On Spinach and the National Book Awards

November 15, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 12 6 min read

I, for one, am thankful for Laura Miller’s article in Salon last month about the alleged irrelevance of the National Book Awards. Miller demonstrates passion—which in my book is almost never a bad thing—for good fiction and, in particular, for “ordinary readers.” Miller wants the NBAs to matter, to have impact. She wants the majority of fiction readers to both pay attention and be influenced by them. In 2004, equally (if not more) troubled by the NBA shortlist, Miller wrote in the New York Times that she wanted the awards to play a strong role in directing readers to what they should read:

For people who read, say, four novels a year, prizes help narrow down a bewilderingly vast field of candidates. Awards have become, as the critic James Wood put it, ”the new reviews.”

There is something rather idealistic—in a public service sort of way—about Miller’s position. There are people out there looking for novels they can read and enjoy; let’s give them some. It follows that she is troubled by a generalized cynicism about awards. A.O. Scott wrote about this cynicism back in 2005:

 [T]he prizes, transparently trivial, implicitly corrupt and utterly detached from any meaningful notion of literary value, will be greeted with cynicism, derision and, if we’re lucky, a burst of controversy. It will escape no one’s attention – not even the winners’ – that the very idea of handing out medals and cash for aesthetic and intellectual achievement is absurd, if not obscene. Furthermore, the selections will inevitably reflect the rottenness of the literary status quo, which is either hopelessly stodgy and out of touch, or else distracted by modish extraliterary considerations – hobbled, that is, either by conservative complacency or by political correctness.

But the National Book Awards, Miller argues, are not playing the role of trusted arbiter; rather, they have become, as she puts it, the spinach of literary awards: established fiction writers (the five judges, a different group annually) telling the reading (non-writing) public what they “should” be reading, regardless of what they might “like” to read.  Her use of spinach as the metaphor implies, it would seem, finger-wagging paternalism. Read this; you will be an improved, healthy, stronger person. Enjoyment? Pleasure? Well, frivolous reader, no pain no gain.

Despite my admiration for Miller’s relentless crusading on behalf of “a lot of people,” i.e., “nonprofessional readers,” my personal response to Miller’s argument is fraught; not because of my “professional” status as a reader, but rather due to my relationship with spinach. You see, I love spinach. It is possibly my very favorite food. If I have spinach as part of every meal—raw or cooked, chopped or whole, plain or smothered in something cheesy or creamy or eggy—I am a happy person, my meals are pleasurable. It is in fact challenging for me to conceive of why anyone would hate spinach or need to be forced to eat it or would associate it with the pain that leads to gain. (For the record, I also like liver and other innards, Brussels sprouts, beets, and anchovies; but (ironically?) no brains, please.) When I mentioned this to a friend, he asked me if it was my favorite food, or my favorite vegetable; and my answer is the latter. I love bacon burgers, and I love spinach, and I love them especially together; in my world, there is no carnivore-herbivore hierarchy.

If I think back to childhood, no one ever had to tell me to eat my spinach. Or, put another way, no one ever told me that spinach was something that people needed to be told to eat. Sometimes for lunch we had peanut butter sandwiches, or tuna fish, and Doritos (or school rectangular pizza with soggy tater tots); sometimes (when there was more money), we had roast beef on rye and a piece of fruit. My sisters and I ate it all, and liked it, and we’re all in pretty good health now. I never remember thinking, Ew, peanut butter, where’s my roast beef?

My partner was raised mostly by his father, who loved food but couldn’t afford luxuries, so he gathered the five children up to hunt for morels and shitakis, pick watercress, dig for razor clams and oysters at the shore (this was in the Pacific Northwest). They kept chickens, which the kids were responsible for feeding and eventually slaughtering, so there were fresh eggs and sometimes chicken meat (including the feet, necks, gizzards) and always broth in the freezer. They ate well but it was also hard work. And so a “gourmet meal” for him now can be anything from grilled American cheese on buttered white bread, to noodles and dumpling soup, to oysters and Sancerre.

What is my point here? What I am saying is that we do a disservice to “ordinary readers” and “professional” ones alike, by calling a book spinach and attaching good-for-you but not good-in-itself to that metaphor. We are telling readers, This is spinach, didn’t you know, and you won’t like it; over here, this is ice cream, you’ll definitely like this. Herein lies a more insidious kind of paternalism. In dividing the world among writer-readers, critic-readers, and reader-readers, we assume that—to completely mix my metaphors here—a reader-reader (Miller’s “people waiting for the bus”) would find the literary equivalent of raw oysters or shitaki mushrooms to be esoteric or elliptical or poetic in a way that puts them off. I have caught myself in this mistake myself: when I lived in the South Bronx, I would often be surprised when I saw someone on the 6-train, north of 96th Street, reading something literary. It was important to ask myself why I was surprised. And it happened often enough (and I’m not talking about Mott Haven artists or hipsters) that I knew something was wrong with a world view I’d absorbed thoughtlessly.

