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The National Book Award was established in 1950 by the National Book Foundation, which was a collection of publishers, editors, writers, and critics, with a mission to, "celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America" (National Book Foundation).
The National Book Award is awarded to books in four categories each year, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature. In addition, two Life Time Achievement awards are also given out annually. Over the last sixty years, the National Book Award has become one of the most influential and coveted awards in America.
After its inception in 1950, "The National Book Awards (NBA) quickly established a reputation for recognizing literary excellence" (National Book Foundation). Over the years, it has honored authors such as "William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Wallace Stevens, Rachel Carson, Ralph Ellison, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Bernard Malamud – authors who have helped shape the foundation of American literature" (National Book Foundation). The National Book Awards' reputation for recognizing literary excellence has allowed them to become one of the most influential literary awards in America.
In the nineteen seventies and eighties the book awards began to expand from the original four categories to include, "Science, Philosophy and Religion, History and Biography, Arts and Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Book" (National Book Foundation).
This expansion led to the creation of the American Book Award, which gave out 28 prizes in 16 different categories (National Book Foundation). By the mid-eighties, "it soon became obvious that so many categories diffused the Awards’ impact" (National Book Foundation).
In 1987, the National Book Awards were reestablished and the expanded categories were subsumed into the original categories by 1996, with the addition of the award for young people's literature (National Book Foundation). Fewer categories allowed the award continue to have a focused impact on American literature and American writers.
The National Book Award has a reputation for being an award "given to writers by writers" and is chosen by a panel of five judges in each category, the judges, "have written and published works in that category" (National Book Foundation).
Only books by American citizens published in the United States between December 1 and November 30 of the current year can be submitted for consideration (National Book Foundation). Authors cannot submit their own work, only publishers can nominate a book to be considered, although panel chairs can also nominate a book not nominated by publishers (National Book Foundation).
Five finalists in each category are announced in mid-October and they each receive, "prize of $1,000, a medal, and a citation from the panel jury" (National book Foundation). Jurists meet on the day of the National Book Awards Ceremony in November to choose the winners who are then announced at the Ceremony that night. The winners receive, "$10,000 and a bronze sculpture" (National Book Foundation). Finalist and winners also receive the public recognition for having written an excellent piece of literature.
Although the National Book Award jurists create "their own criteria for awarding the National Book Award and discussions are held independent of the Foundation," recently the wisdom of the jury process has been widely questioned (National Book Foundation). The critically acclaimed best-seller Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, who won the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction, was conspicuously absent from the finalist list.
This sparked a veritable war on Twitter no less polarized than the Oprah fiasco of 2001 (Fenske). National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum is noted as stating, "Obviously, Freedom is the big book of the year, but the question is what the National Book Awards are supposed to honor. We tell the judges just to look at the books, and that outside chatter is not important. We go with that every year" (Italie). Only time will tell if the jurists made the right decision.
Like all honors that are subjective, there will always be a question as to the validity of the awardees. More importantly, the current debate about this coveted and important literary award shows The National Book Award is still influential enough to stir the emotions of a media driven nation.
After sixty years, the award "given to writers by writers" still garners the respect and attention of the American public (National Book Foundation). Even if one does not agree with the juries' choices, the nation is still in agreement that the National Book Award should be a significant meter for excellence American literature.
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