For the past 75 years, the New Yorker magazine has defined literary status for American readers, and publishing in its pages is the fondest dream of most writers. Monday night, however, the magazine’s readers turned the tables and told the New Yorker which writers had produced the best books of 1999. “There are all kinds of book prizes,” a ballot bound into the Dec. 13, 1999, issue of the magazine declared, “the Pulitzer, the National Book Awards, the PEN/Faulkner — and of course, Oprah. But this is the only prize we know of that lets the reader decide the winner.”
Well, sort of. New Yorker readers were still obliged to select their favorite books (in the categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry) from short lists of five titles. Those short lists, “prepared with the help of some illustrious writers” (not to mention the magazine’s editorial staff, who were complaining for most of the fall about the added reading load), weren’t particularly adventurous or surprising. Making readers choose from the lists also headed off the possibility of a prize being commandeered by some completely inappropriate favorite of the lumpen literati, the way Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness” briefly topped the Modern Library’s online poll of the best books of the century. On the other hand, reader-chosen awards skirt the trickiest part of year-end 10-best lists for literary magazines: all those contributors who expect the editors to pick their books.
With the exception of Edward Said, whose “Out of Place: A Memoir”
snatched the nonfiction prize from Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe,” Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” Bob Shacochis’ “The Immaculate Invasion” and Jean Strouse’s “Morgan: American Financier,” the reader’s choices stuck to the comfortably familiar. Annie Proulx, well-known to the reading-group crowd for her Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning “The Shipping News,” took the prize for “Close Range,” beating out Chang-rae Lee’s “A Gesture Life,” veteran dark horse candidate Patricia Henley’s “Hummingbird House” (also nominated for the NBA), “A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle and critic’s darling “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf. Poetry doyenne Louise Gl|ck edged out David Ferry, John Koethe, J.H. Prynne and Sherod Santos.
The New Yorker pulled out all the stops for its first book award ceremony, handing out the awards in the famous reading room of the New York Public Library. The setting gave the proceedings a donnish quality, like the handing out of prizes in a British public school. Among the literary luminaries in attendance were Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Walter Mosely, Junot Diaz, Wallace Shawn and Nobel laureates Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow (who received a lifetime achievement award from editor David Remnick, leaving some to ponder why John Updike — a New Yorker regular who is as yet un-Nobelled — hadn’t been picked). A glamorous Jumpa Lahiri accepted the “best debut” award for her story collection “Interpreter of Maladies.”
Later, the crowd was channeled down halls and stairs (“I feel like we’re lining up for the camp bus,” said one party-goer) to a reception in a Belle Epoque-style hall whose very existence in the New York Public Library seemed to surprise attendees more than any of the awards did. With Valentine’s Day as its unbookish theme, the party was illuminated with pink lights and amply supplied with vast couches bearing huge violet cushions. Waiters carried trays of pink champagne cocktails and elaborate pastry displays crowned with balls of angel food cake covered in whipped cream and coconut. “I love this!” another reveller enthused. “Barbara Cartland would be right at home at this shindig!”