Notes & Comments January 1991
Affirmative-action book prizes
On the political agenda of certain National Book Award jurors.
After the successful campaign by a group of black writers to secure the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, it should not have come as any surprise that the National Book Awards would be made the target of a similar political takeover. Indeed, given the momentum that such affirmative-action campaigns have lately achieved in virtually every sphere of American cultural life, the wonder is that it has taken as long as it has for the National Book Awards to be added to the roster of prizes and preferments that have now been so completely politicized that they have been rendered meaningless, even as pro forma guides to literary quality. With the awarding of the 1990 National Book Award for fiction to Charles Johnson, the black author of a novel called The Middle Passage, this prestigious literary prize has gone the way of the Pulitzer and so many others.
Whatever literary qualities Mr. Johnson’s book may possess, it is clear that it came to the jury’s attention primarily for what we might call its author’s ethnic credentials. The whole sordid story was told in an unusually candid account of the fiction jury’s deliberations in The New York Times for November 27, the day the jury was to meet over lunch to select a prize-winner. Under the headline, “Ideology Said to Split Book-Award Jurors,” the story by Roger Cohen reported that the jury, which consisted of five writers, was split “by what one juror called ‘deep ideological divisions,’” and went on to provide the following details:
“There is acute dividedness over nearly everything,” said Paul West, a writer who is a fiction juror. “I came out of the selection process for finalists feeling that only a couple of the five books represent my tastes, preferences and standards.”
Mr. West argued that “ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self-righteousness” compromised considerations of style and merit. He said there had been bitter conflicts, with himself and the writer William Gass on one side, and the other three jurors—Philip Lopate, Terry McMillan and Catharine Stimpson, the chairman—on the other.
From the list of five books that ended up as finalists for the prize, we were put on notice even in advance of the official decision that novels by white male non-minority authors were to be programmatically excluded from consideration. As Mr. Cohen reported in the Times, of the five books that made the final list, two were written by “Spanish-born” authors, one by a writer born in the Philippines, one by a white woman, and one by a black male. In other words, the customary considerations of race, gender, and ethnicity were rigorously in force, and questions of literary excellence discarded by the majority on the jury as irrelevant.
Silence and acquiescence will be the order of the day.
Blatant political assaults of this kind have long been standard practice in American academic life, where they have succeeded in making a mockery of intellectual standards—and indeed, in driving many gifted students out of the humanistic disciplines that have been so adversely affected by the new ideological imperatives. Now our major literary prizes have succumbed to the same political pressures, and we can be certain that this destructive process will meet with no resistance from the literary establishment. Silence and acquiescence will be the order of the day.
Yet now that the politics of affirmative action has finally destroyed the integrity of the National Book Awards, isn’t it time for the literary world to acknowledge that this whole prize-giving system has simply degenerated into a program that “minority” writers and excludes other writers on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity? Simple honesty would seem to require an admission that ideology has supplanted literary excellence as the basis for these prizes. Yet simple honesty in these matters is not nowadays to be found in our literary establishment.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 5, on page 1
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