Hours ahead of the big event, buzz is building over this year’s National Book Awards, the “Oscars of the publishing industry.” Headline grabbers this year include Malala Yousafzai, novelist Thomas Pnychon, fictional character Bridget Jones, and the Church of Scientology.
Notably absent from the event will be one of the top contenders for the fiction award, Thomas Pynchon. Notoriously private and disinclined to attend public events and participate in media appearances, Pynchon, not surprisingly, will not attend the black tie awards, Ann Godoff, president and editor in chief of Penguin Press, Pynchon’s publisher, said Monday, according to The New York Times.
Also unlikely to tune in to the ceremony is the Church of Scientology, which is upset over the nomination of a book by Lawrence Wright entitled “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”
The book has received glowing praise and great reviews for its “devastating critique” of the Church of Scientology. And despite author Wright’s credentials (he’s a New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner), exhaustive research, and allegedly honest intent (“That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology,” The New York Times wrote in a piece on the book), the Church, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy about the book or its nomination as a National Book Award finalist.
A Washington Post piece on the controversy quoted a Church official calling out Wright’s “sloppy research and one-sided approach,” adding the author “relies on questionable sources with axes to grind.”
Who will be attending? Jhumpa Lahiri, nominated in the fiction category for her novel on fraternal tensions and Indian politics in “The Lowland,” George Saunders, for “Tenth of December,” George Packer, for “The Unwinding,” and of course, Lawrence Wright, for “Going Clear.”
The Awards, which don’t garner the attention other literary prizes like the Nobel attract, have tried in the past to adopt measures to gain interest and make the awards (and the books) more marketable. In the 1980s the Awards added new categories, televised the event, and created an academy just like the Oscars. They event went so far as to create awards for technical categories, like "best cover," reported NPR.
The blowback was intense. Many in the industry hated the changes, including prominent writers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, who withdrew their books and decided to boycott the event in protest of the changes.
The event organizers have since scaled back. This year changes are more modest, such as including non-writers like librarians, booksellers, and critics to the judging panels.
The dinner, at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, a luxurious Manhattan landmark known for its gilded Greek revival architecture, is famous for its opulence. More than 700 attendees will dine on baked tagliolini, loin of lamb, and tiramisu.
(Speaking of attracting attention, a separate UK National Book Awards in London later this year dedicated to reflect the public’s best-loved books – in contrast to the US National Book Awards, which some say features obscure works – has such headline-grabbers as Malala Yousafzai’s “I Am Malala” and Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones: Mad About a Boy.”)
Pynchon and Lahiri are popular favorites for the fiction award. Five finalists are nominated in each of four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature.
Here is a complete list of this year’s contenders.
Look for updates on 2013 National Book Awards winners Thursday.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.