This weekend the ever-expanding universe of awards shows welcomed a new star, as the nominees for the first annual Quill Awards were announced. This time, for once, the publicity was not about movies, television shows, or pop music. Instead, the Quills aim to bring a dash of glamour to the usually quiet world of books. When the winners are chosen, in October, the awards ceremony will be broadcast on NBC, part of the Quills' plan to "pair a populist sensibility with Hollywood-style glitz."
Designed as a kind of People's Choice Awards to the National Book Awards' stuffy Oscars, the Quills promise to put readers themselves in charge, "to reflect the tastes of the group that matters most in publishing - readers." A closer look at the Quill Awards, however, shows that they are really designed to serve a different constituency: publishers themselves.
For book publishers, awards season is often frustrating. Every stage in the life of a prospective best seller, from the advance payment to the marketing budget to the author tour, is calibrated to ensure that it becomes a hit. And the three major American book prizes have an important role to play in these promotional strategies. The Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award give publishers a chance to emboss a prestigious gold seal on a book's cover, extending its viable sales life and helping to further separate the lucky winner from the mid-list pack.
But prize juries, inexplicably, sometimes fail to get with the program. Often enough, the major prizes are awarded to anodyne, already popular books. (Nor is this a new state of affairs, as Robert Lowell's 1950s-vintage "Words for Hart Crane" shows: "When the Pulitzer's showered on some dope / or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap.") But then there will be a uncooperative group like the fiction jury of the 2004 National Book Awards, which chose as finalists five books no publisher had fast-tracked for bestsellerdom.
All of the finalists were highly literary novels by little-known authors, and four of them had not sold more than 2,000 copies when they were chosen. Whether those finalists were actually great novels or not is beside the point. The point was that the panel, led by novelist Rick Moody, chose books they actually liked, not the books that publishers had paid good money to promote. This set off a storm of resentment among publishers. As Lawrence J. Kirshbaum, the chairman of the Time Warner Book Group, put it: "I believe that books which resonate in our society and - yes, to use that awful word - that sell should be recognized in awarding these honors."
Now, in the Quill Awards, Time Warner and the other major publishers have a book award they can love.
Ostensibly, the award is meant to detour around elitist judges, by putting the decision in the hands of the common reader. Gerry Byrne, the chairman of the foundation behind the awards, declares on the Quill Web site: "Since it is the reader who drives book sales so too it should be that reader who will drive the final voting."
Only that's not really the case. Look at the odd wording of the award's press release, which begins: "Reed Business Information (RBI) and the NBC Universal Television Stations have named the five nominees in each of 19 categories for the first Quill Awards." Evidently, "the group that matters most in publishing" is not readers, but the corporation behind Publishers Weekly and the television arm of a gargantuan conglomerate. This impression is confirmed by the roster of high-powered names on the Quill "executive council." There are no average readers here, and not even any writers (except for Harold Evans, the former head of Random House). But there is Lawrence J. Kirshbaum, as well as top executives at Harper-Collins and Simon and Schuster, not to mention Borders, the Oxygen Network, and the William Morris Agency.
No wonder, then, that the language of corporate p.r. has infiltrated what presents itself as a populist enterprise. No wonder, too, that there are so many categories of prizes, since one of the perpetual complaints about the traditional awards is that they are limited to highbrow categories like fiction and poetry. The Quills, like the Dodo in "Alice in Wonderland," declare that all shall have prizes: audiobooks, romance, cooking, self-improvement, and more will be able to benefit from the marketing advantage of having won an award. And lest there be any doubt that marketing is the point, eligibility for the Quills is restricted to books that are already best sellers at Borders, Barnes & Noble, or independent BookSense stores - or else have been selected by one of those entities for special promotional programs. Only books that meet these criteria could be chosen, by the Quills' (unnamed) jury of 6,000 booksellers and librarians, as finalists. The winners will be determined by the public at large, who can vote, conveniently enough, at any Borders store. All of this fits in perfectly with the Quills' declared goal, to "interest more consumers in acquiring books and reading" - most definitely in that order.
The result is that almost every single nominee is a book whose success has already been guaranteed by the very corporate entities behind the awards. "The Mermaid Chair" by Sue Monk Kidd was panned by reviewers ("a rather silly concoction, a Harlequin novel dressed up as something more," according to the Daily News), but it has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks and counting - and it is a nominee in the Quills' "General Fiction" category. Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth Kostova, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, even "The Daily Show," are all up for Quills in various categories. No wonder the award doesn't come with a cash prize - the nominees hardly need it.
Is it worthwhile protesting against the Quills' commercialization of prizes, which even at their best are a very blunt instrument for judging literary merit? I think it is, if only because awards, like reviews, occupy a fragile niche in the literary ecosystem. Ideally, they break the standard circuit of commerce by reminding us that, while the book business is a business, books themselves are not. Literature is one of the very few areas in our market-driven culture where genuine human values can still flourish, since the things we look for in books - discovery, wisdom, beauty - cannot be commodified and mechanically reproduced.
But the zone of free literary discourse, where aesthetic and moral standards can be invoked without embarrassment, has already shrunken alarmingly. The Quill Awards can only accelerate the process, by using what looks like a true distinction as just another marketing tool, and turning "excellence" into a euphemism for profitability.