Are the National Book Awards Biased in Favor of Liberals?





George Shadroui, in FrontPageMag.com (March 5, 2004):

Until the mid 1960s, it could be argued, the National Book Awards, a much heralded and sought after honor, was a fair recognition of great writing across different perspectives and genres – poetry, fiction, non-fiction, history, etc. But increasingly since the 1960s, the awards have been an exercise in political as much as literary judgment.

To refresh memories, during the 1950s and into the early 1960s a host of writers were honored who crossed the political and cultural spectrum. James Dickey, Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren won in the arena of poetry. Walker Percy and William Faulkner took honors for their fiction. All were men of arguably conservative sensibilities, even if not notably political. Prominent liberals also were recognized, among them Rachel Carson, George Kennan, Ralph Ellison, Archibald MacLeish and William Shirer. Whether one agreed or disagreed with the choices, there was ecumenical representation that suggested the absence of political or cultural litmus tests.

Things began to change in the 1960s as the radical left began mobilizing against American power and the Vietnam War. In 1966, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. won for his adoring portrait of the short-lived Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days. In 1968, liberal icon George Kennan was honored for his memoirs. In 1969, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, an anti-Vietnam war memoir, captured a National Book Award.

As we head into the 1970s, Erik H. Erikson is honored in 1970 for his work on Gandhi and his non-violent techniques, a politically correct stance in the midst of the anti-war movement. Other winners included former communist and leftist Lillian Hellman for her memoir, An Unfinished Woman; James MacGregor Burns for his flattering biography of Franklin Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom; Joseph Lash for Eleanor and Franklin; and France Fitzgerald for Fire in the Lake, a book that glorified the Viet Cong.

This trend toward liberal and leftist perspectives continued over the next two decades. Winners included Murray Kempton, Peter Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Irving Howe, Schlesinger again for another Kennedy portrait, Robert Jay Lifton, Peter Matthiessen, Malcolm Cowley, Barbara Tuchman, Susan Sontag, Edmund Morris, Ronald Steel, Victor Navasky of the Nation magazine, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Alice Walker, Alan Brinkley, etc.

Not only are many of these folks left or liberal in their views, so is the subject matter. We find biographies of Norman Thomas, the Kennedys, Huey Long, Walter Lippmann, FDR and Eleanor, Lyndon Johnson, etc. There are multiple studies on slavery and Western complicity in that sordid business. There are critical accounts of the dropping of the Atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and the failures of the American system to deal with seemingly intractable social ills, but very little that celebrates Western contributions to freedom and democracy. No prominent conservative or Republican person is even the subject of a winning book save Theodore Roosevelt, though a number of authors are honored in the non-fiction categories for their critical reviews of the U.S. role in Vietnam -- Fitzgerald and Mailer being joined by Gloria Emerson, for Winners and Losers, Neil Sheehan for The Bright Shining Lie, and James Carroll for An American Requiem.

As we move into the 1990s, virtually every nonfiction winner was written by liberals or noted leftists: Orlando Patterson, at Harvard, for his book Freedom (1991); Gore Vidal for his collection of essays, United States (1993); Tina Rosenberg, for The Haunted Land (1995); Carroll for An American Requiem (1996), Edward Ball, former Village Voice writer, for Slaves in the Family (1998); John Dower for his book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999); and Robert Caro, for Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2002).

The question that must be asked of the NBA and those publishers who often drive nominations is this: were all of these books of such a high quality that they necessarily closed the door on those written by conservatives? Emerson’s book on Vietnam, for example, took a major hit not from the right but from fellow liberal Garry Wills, who criticized Emerson in the New York Review of Books in 1977 for inserting herself too often into the Vietnam story she was trying to tell.

Wrote Wills: “But Emerson herself shows a groupie tendency for all those connected with the war…. sees malice where there was little, and saintliness where there was little, and has no mind at all for sorting out various kinds of mindlessness on both sides.” Not the type of endorsement one expects for a National Book Award winner.

The skeptic might ask why it matters, particularly if the work honored is of high quality. The answer is obvious. Prestigious awards mean more attention, resources, and venues for discussing history, and ultimately more notoriety, which means greater book sales, more readers and more power in the debate over ideas.

And many of those who have won have not been shy about using their status to pronounce on the issues of the day. We all know that Mailer and Vidal are actively baiting the Bush administration, and they are hardly alone. James Carroll and John Dower, to pick two relatively recent winners, also have been given platforms for criticizing the Iraq war effort. In both cases, their credibility as witnesses to history are built upon their work and the recognition it has received.

