Curse you, Robert Caro!

Policy made plain.
Nov. 21 2002 4:35 PM

Curse You, Robert Caro!

Chris Merrill, chairman of the National Book Awards panel this year, responds to this article here. Michael Kinsley posts a rebuttal to his response here.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

My motives were ignoble—mainly vanity and a desire for free books—so, it served me right when the books started rolling in and I realized with horror that I was actually expected to read them: 402 in all. Three FedEx men and our local UPS woman had been retired on full disability by the time all these packages were lugged up our front steps. If you lined up all these books end-to-end, you would just be putting off having to open one and get cracking. Who are you trying to kid?

Agreeing to be a judge of the National Book Awards, nonfiction division, was especially hypocritical because two things I have long claimed to oppose in principle are books and awards. Nonfiction books are especially regrettable. There is too much nonfiction going on in the world already without writers adding to it.

Many years ago, I conducted an experiment of placing a note in copies of several briskly selling books in a local Washington bookstore. The notes had my phone number and offered $5 to anyone who saw them and called me up. No one called. Though hardly scientific, this tended to confirm my suspicion that people like buying books more than they like reading them. And of course, in the famous formulation (credited to Gloria Steinem, among others), writers don't like writing—they like having written. They like having written under the impression that this means they will be read. The whole book thing is thus based on mutual misunderstanding.

As for awards, they are the purest example of gratuitous or superfluous meritocracy. Life itself is constantly sorting people out, awarding prizes and glory to some and misfortune or ignominy to others. Much of this is inevitable or even necessary: Free-market capitalism, specifically, works well for almost all by rewarding some people more than others. But why look for additional, unnecessary opportunities to say that somebody is better than somebody else? Even if you could say for sure that one nonfiction book published this year is better than all 401 others, what is accomplished by doing so except to make 401 people feel a little worse and one person feel a lot better? Total national feelings remain about the same, but the distribution of good feeling has become less equal. What's the point?

In anointing the best books, as in choosing the best college applicants or the best rhubarb pie at the state fair, the inherent arbitrariness of the process mocks the implicit pretense (often denied but unavoidable) of objectivity about the result. On what sane basis do you judge, say, an indictment of air pollution as better or worse than a biography of Benjamin Franklin or a memoir of life in prewar Central Europe? What is the likelihood that another five people, faced with the same 402 books, would rank them in the same order? How on earth do you do that, anyway?

Well, I can only say how I did it. (And don't expect total honesty even so.) My fellow panelists were surely more scrupulous. Indeed, leeching on the greater fortitude of colleagues is a key strategy in these circumstances. Bold and fearless procrastination, for example, got the pile winnowed from 402 down to under 50 by others without my having to crack a single spine. You have to swallow your irritation at the panelist who—like the girl back in high school who always did the extra credit problem in math class—not only has "almost finished" that 1,056-page second (and not final) volume of a Melville biography but has "reread" the first one.

"How do you do it?" the rest of us gasped "On the StairMaster," she revealed. Like all our meetings until the last one, this was by telephone. When we finally met in person last Wednesday, she looked unbelievably fit.

But the alternative to swallowing your irritation is swallowing those 1,056 pages yourself. Please: No offense intended to the author. His book will probably be read by many people, years after everything I write has been forgotten. Even if people start reading it now, they may be finishing around then. It's just that, you know, I'm still working on Moby Dick ...

Next, you must put aside any fuddy-duddy notion of not judging a book by its cover, or at least by its title.  Does this seem unfair? Well, imagine that you are sitting on the floor, surrounded by clouds of despair and mountains of Styrofoam packing popcorn. You tear open the next shipping envelope and out comes, A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola. Once again: No offense intended to the author of what may be a brilliant book. But the title seems designed to repel invaders rather than welcome visitors. If, with superhuman energy, you work up enough curiosity about the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola to at least open the book, the phrase "hundred-year quest" will kill it right off. (Rule: Unless it actually is about the Hundred Years' War, never mention any period of time longer than two hours in the title of a book over 150 pages.) And if your interest survives that second wave of defense, it will not, in its weakened state, have a chance against "curve of horn"—a great who-cares phrase made even greater by the modifier "certain," which implies that the differences among curves of horns of animals in Angola that this book is concerned with are not even large or easily noticeable. Expecting us to overcome all these barriers and read the book anyway: That is what's unfair.

Ultimately, though, a book-award judge's fate—like that of the books being judged—depends on luck. Once every seven or eight years, Robert Caro wheels out another gargantuan volume in his legendary biography of Lyndon Johnson, now up to Vol. 6: The Kindergarten Era (Part 1). When I realized 2002 was one of the fat years, I tried desperately to escape. But it was too late. "Ever heard of a Faustian bargain, fella?" said the man from the National Book Foundation with an evil grin. "Welcome to hell—1,152 pages! Mwahaha … hahahahahaha …"

So, anyway, we gave the award to Caro. But did I actually read every page? I'll never tell.

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