I want to live in a world—and I believe that if we look and listen closely, we’ll recognize that we’re closer than we think—where “the reading public,” regardless of the inside-baseball interferences of literary professionals, consumes, likes, and engages with many different kinds of literary nourishment; and where writers, teachers, and critics trust and even expect readers to do so…

…And in this sort of world, it’s a good thing to have an award like the NBA whose winner is specifically selected by writer-peers; along with an award like, say, the National Book Critics Circle Award, that is selected by some 25 book critics, and by systematic vote as opposed to the NBA’s small-group consensus. Having different awards, with different selection processes and juries, seems to me to keep the process—the parties involved—optimally honest; it allows everyone to be themselves and not have this be a liability. One wonders what Miller would have NBA novelist-judges do, short of intentionally selecting books that don’t genuinely or particularly excite them, simply because those books have gotten a lot of media and Amazon-reader attention?

I don’t and can’t know what really happens in those closed-door discussions, what baggage or agenda each judge might bring, but it would seem much more highly suspect to me—in a cynical, power-brokering, old boys club sort of way—if all the writers and critics in America were indeed selecting the same five favorite books in a given year. On what planet of readers does that happen, honestly? Given how many books each judge must read (315 this year for the NBA), and how quickly, it would seem that the specter of group-think could loom. That such pressures instead seem to push favorites to the fore for each judge in a more idiosyncratic way—you’d be looking for what grabs youis a tribute to the individualized intelligence and diverse aesthetic interests of these judges and board members. (See Victor LaValle’s riposte to Miller at Publisher’s Weekly for one NBA judge’s confirmation of this.)

A side-by-side comparison of the finalists and winners in fiction for the NBA and NBCC since 2004 reveals both complete divergence (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010) and also significant overlap (2005, 2008, 2009).  (Note: one might assume we’d see more overlap if the NBCC was also limited to American writers). I’m not sure why this is a bad thing for anyone, whether you consider yourself a reader-reader, critic-reader, writer-reader, or all of the above; especially since we now all have access to so much literature-specific social media—Amazon and Goodreads, for example—for recommendations from mostly “nonprofessional” readers who share one’s tastes.

covercoverIt also does not follow, by the way, that the more “professional” you become as a writer, the more “writerly” (by which Miller means a love of “beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states”) your reading tastes become. I think about the book that made me want to become a writer, long before I’d actually written anything: Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I would guess that Laura Miller hates this book, if she’s read it, or at least hates it for an award (it won the Pulitzer) and would not recommend it to an “ordinary reader.” It is dense, and ponderous, and theological, and there is no “story” apart from the “esoteric” story of humanity and existence, a young woman examining her tiny corner of the natural world with a magnifying glass and meditating on meaning. Then I think of what I’m reading now: everything by William Gay, and Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the Worldbootleggers, murders, car chases, thwarted love for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks; storytelling at its best, artful and muscular language. And I can’t get enough.

I was not being facetious or rhetorically sly in praising Miller for continuing to write passionately about the NBAs. I try to be on the side of idealism over cynicism generally speaking, which is more and more challenging as I get older. In this case my position is ultimately more idealistic than Miller’s: I have faith in the pleasures of spinach, in the folks waiting for the bus and riding the 6-train, and even in the possibility of a world where we all read more than four novels a year.


Image credit: anathea/Flickr

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Bring it all on, the the spinach and ice cream, James Woods’ and the NBA and Booker and Caldecott. And the indie bestsellers, and Booklist editors’ picks. And the “special” books in places of honor at the library’s used book sale, and the ones in the freebie bin outside the front door. And all of the runners up, too.

    I like to browse the bewildering array. I like to read things I never would choose. I especially like reading back in time. Bring on the awards, their long lists getting longer every year.

    Awards are not only for readers who read four novels a year.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Sonya. I appreciate how much it’s taught me about both what I think and how I express it.

    I, too, would like to live in a world where the average reader “consumes, likes, and engages with many different kinds of literary nourishment” and reads more than four novels a year. In fact, I would really, really like that, but mere wishing won’t make it so. As for the second part of your wish, I’d say we already DO live in a world where “where writers, teachers, and critics trust and even expect readers to do so,” and I don’t think that’s working very well.

    I would love it if everyone who read one of my reviews went out and obediently read every book, not matter how challenging, that I recommended — even if they’d been disappointed and put off by books I’d recommended in the past. Unfortunately, real readers are no longer so docile (if they ever were). When they feel you’ve steered them wrong in the past, they learn to disregard your suggestions. That seems to me to be the situation the NBAs are in.

