2020 National Book Awards

Behind the Scenes at the National Book Awards with James Goodman and Rigoberto González

In November, the 2020 National Book Award winners were announced through a first-ever virtual livestreamed ceremony. Two faculty from the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark (SASN), Rigoberto González and James Goodman, were among the judges for the awards this year.

Every year, among hundreds of contenders, the National Book Foundation nominates 25 books to its shortlist — five fiction, five nonfiction, five poetry, five translated, and five young adult — for the National Book Award, which are then narrowed down to one winner in each category.

Judges are made up of writers, translators, critics, librarians, and booksellers. Each category has a panel of five judges who have expertise in that category. Judges are considered leaders in their respective field, individuals with enough knowledge and experience to offer fair and honest assessments of each book in consideration for the award. The poetry jury is the only one composed of poets. The other committees include writers, critics, and booksellers.

Rigoberto González, who was on the panel of judges for poetry, is the author of eighteen books of poetry and prose. His awards include the Lannan Literary Award, Guggenheim, NEA, NYFA, and USA Rolón fellowships, the PEN/Voelcker Award, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. A critic-at-large for The LA Times and contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, he is the series editor for the Camino del Sol Latinx Literary Series at the University of Arizona Press. Currently, he’s Distinguished Professor of English and the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark.

James Goodman, who was on the panel for non-fiction, is the author of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, and three books, Stories of Scottsboro, Blackout, and But Where Is the Lamb? He is a former Guggenheim Fellow and Stories of Scottsboro was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University-Newark, where he teaches close reading, critical thinking, and creative writing in the history department and in the MFA program in creative writing.

We sat down with them to talk about the judging process and what makes a book stand out above other great works.

This was the first time everything had to be done remotely because of COVID-19. How did that change the process from previous years?

González: Zoom meetings and digital files, so we sacrificed our eyes to the screen from beginning to end. We were given Kindles to read every submission. The awards ceremony also took place virtually, which was the biggest letdown because part of the fun was meeting and congratulating the finalists and winner in person, and also meeting the fellow jurors. We are lobbying to be reunited next year at the 2021 awards ceremony, but that's just a pipe dream.

Goodman: It changed it dramatically — most dramatically for non-fiction because we have the most submissions, over 600. Ordinarily, the publishers send one copy of every single submission to every single judge. It is one of the fun things about being a judge. But as soon as the region closed down, the Foundation realized that that wasn’t going to work this year.

Judges — all of whom [for nonfiction] happened to be bound book lovers, none of whom had any experience reading entire books digitally — had to do all of their first round of reading on a little screen. Just imagine navigating around the home screen of a Kindle with 630 books on it.

In some ways it was a more democratic process, a leveling. All we had were the words. No promotional materials. No blurbs. No difference between the money that was put into making one book or another—all things that influence us even when we wish or say it doesn’t. We had just the words on a little dark screen. And it wasn’t easy to skip around in a book. We really just had to read.

To the degree that prizes provide publicity for books, authors, writing, intellectual and artistic life, they are a good thing. But people should be careful to keep them and the true meaning and significance in perspective, writers and artists most of all.

Is there a difference in how you would read a book for pleasure vs. reading as a judge for something like the National Book Awards?

González: Absolutely. I served on the National Book Critics Circle for 8 years, and I groaned constantly about the speed-reading necessary to keep up with the submissions. I would keep many of the books I read (regardless if they become finalists or not) to reread for fun when the awards season was over. This year, I will be buying copies of the NBA poetry books because I don't want to reread them on a Kindle. When I say I read for pleasure, I am reading books I don't have to review, teach, or evaluate for a book prize.

Goodman: When I read a book for pleasure, or for regular work, whether my own research, writing, or teaching, I read slowly. Twentyto twenty-five pages an hour. I would guess, conservatively, [the average length of our books] was 300 pages. Multiply 300 * 600 and you get 180,000 pages. Divide that by 25, my fastest rate, and you get 300 days of reading, reading 24 hours a day. Early on, we had to read much, much faster than we read any other time, and make snap judgements, the kind of judgements I would hope that none of us would make about a book under any other circumstances. It is one of the reasons that I tell my students: winning any award is a lot like winning a lottery or raffle, way more like that than they could ever imagine, in every instance very long odds.

How many books did you each have to read? What are you looking for in these works as you read them?

González: There were 250 entries in the poetry category. Thankfully there were 5 of us reading them all, so no book was ignored. As a juror, I was looking for books that I believed would matter long after 2020, that had something poignant to say about our present moment, and that were shaped by artistic integrity. 

Goodman: Every committee does it differently. We all looked at them all and then each came up with a list of 50, then 25.

