Book World Still Squabbling

A novel set in 19th century Paraguay, a work of history about an early civil rights struggle and a children's story about a boy's religious faith were among the winners Wednesday night at the National Book Awards.

Lily Tuck's "The News From Paraguay," the fictionalized tale of Paraguayan leader Francisco Solano Lopez and his Irish mistress, Ella Lynch received the fiction prize. Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice," which focuses on a black family's fight to live in a white Detroit neighborhood in the 1920s, won for nonfiction, with finalists including "The 9-11 Commission Report."

The young people's literature prize went to Pete Hautman's "Godless," the story of a skeptical teenager who helps found a fanciful new religion, in which a water tower is transformed into a god. Jean Valentine's "Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003" won for poetry.

Children's author Judy Blume received an honorary medal and, noting her many battles with censors over such explicit works as "Forever," urged audience members to fight for free expression.

"The urge to ban is contagious," she warned. "It spreads like wildfire from community to community. Please speak out. Censors hate publicity."

First prize in the competitive categories was worth $10,000. Finalists received $1,000.

While all winners were warmly applauded, Wednesday night's ceremony also dramatized an ongoing conflict within publishing about the National Book Awards. Some believe the awards should help sell books and draw attention to an industry struggling to reach more readers. Others simply want to honor excellence.

Both sides were heard from Wednesday.

Blume's medal marks the second straight year the honorary prize went to someone as notable for popular success as literary greatness. Sales of her books exceed 75 million and her work is loved by young people, and eyed by censors, for its frank narratives about families, religion and sexuality.

But although Blume has received numerous children's books prizes, critics have been divided about her work, with some finding it heavy-handed.

The 2003 honorary winner, Stephen King, accused the industry last year of snobbery against popular writers, but this year's fiction committee was clearly unimpressed. Bypassing such high-profile works as Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," the panel instead chose five little-known books, all by New York-based women, for the stated reason that they liked those books the most.

One fiction judge, Stewart O'Nan, carried around a brief note scribbled on a cocktail napkin: "I would hope that our caring more for the quality of a work than its sales figures make us a friend of books, not an enemy."

In accepting the prize, Tuck referred to her fellow "unknown finalists" (Joan Silber, Kate Walbert, Christine Schutt and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum) and said they "all agreed how allied we are and how very supportive we feel of each other."

No one could accuse the nonfiction judges of not at least recognizing mass appeal or the events of the day; the "9-11" report stood out in a year defined by political books. Released last summer by W.W. Norton, it quickly topped best seller lists - even though it could be downloaded for free from the commission's Web site - and was praised as an unusually readable government document.

Besides the "9-11" report, nonfiction finalists included another best seller, "Will in the World," a biography of Shakespeare by scholar Stephen Greenblatt.

The awards, now in their 55th year, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization which uses money raised by the ceremony to fund its educational programs.

By Hillel Italie


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