take it as a letter of credit and reinvest it wisely.''

Gloria Naylor, on the other hand, a young black woman who won in the first-novel category for ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' seemed to view the reward with one eyebrow raised and a stoic idealism one might expect from a young novelist.

''I don't want awards and praise,'' she said just before the ceremony. ''I want excellence and longevity. . . . I don't think either praise or severe criticism affects a great writer. Faulkner submitted his first book to 16 publishers.''

Alice Walker, another black writer, won the hard-cover fiction award for her third novel, ''The Color Purple.'' She dedicated the award to her parents, ''who have never written or read a novel.''

Eudora Welty, whose writing career has spanned half a century, won in the soft-cover fiction category for her collected short stories. The original paperback award went to Lisa Goldstein, a young Berkeley, Calif., woman whose book, ''The Red Magician,'' was her first time out.

There was considerably less pomp and extravagance surrounding this occasion than at the first ABA ceremony three years ago. That evening included dinner and dancing for 1,500 people. Winners' names were kept secret in sealed envelopes until the last moment. Critics of the event compared it to the Hollywood Oscar ceremony, a flashy motif they felt inappropriate. This year the winners had been announced a week earlier. In fact, the happy contingents of prizewinning authors , whose books were selected from a total of 1,544 titles considered this year, wore name tags designating their status.

Few of the runners-up bothered to come. Among the nominated books in the fiction category were works by Gail Godwin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Paul Theroux, and Anne Tyler. Fox Butterfield, a New York Times writer, was there. His ''China: Alive in a Bitter Sea'' won the nonfiction hard-cover award from among a group that included two best sellers, Jonathan Schell's ''The Fate of the Earth'' and David McClintock's ''Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street.''

As for the controversy that raged three years ago, it appears to have dissipated entirely. No one seemed terribly interested in what had been a passionate battle - a battle fought, in this case, over the ABA's inclusion of booksellers and librarians on the jury panels. ''Too commercial,'' roared literary lions like Norman Mailer and William Styron, even though their novels had won prizes. They preferred the National Book Awards, whose judges were exclusively authors and critics. Those awards ended when publishers withdrew their support, claiming NBA was ''elitist.''

ABA compromised this year by including fewer ''commercial'' types on the panels. That effort, plus a clear sentiment to close ranks in a dampened publishing climate, seems to have generated the genial spirit.

''This is not a time for personal grudges,'' said syndicated columnist Liz Smith, who was on hand to present an award. ''Publishers and writers need this.''

A few of the choices may have seemed surprising, if only because they won over best sellers or better-known authors, and judges varied in their assessment of the fairness of the selection process.

ABA judge Raymond Sokolov, an editor and book critic whose panel selected the Dinesen biography by Judith Thurman, was delighted by the choice, which he clearly felt was a succes d'estime. ''In my category, the result was so impeccable that in this instance, at least, the system seems to have worked. It shows that booksellers can read, too, and that they do not necessarily act as commercial people when you put them on a panel.''

Journalist Susan Brownmiller, one of 17 judges on the panel choosing hard-cover and soft-cover nonfiction winners, was less confident of her panel's decision.

''Three hundred books arrived. At first, it was like Christmas.'' But, she added, she was unable to finish many. The choice of Butterfield's China book surprised her. ''McClintock's book was such a juicy, wonderful story,'' she said , adding that the tale of corruption in the publishing and movie industries might have turned off some judges.

Perhaps it was not surprising that at least one writer present made light of the awards.

''It is healthier to read books than to compare them,'' John Irving, who presented two fiction awards, told the audience. ''We engage in a kind of literary police work, a kind of Algonquin nastiness that lacks passion and is miserly in its praise.'' He added that his favorite book of 1982, Craig Nova's ''The Good Son,'' hadn't even been nominated.

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