May 24, 2012

New Carnegie Prizes announced


Where Pulitzer refrained, Carnegie leapt. Just a month after the Pulitzer Prize board could not agree on the year’s best work of fiction and didn’t give out its annual award, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the American Library Association announced the finalists for two new prizes, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. The ALA already administers the Newbury and Caldecott Medals for children’s books, so it now has the prize ground covered on both adult and children’s fronts, and a new set of gold seals is all ready to be slapped on the first round of winners.

The pool of nominees for the prizes is drawn from two ALA sources: Booklist‘s “Editors’ Choice” selections and the Reference and User Services Association’s “Notable Books” lists. In addition to Booklist editors and RUSA members, the prize committee is made up of librarians and headed this year by Nancy Pearl, whose alliance with Amazon, and the criticism this move inspired, has been covered by MobyLives in past months.

The first crop of finalists are, in the fiction category, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. And in nonfiction, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by the late Manning Marable, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick, and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (which, I think it’s fair to say, loses the Nonfiction Subtitle Wars) by Robert Massie. Malcolm X won this year’s Pulitzer for History, and Swamplandia! was one of the fiction finalists.

The purses are $5,000 for each winner, which is modest in the prize-giving stakes; both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award pay out $10,000.

Statements about the new prizes from the ALA and the Carnegie Corporation are mostly of the “we are very pleased” variety. But there’s one odd aggressive note in the press releases: these prizes are different, they claim, because they’re judged by librarians who are more in tune with adult readers than the writers and critics who pick the winners of other prizes. You might be able to make the case that librarians are more familiar with what adult readers are actually reading than your run-of-the-mill novelist or New York Times reviewer — though I think this is a stretch — but the idea that this translates into librarians being better judges of literary excellence doesn’t make a lot of sense. They could have just said that librarians may be less susceptible to hype or professional jealousy than reviewers or writers, which I think is one of the underlying implications here. In any case, the whole claim seems to pitch librarians against other members of what they call “reading-related constituencies,” with librarians positioned as the unique occupants of the roles of “those who know the general public best” and “those who will guide the general public to quality reading material,” an acrobatic, and totally unnecessary, feat of double patronizing.

Talk aside, the first annual Andrew Carnegie Medal winners will be announced on June 24th at ALA’s annual conference, which this year, somewhat incongruously for a library association, is in Anaheim, CA. Get your bets in, Mouseketeers!


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.