Laurie Muchnick, Book Editor at Newsday, sends email to say that she’s glad to see James Marcus taking issue with Margo Hammond’s allegation, in the Washington Post, that the 1998 National Book Critics Circle award went to a banal, underwhelming third choice (Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower) because the critics couldn’t decide between the latest from Roth and DeLillo.
what Marcus didn’t mention is that Margo Hammond wasn’t even a judge for the award that year, something the Washington Post didn’t make clear. It was all hearsay. I remember events a little bit differently than James does, but more or less the same — I don’t think Philip Roth had any support at all. It was really just between DeLillo and Fitzgerald. There was a lot of discussion of whether an award should go to a small, perfect book versus a big, ambitious but flawed book, and Fitzgerald won fair and square. It was a close vote, I seem to recall, because both books had advocates, but in no way did Fitzgerald win because DeLillo and Roth split the vote.
Muchnick asked me to clarify “that while [Hammond] was later to join the NBCC board (it is the board members who do the judging), she was not on the board that year and she was not in the room when the discussion and votes were held.”
Here’s what Hammond told the Washington Post (note the “we”):
in 1998, according to the NBCC’s Hammond[,] “There was a huge contest” between Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Roth’s American Pastoral. The winner? The Blue Flower, by British author Penelope Fitzgerald. “We can say it, now that she’s died,” says Hammond. “It wasn’t the book that people felt passionate about.”