Posted on Tue, Dec. 03, 2002
Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? A National Book Awards judge just did it - possibly with hundreds of books - and he's practically bragging.
Late last month, former Slate editor-in-chief Michael Kinsley, a National Book Awards judge this year in nonfiction, rocked the sedate world of book prizes. He wittily informed readers in a Slate piece that he hadn't read many of the books assigned to him. He suggested that he hadn't even read every page of the book to which his committee gave the prize on Nov. 20: the latest mammoth volume in Robert Caro's gargantuan LBJ biography.
Kinsley, who announced last year (after long denying it) that he had Parkinson's disease, gave up the editorship of Slate, Microsoft's online magazine, in February. In his sardonic piece about the awards experience, Kinsley declared that his motives for becoming a judge after that "were ignoble - mainly vanity and a desire for free books." Kinsley joked that his taking on the task 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."
When the 402 books he was expected to read over six months started arriving, he panicked. He admitted that solely by "bold and fearless procrastination," and "without my having to crack a single spine," he cut the pile from 402 to under 50.
In the closest thing to justifying his behavior within a mischievous, lighthearted piece, Kinsley asserted that awards were "the purest example of gratuitous or superfluous meritocracy," that comparing different sorts of nonfiction reeked of "inherent arbitrariness." Besides, he added, books themselves keep one from reading them by their awful titles, such as A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola.
"Expecting us to overcome all these barriers and read the book anyway," he moaned, "that is what's unfair." His piece triggered a quick rebuke, posted on Slate, from Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program at Iowa and chair of Kinsley's nonfiction committee.
Merrill charged that Kinsley "demeaned not only the hard work of his fellow judges, but also the winner of this year's award, Robert Caro." He accused Kinsley of "abdication of responsibility" and "cynicism about the literary enterprise." The latter charge, of course, sounds like Bishop Sheen accusing W.C. Fields of cynicism about children. Yep, that's what it's called.
Any savvy sort who reads Kinsley's and Merrill's pieces together gets the disconnect between two literary styles that often collide in awards situations: wry, cosmopolitan journalist vs. stuffy literary bureaucrat. Kinsley's piece and voice is funny, fresh, colloquial, Wildean, hilarious in spots. Merrill's is stilted, pompous, cliche-ridden, self-important.
"While I have far more love for books than for prizes," Merrill writes, "I believe in the work our panel undertook - with or without Mr. Kinsley's help." He informs us that book judges "winnow the wheat from the chaff, with only their taste to guide them." He quotes - I kid you not - Emily Dickinson: "The Soul selects her own Society."
Kinsley, clearly chastened despite his playful intentions, briefly replies to Merrill on Slate, writing: "I did read the five finalists, including at least turning every page of the Caro. Of the other 397 or so, I read all of some, dipped into others to varying degrees, and merely glanced at many. A few I didn't even open. No doubt I was the least diligent member of the panel, but I'm pretty certain this general summary fits all of us."
Maybe. Even if that's true, Kinsley boasts a long track record when it comes to spasms of damaging catharsis. Many friends and acquaintances don't understand why he denied having an illness for years even though its effect on his movements long made it obvious he had something. When the editorship of the New Yorker came open some years ago, his odd behavior with New Yorker owner Si Newhouse, leaking some of their inside baseball, turned into a national media story.
Even in his latest Slate piece, Kinsley warns readers: "[D]on't expect total honesty." Longtime Kinsley readers and observers don't. Clever copy, incisive analysis, analytical ingenuity, preternatural glibness, yes. Total honesty, no.
So some of this clash is about style, some about personality. But who's right? Did Kinsley act unethically, or just prankishly call attention to dirty little truths about book awards?
Years ago, this ex-president of the National Book Critics Circle conducted a lengthy survey of book-reviewing ethics. One question I asked: "Is it ever ethical not to read the whole book?" The huge majority of respondents answered "no," many adding sharp comments. "You burn in hell for that one," warned one. Exceptions were made for multi-volume reference works.
But Kinsley is right on one point: Reading a book for an awards competition isn't the same as reading it for review.
The book critic who doesn't reach "The End" fails Reporting 101: Cover the event you're supposed to cover. Like the theater critic who skips the final act, he's a cheat. It may really matter that the whole novel turned out to be a dream on the last page.
The job of a book-awards judge, by contrast, starts with bookicide. Once you've decided a nonfiction book could not possibly win - because, say, its first 50 pages stink - you're free to toss it. There's no further reporting obligation.
Kinsley appears to have leaped way over the line if he didn't read even the opening pages of many nominated books. Publishers don't nominate trash for the National Book Awards; the $100 submission fee per book discourages that. You can't fairly judge those kinds of books by their covers.
So while Kinsley flattens Merrill sentence for sentence, Kinsley looks bad. Years ago, many Kinsley watchers wondered why such a talented intellectual preferred the vulgar rush of cohosting Crossfire - the inside-the Beltway screamshow - to writing substantial books as many of his fellow New Republic alumni did.
It could be that decades of producing endless 900-word columns for national journalism's top venues instead, while also running major publications, have left Kinsley with too little respect for book-writing. It may also have left him confident that he needn't play by the rules when they become onerous, and certain that he'll never suffer from defying them.
The rule in national journalism - as in the mob - is that, once you're connected, you're connected for life. Is it imaginable that Time, or the Washington Post, or Slate would hold a famous journalist to the same standards of honesty they ritually demand from politicians? Or is even asking that too Merrillish - too stuffy a way to read Kinsley's fun stab at Reality column-writing?
What do you think? So many books, so little integrity? Or, so many books, so little crime?