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Winners of the American Book Awards announced. Sort of.

August 13, 2010

Amiri Baraka as an angry young man.

Dave Eggers and Amiri Baraka are among the winners of this year’s Affirmative Action Book Awards –er, I mean, American Book Awards, a literary prize so minor and neglected by its own caretakers I can’t find the names of the other winners.

I mean, really, I cannot find names of the other dozen or so winners of the 31st Politically Correct Book Awards — er, I mean, well, you know. The Associated Press story only bothers to name the two best known, while the American Booksellers Association, which maintains an American Book Award page, stops at the list of 2009 winners.

And the website for the Before Columbus Foundation, which started the awards in 1980, doesn’t seem to have been updated since Jan. 23, 2009.

My web skills may not be the sharpest, but something seems amiss here. And it’s a shame. Despite my mocking tone, I think the American Book Awards, however insignificant they may be, have a valid place in the literary landscape.

First, all the news that can be found: Eggers won for his post-Katrina book, Zeitoun, which chronicles the experiences of a Syrian-American arrested for looting while standing in his own house. The AP identifies the book as a “novel,” although to me it appears to be narrative nonfiction. But with the breakdown of genre these days, who knows?

Baraka, the controversial African-American poet and academic whose career goes back to the 1960s, won for Digging: The Afro American Soul of American Classical Music, a collection of his writings on jazz.

It’s easy to poke fun at the American Book Awards, what with a mission statement that says things like: “The purpose of the awards is to recognize literary excellence without limitations or restrictions.” But if you think that means, as I jested above, these are affirmative action awards for outsider writers unlikely to be noticed by “real” prizes like the Pulitzer, the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award, then you’re only partly right.

First: What’s wrong with affirmative action? There is a place in this big culture of ours for a little literary prize that mostly favors black, Asian, Hispanic, Caribbean and Native American writers of good work that might otherwise go unheralded. Alas, I can’t herald them today, since I can’t find a complete list of this year’s winners. But you get the idea.

Besides, that’s not all the American Book Awards are about. There are no categories, which I like, and no multicultural quotas. Winners have included such dominant culture voices (another way of saying: “white, male”) writers as Russell Banks, Peter Guralnick, Gary Snyder, William Kennedy, Harvey Pekar, David Halberstam, William Gass, Don Delillo, Kevin Baker, and now Eggers.

What I like best is the way the American Book Awards dispense with the bogus notion of a single winner. Its 12 winners are announced (well, sort of) without ranking — which is genius, because, as I’ve often argued, once you reach a certain level of artistic achievement it’s impossible to say one work is better than the rest.

So here’s a toast to Eggers, Baraka and the other winners of the 2010 American Book Awards. Whoever they may be.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2010 1:08 pm

    Eggers, not Eggars.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 13, 2010 2:01 pm

      Thanks for the correction. I tended to revile copyeditors, back when I was a newspaper scribe, but I rue their loss more than anything else.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 13, 2010 8:58 pm

    Thanks. And thanks for keeping me honest.

  3. August 15, 2010 8:23 pm

    One of Bear Star’s authors has won a 2010 ABA (Stephen D. Gutierrez for Live from Fresno y Los) and, if I’m not mistaken, Pamela Uschuk has won for her book Crazy Love from Wings Press. I’ve been looking for a fuller story as well.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 16, 2010 9:56 am

    If you come across one, please share a link with me. Thanks, Beth.

  5. August 16, 2010 10:14 am

    I am one of the 2010 winners for my collection of poems, CRAZY LOVE, published by Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas. According to Gundars Strads (professor at Berkeley & Director of the Before Columbus Foundation), the complete list of winners will be posted soon. The official awards ceremony for the American Book Awards is slated for September 19 at the San Francisco Public Library from 1-4 p.m.

  6. Paul permalink
    September 3, 2010 5:11 pm

    Baraka’s poem “Black People” asserts that blacks are justified in robbing or even killing whites, because the latter “already stole” everything from the former. “[The white man] owes you anything you want,” writes Baraka, “even his life. All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother f—er this is a stick up! … Let’s get together and kill him my man.” In another poem, Baraka writes, “Rape the white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats.”

    Asserting that blacks and whites cannot possibly coexist in peace, Baraka once said, “We [blacks] must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breath on this planet” When two white civil rights workers were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964 in Mississippi, Jones remarked that “those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences.” When a white woman asked Baraka what whites could do to help the black cause, he replied, “You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world’s people with your death.”

    What a commendable choice they made!

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