Carroll, whose memoir on Vietnam is highly critical of the United States, has nothing good to say about the war in Iraq either. Writing in the Boston Globe in September 2003, Carroll opened with this riveting proclamation: “The War is Lost.” He goes on: “The Bush administration’s hubristic foreign policy has been efficiently exposed as based on nothing more than hallucination. High-tech weaponry can kill unwilling human beings, but it cannot force them to embrace an unwanted idea.” Carroll then argues: “Sooner or later, the United States must admit that it has made a terrible mistake in Iraq, and it must move quickly to undo it.”

It has to be observed that by most historical measures liberating 50 million people in a matter of months, with American losses totaling in the hundreds, would be called a remarkable success. Remember, we lost 3,000 people in 90 minutes on 9/11. Many of the war’s opponents certainly predicted much worse – thousands of dead soldiers, the unleashing of weapons of mass destruction, regional instability, etc. Instead, rogue regimes – Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea – are beginning to cooperate on issues of arms proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, and known terrorists are sending missives lamenting the refusal of the United States to withdraw because our troops are suffocating the terrorist effort. Yes, the war continues and the terrorists are clearly undaunted by holy traditions (witness the most recent attacks in Baghdad and Karbala) that our critics insist we respect.

Dower, another scholar on the left, also is called upon to issue an indictment of Bush. Writing in the Manchester Guardian in November 2002, Dower argues that efforts to compare post-World War II Japan with Iraq are absurd. He observes that not a single attack was launched against American occupation forces in Japan after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and he argued, rightly, that this would not be the case in Iraq. Then again, Japan had just been through almost a decade of war and had been totally defeated and threatened with decimation. So he is right that comparisons are not always instructive, but we might reach different conclusions as to why.

This past December, writing in the Los Angeles Times, Dower takes Bush to task again for trying to make the case that Iraq, like Japan and Germany, could be rebuilt and transformed. “What are we to make of this murky use of history? The truth is that what is happening in Iraq presents a stunning and fundamental contrast to what took place in occupied Japan and Germany over a half century ago – and not a positive one.”

Dower may be correct that an attempt to compare the situations has marginal value, but was Bush trying to draw a direct parallel? One thinks not. The situation in Iraq differs from the situation in Japan and Germany, but for many reasons Dower does not explore. The United States did not firebomb Baghdad the way allies did Dresden, for example. Is Dower complaining about that? We also did not drop an atomic bomb on Tikrit, though surely that would have reduced resistance from Al Qaeda and hard-core Baathists. Nor does Dower inform readers that in post-war Germany attacks against American troops continued for several years.

Sheehan, author of The Bright Shining Lie, took America to task in the 1980s for its arrogance in dealing with Vietnam. In an interview with Harry Kresler, Sheehan argues: “we didn’t understand the Vietnamese whom we were allegedly helping, and we didn’t understand the Vietnamese we were fighting.” He observes that the United States failed to grasp the historical enmity between China and Vietnam, a regional tension that transcended allegiance to communism. However, it remains true that despite the Sino-Soviet split, or the nationalism of the Vietnamese, both China and the Soviet Union were providing major support for the communists in the north and the insurgency in the south.

An article by Fox Butterfield (himself a National Book Award winner) that appeared in the New York Times magazine in the early 1980s demonstrated, if not that U.S. war policy was correct, that many of the assumptions of anti-war activists were flawed. Few leftists in the "peace" movement would have conceded that a North Vietnamese victory would result in millions of “liberated” Vietnamese fleeing in boats or being imprisoned or killed in “reeducation” camps, though no one is likely to win many awards for pointing this out.

On another front, after the collapse of the Soviet system, Tina Rosenberg went to Eastern Europe to document the aftermath of that historic transformation. One might have hoped she would focus on the obvious atrocities perpetrated by communist regimes. Instead, she wound up – in part -- romanticizing communism and its leadership and portraying the anti-communist sentiments of the new governments as a major problem confronting the newly liberated states.

In the final pages of her NBA winning book, The Haunted Land, she writes: “Fascism espouses repugnant ideas, but communism’s ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed are indeed beautiful….Communism is lofty and grand, but human beings are flawed creatures, unwilling to pay communism the tribute of sacrifice it demands.”

Here we have clear evidence of Arthur Koestler’s claim that the poetry of communism remains seductive even as the reality of it leads to the nightmare of totalitarianism. But even the alleged “poetry” of communism is overstated. Reread The Communist Manifesto. It is not a hymn to brotherhood but a declaration of war on all save the working class, and particularly on those who do not embrace underlying Marxist assumptions. In her NBA acceptance speech Rosenberg, who is now an editorial writer for the New York Times, thanks Mikhail Gorbachav for making her work possible, but does not mention the United States or its role in liberating Eastern Europe (much less Ronald Reagan).

