The Split Decision that Nearly Wrecked the National Book Awards: Novelists from Two Schools Both Win

On April 11, 1973, the New York Times carried a story about controversy in the book world. “In an unprecedented display of public disagreement, the 1973 National Book Award judges announced yesterday that they had split the fiction prize between John Barth’s Chimera and John Williams’s Augustus.”

This had never happened before in the organization’s twenty-four-year existence. But lately, nothing seemed immune from dissent. The week before the announcement, the Saturday Review had predicted that literary politics would decide the fiction prize because the judges fell into two camps: postmodernists (literary critic and historian Leslie A. Fielder, and essayist and novelist William Gass); and traditionalists (Evan S. Connell, philosophical novelist Walker Percy, and book critic Jonathan Yardley).

John Williams

John Williams

The magazine was right about the likelihood of disagreement: the meeting was “noisy and argumentative.” The previous year, historian and journalist Garry Wills had walked out of his committee’s meeting when he refused to endorse his fellow judges’ choice of the hippie bible, The Whole Earth Catalog as the contemporary affairs winner. And now, as the judges in different categories adjourned, not only was the award for fiction split, but also the one for the best history, too. This had never happened, either.


John Barth

However, as Jonathan Yardley, a book reviewer and young courtly man from North Carolina, stepped up on the dais in the Biltmore Grand Ballroom in New York to announce the winners, he tried to convey that nothing could have been more natural than a tie. The novels, Barth’s experimental Chimera and Williams’ classically-styled Augustus were both books of “uncommon quality… similar in subject matter but which represent dissimilar approaches to the writing of fiction.” Chimera was about transforming myth into reality; Augustus brought to life the violent times of imperial Rome. Consequently, Barth and Williams would each get half the award money: $500 apiece (which wasn’t much more than each of the judges had been paid to read the books). No explanation was given as to why there were two history prizes.

The double deadlock wrecked the organization— not immediately, the big awards ceremony would still go forward— but in the coming weeks. With the publicity value of an author winning cut in half, publishers protested by withdrawing their financial support. No more free books for the judges to read, or luncheons, hotels, transportation, and all the rest of it. The National Book Committee was forced to disband, and it was not until 1975 when a caretaker administrator for the organization “begged” prospective judges not to split awards that the contest resumed.

Charles J. Shields’ John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will by published by Lebowski in the Netherlands next year.

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