I was looking for books that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Books that I couldn’t stop reading, for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, whether irresistible voice, language, story, passion, point or points of view, information, energy, politics and I am sure all sorts of other things that I was not even fully aware of. We started reading at the height of the pandemic in NYC and continued as it spread to the rest of the country. In addition to the pandemic, we had the uprising in NYC and cities across the country after the murder of George Floyd. And we had this little but somewhat significant thing called the presidential election. We were both extremely distracted and looking for distraction. We were reading on screens. All of that made irresistibility loom larger and larger when it came to evaluating the books.

How do you narrow the selection down to finalists, and then a winner?

Dead Are Rising cover
NBA 2020 Nonfiction Winner

González: Plenty of conversations. Every step was difficult and to choose one book over another was heartbreaking, especially for poets because we fall in love so easily with certain books. And there was always the struggle of second-guessing the list as it became smaller and smaller. But the key was voicing our individual opinions and listening to the others with an open mind and respect.

Goodman: Simply by discussion. We each chose 50. Then we each chose 25. Then we each chose 10, then 5, then 1. It was just a matter of talking about the books that each of us liked and talking until we all agreed as much as we were going to agree. We never once took a vote.  Our chair wanted unanimity at every stage. It was fascinating. And wonderful in all sorts of ways.

What makes a nonfiction book compelling? The topic? How it's told?

Goodman: For me it is always an almost indescribable combination of form and content, subject on the one hand and structure, language, point of view or points of view, voice, style. For me, for a prize like this, subject alone, research alone, contribution to knowledge alone is not likely to do it. I wouldn’t say never, but not likely. I am going to be looking for a contribution to literature as well as to knowledge. There are other wonderful awards for contributions to knowledge, first and foremost.

What makes for a strong poetry book? Does it matter if the poems are explicitly connected or tell a story? 

González: A strong poetry book is one composed of poems that can stand on their own, but collectively, cohere into a more expansive vision. It doesn't necessarily have to be a story in the traditional sense. It can also be a perspective, or an emotional or intellectual journey, or it can also be a linguistic experience. There's so much overlap and space in between these planes. A strong book is one that I look forward to revisiting.

Was there consensus among the judges about the winner in your category? If not, how do you work around that? 

González: Like any jury, it's best to have a consensus. If books have been deemed worthy of the longlist and then the shortlist, they have already been deemed a potential winner. So the last stage is a matter of evaluating that 5-book pool, perhaps with a criteria that had not been employed previously. In all my years as a jurist, I have not encountered any contentious final decision. Professionalism and courtesy are key. 

Goodman: We talked until we came to consensus. I don’t think at any point everyone agreed on the books we were about to keep in the running and the books we were about to put aside. But I had a great group of five. Almost immediately, it seemed, we liked one another as people and we admired one another other as readers and we trusted one another. Right to the end we often disagreed. But it was the most remarkable kind of disagreement.  We tried to understand other points of view as energetically as we advocated for our own. I think we all felt badly when OTHER people didn’t get what they wanted. That’s a wonderful thing.

DMZ Colony
NBA  2020 Poetry Winner

What made the winner in your category stand out among the rest of the nominees?

González: I will speak for myself and not the poetry committee. I felt that Don Mee Choi's DMZ Colony was the book that spoke loudest to the current moment in the US. The fact that we are clearly a divided country and are seeing the rise of fascism on the political arena, tells us this book is both harbinger and history lesson, cautionary tale and call to action.

Goodman: I don’t know if I should put it this way, but what stands out is that it survived the extraordinary rigor of 600 odd books and five judges. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne is a terrific book, based on decades of research by a pioneer journalist, beautifully written, timely, even urgent in its subject matter, but there were scores of terrific books in the competition.

I could name two or three dozen prize worthy books off the top of my head. Every writer should serve on a prize committee at least once to experience and observe the process, see for themselves how much serendipity, contingency, accident, and luck, bad and good, that goes into coming up with a winner. To the degree that prizes provide publicity for books, authors, writing, intellectual and artistic life, they are a good thing. But people should be careful to keep them and the true meaning and significance in perspective, writers and artists most of all.

You're both writers as well as educators and critics. Would you say judging this competition has changed how you approach your own work?

González: I say it's the other way around. Being an educator made me a better critic. The kinds of conversations I have in the classroom, the necessity to articulate ideas and interpretations for students (and hearing theirs!) is what gave me the confidence to become a critic. I continue to learn from my students. It is they who deserve the credit for shaping me into a better reader.

Goodman: It was a wonderful and fascinating experience, but no. What I learned supplemented and reinforced what I knew from earlier experience and hearing about the experience of others.  It was what lawyers and judges called cumulative knowledge.  It added to what I already knew.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the experience?

Goodman: Yes, one more thing: I tell my students: Cheer when a good book wins a prize.  Cheer when a writer you think deserving of a prize wins a prize, including you. Otherwise, try your very best not to think about them, to ignore them.