    It’s true that my evidence (like yours) is anecdotal, but I do try to grill every enthusiastic reader I encounter about what they like and how they found it, including the fairly diverse group of people who email me about my reviews. Those readers, as well as booksellers, editors and other people in the book business, report that the NBAs have little influence on book sales, and have less every year (especially when compared to the Pulitzer, which is what I would judge the NBAs by, not the NBCC). I just don’t see what good it does for the NBAs to urge and expect readers to read more adventurously if those readers are no longer listening.

    However, reading your piece prompted a clarification: My objection to the NBAs is really one of labeling. I would have no complaints if they were simply renamed something like the Writers’ Choice Awards, which seems a more honest description of what they really are.

    I would also love to see that open up the cultural space for a Booker-style American prize whose judges are more diverse.

  3. Laura, thanks so much for reading and responding so thoughtfully. A hard-numbers non-correspondence between the NBAs and book sales is certainly relevant. One wonders if that information gives the NB Foundation pause about the raison d’etre and/or the selection process. (Altho, I could imagine a viewpoint that says, Well, look, people aren’t buying literary books much at all these days, the causes for which are myriad, so let’s just go ahead and keep giving awards to authors/books we truly love and that we believe merit recognition.)

    This discussion makes me ask the question of whether there is a “perfect” awards process or philosophy (I’ve heard a lot of complaining about the judge-selection for the Booker), especially as it relates to “a majority” of literary readers. If the reader-attitude is, “Recommend something to me that I’ll like, or else I’ll stop listening to you,” then it would follow that a judge should go into a selection process thinking primarily about *other people’s* reading tastes and not their own? My head is spinning just thinking about it.

    Maybe an improvement would be not for judges to change the way they select, but rather to communicate more about the “why” and to give readers an enthusiastic, guided entry into works that might be unfamiliar or otherwise outside many readers’ orbit. I like what the O. Henry Prizes do, i.e. jurors each write about their favorite of that year’s collection:[http://www.randomhouse.com/anchor/ohenry/jury.html].

    If NBA judges wrote about the finalists, it might open the doors for some readers, and also dispel the notion that the books were selected merely as an anti-establishment statement. Some transparency in the process seems to me always a good thing. Of course it’s more work for the judges, who are already putting a tremendous amount of time into the process; but if judges know that their selections are having little impact on getting people to read the books, then, well… maybe that’s what it takes to create the world we want to live in?

  4. p.s. The NBA is transparent about who the judges are, so I’m not convinced a name change to the awards would be significant. Are we really asking too much of readers if we expect them to incorporate information about who does the selecting? If the reader doesn’t have affinity with any of the judges one year, will she necessarily write off the selections the following year? How much hand-holding of the reader is too much?

  5. Hi Sonya,

    I have a feeling it’s just us here, but I don’t mind if you don’t.

    I’m wondering if you might see more of a divide than I do between what literary people consider worthy and what a larger community of readers enjoys reading. Again, I’d refer you to the Pulitzer Prize, which DOES have a notable impact on a book’s sales and does generally seem to satisfy the standards of book world observers as well as more casual book buyers. (Although of course, there is no book so brilliant that someone somewhere won’t say “Meh.”)

    I don’t see this as a situation in which either 1) literary judges decree which books are good to a public that obediently accepts this as gospel, or 2) literary judges are subjected to the tyranny of the masses and go into the evaluation process “thinking primarily about *other people’s* reading tastes and not their own.” Embedded in that polarity is that the belief that the two categories are mutually exclusive. I don’t believe that, but for those who do, I can see why my original commentary seems to be a call for dumbing down book awards. I just don’t have that … contempt — because let’s call it what it is — for the audience.

    It’s a Venn diagram, and my argument is that a book award claiming to speak to the larger population outside of the book/literary community (i.e., calling itself the National Book Award) is more effective when it helps people locate the literary books in the sector of overlap with the tastes of that larger population. There are books of literary merit that have potential appeal to a broader audience and there are those that really don’t — which I do not intend as a knock on the latter category; I love many books in this genre. I also think that it’s not that difficult to distinguish these books, but maybe that’s because I’m in an ongoing dialogue with readers outside of the literary world, and it seems more obvious to me than to others. Do we just want to talk to each other, or do we want to invite more people in?

    I also believe that a literary prize that lives in the center sliver of the Venn diagram is in a position to expand the overlap. Because this *is* a dialogue (whether literary folk like it or not), a prize that has established credibility with a larger population of readers over the years can, when it wants to nudge them to expand those tastes, succeed instead of being ignored. Authority is not granted by fiat, but earned.