One could go on this way. Indeed, scanning the list of winners over three decades it is difficult to find more than a smattering of conservative writers, historians or thinkers. Robert Nozick in 1975 was honored for Anarchy, State and Utopia and Henry Kissinger in 1980 for White House Years. You could argue that Tom Wolfe, who won for Right Stuff, has conservative leanings. Certainly, he has shown up at National Review’s anniversary dinners and has had some fun at the expense of radicals. Likewise, though Fox Butterfield writes for the liberal New York Times, his book, China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, has been rightly praised for its honest portrait of life under communist rule. Carlos Eire, who won for his book, Waiting for Snow in Havana, did not hesitate to observe during his acceptance speech that he would be imprisoned for his writings were he still in Cuba. Bill Buckley won not for his political commentary, but for his mystery, Stained Glass. David Horowitz and Peter Collier managed a nomination for their book on the Rockefellers, but that was before their turn to the right.

This obvious political slant does a disservice to the marketplace of ideas and the notion of basic fairness. After all, if Gore Vidal deserved a National Book Award for his collection of essays, why not William F. Buckley, Jr. for his collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things, which traces the political and cultural landscape of our nation over four decades? If communist apologist Lillian Hellman’s memoir was instructive, what about Horowitz’s memoir, Radical Son, which documents his fascinating intellectual journey?

Other notable books by conservatives come to mind that not only did not win, but did not even warrant a finalist mention: Michael Novak for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, George Gilder for Wealth and Poverty, Charles Murray for Losing Ground and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom for America in Black and White. These works were ground-breaking studies dealing with some of the most difficult issues of our day and surely compared with other books NBA judges chose to honor. While we are at it, how is it that the judges of the National Book Award have managed to overlook entirely Allan Bloom, Thomas Sowell, William Safire, George Will, Russell Kirk, and others.

Christopher Lasch is an interesting case. He has always been a good read, whether writing as a leftist back in the 1960s or 1970s, or as a reformed leftist in the 1980s and early 1990s. Though he won the National Book Award for The Culture of Narcissism, which was certainly a worthy effort, it could be argued that his most expansive and impressive book was The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. Why did he not win or even get nominated again after embracing a more a more nuanced position toward progressive ideologies? That he had already won is not an argument against. After all, David McCullough and Schlesinger have both won twice.

One possible explanation could be the judges. Though I was unable to obtain a complete list over the years (the names are not readily shared or available), a review of the judges since 2001 turned up a disproportionate representation of writers with alternative or left to liberal perspectives: Richard Rodriguez, a liberal commentator for the Public Broadcasting System; Christine Stansell, a Princeton professor whose history on the Bohemians includes a romantic portrait of John Reed, Emma Goldman and other communists; Alex Kotlowitz, whose book, There Are No Children Here, documents life in a Chicago housing project; and Terry Tempest Williams, a prominent pro-environment activist from Utah. Others included Gail Buckley, author and daughter of entertainer Lena Horne, Mary Karr, a professor at Syracuse University, Jonathon Kirsch, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence Jackson, professor at Emory University, and Michael Kinsley, one of liberalism’s leading lights. The only judge with any clear connections to conservatism was Terry Teachout, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary and who edited a collection of Whittaker Chamber’s journalism.

Whatever the talents of these writers, and in some cases they are significant, it can still be fairly observed that most are hardly immersed in the political or cultural mainstream of America. Is there any question that the institutional embrace of counterculture or alternative viewpoints amounts to a bias against those who celebrate business ingenuity, free enterprise or the dominant traditions of Western culture?

Unfortunately, favoritism in the direction of the liberal/left perspective is not limited to the National Book Awards. The folks over at the University of Georgia who bestow Peabody Awards have recognized Bill Moyers on eight occasions for his television work, including “The World of Ideas” and an MX Missile Debate he hosted in 1980. An on-line search of the Peabody winners discloses that Bill Buckley’s Firing Line, though it raised intellectual and policy discussion to the highest levels for over three decades, never won. Surely, a man considered one of our great public intellectuals should have been recognized for his lifetime contribution to debate and policy analysis, don’t you think? Oprah Winfrey has been.

Here is the raw fact. Since the 1960s, of the 90 writers (give or take a couple) honored by the NBA in nonfiction categories for books that dealt with historical, political or political culture matters, only three or four could be called conservative. More than 60 have had clear ties to leftist/liberal causes or concerns. In fact, it is difficult to find a conservative who has made the finalist list in the past 20 years. This is even less intellectual diversity that the faculties of American college campuses. It seems as though we have become so accustomed to an exclusionary culture that no one even notices anymore.


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John R. Maass - 10/22/2007

Citing Caro's biographies of LBJ as evidence that the National Book Awards favor the left or liberal perspective is suspect. Has the author read them? They are certainly NOT sympathetic studies of Johnson at all, and should not be used as evidence to support what in fact may be an otherwise valid claim.

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