    As for transparency, I’m continually surprised by how many people *in the book business* — and therefore materially invested in the outcome of literary prizes — do not really know or remember or otherwise consider exactly who judges them. We do not live in a world in which everybody makes a study of how opinions that are presented as institutional are, in fact, constructed. Do you really think that, say, my sisters — one’s a lawyer and one’s a nurse — who mostly don’t follow the literary world and its news, see a book with an NBA sticker on the cover in a bookstore, then go home and look up the foundation’s web site, find the page describing the judging process, note the names of the individual judges for the year that prize was awarded, recognize those names and then take into consideration whether they find those particular judges trustworthy? And these would be the same people whose literary tastes are too coarse and commercial to be considered by those judges?

    I keep coming back to the feeling that unless someone spends time talking to people outside the literary world about what they read and why, they’re going to have a distorted and even nonsensical view of those readers.

  6. The extended dialogue between Sonya and Laura Miller demonstrates for me just how amazing this whole “Internet” thing is. I had read Laura’s original piece in Salon and disagreed with it, as I like pretty sentences (spinach too). I do in fact go out and buy the NBA book. And usually I have really liked it.

    But does the award push the winning book’s sales from 2,000 copies to 200,000? Or from 2,000 to 2,200? Probably the latter.

    Also, I don’t believe a judge can thoughtfully read 315 books. Maybe 315 page ones?

  7. Hi Laura,

    Thanks again for taking the time to continue this conversation. Maybe I’ll start with what I think we agree on:

    “I don’t see this as a situation in which either 1) literary judges decree which books are good to a public that obediently accepts this as gospel, or 2) literary judges are subjected to the tyranny of the masses and go into the evaluation process “thinking primarily about *other people’s* reading tastes and not their own.” Embedded in that polarity is that the belief that the two categories are mutually exclusive.”


    “I also believe that a literary prize that lives in the center sliver of the Venn diagram is in a position to expand the overlap.”

    My suggestion about some sort of more detailed expression from the judges re: the finalists is meant to address the expansion of that middle sliver and to recognize that 1) and 2) above are not mutually exclusive. If a book is an NBA finalist and most people haven’t heard of it and/or it is a book that does not immediately pop with broad appeal because, say, it is not strongly story-driven (I use the story-driven example based on your own previous thoughts about “what readers want”), I’m suggesting that the NBA judges take that into account and be proactive in working to expand the middle sliver, not divide it. I’m still not clear on what your idea is for a better way; I hear you saying you don’t think judges should force a fake preference based on other readers’ tastes, but then what would you have them do? Or are you interested in a different judge-selection process?

    “I’m wondering if you might see more of a divide than I do between what literary people consider worthy and what a larger community of readers enjoys reading.”

    This statement, on the other hand, confuses me: in the original essay, my point was that there is not this divide, this great disconnect, that you’ve written about, between “esoteric” literary work and “people waiting for the bus.” When I write in my comment about ways to bridge some kind of divide, I am responding to your statements about the non-impact of the awards on book sales — which is a point taken.

    “There are books of literary merit that have potential appeal to a broader audience and there are those that really don’t […] I love many books in this genre. I also think that it’s not that difficult to distinguish these books […]”

    This seems to me the crux of the matter, i.e. which books we put in each of these categories, and if we truly think of it as static. If we sat down (over lots of coffee) with our lists of books for each of these categories, we might find we agree or disagree more or less than we think we do. I’d love to know which books you’d put in the “really don’t” category. I made a best guess about A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my essay (interestingly, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, the award that you cite as doing its job best). I think it’s crucial to look closely at how we think about this category; for instance, there is a book or two on Oprah’s list that might arguably fall into the “really don’t” category, but she changed that…

    “We do not live in a world in which everybody makes a study of how opinions that are presented as institutional are, in fact, constructed.”

    I suppose you are right about this; but I disagree that this is something we should accept passively. If a name change to the NBAs would encourage readers to be more “studious” about the ways in which public opinions are made and proffered, then I suppose I’d be in favor of that.

    A last point, re: “talking to people outside the literary world about what they read and why” — I suspect that our most passionate opinions come from somewhere in our personal experience. And I feel obliged to make clear that, up until about three years ago, when my first novel was sold, I really did not know hardly any literary people. So most of the people I ever talked to about books were outside the literary world (because, well, I was outside the literary world). My experience has shown me that readers who are neither artists nor critics do tend to rely on the media for recommendations and do tend to stay in the realm of the “big-name” books/authors; AND that, when offered a suggestion that is accompanied by passionate description, they welcome a detour off the beaten path.

  8. Paul Newman famously defended his fidelity to his wife by saying: Why should I go out for hamburger when I’ve got steak at home?

    Most books: McBurgers. Literature: Steak.

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