By HILLEL ITALIE
NEW YORK — A year after highlighting lesser-known writers, the National Book Awards has gone back to the big names. Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates and 92-year-old Jacques Barzun were among the nominees announced Wednesday.
In a choice likely to be controversial, Patrick Tierney’s "Darkness in El Dorado" received a nomination. Tierney’s book alleges that U.S. scientists may have started a deadly measles epidemic among South America’s Yanomami Indians in 1968.
Some anthropologists have disputed his findings, excerpted in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker. And the selection committee, chaired by biographer Patricia O’Toole, read a galley that will differ from the final version. The book was originally scheduled for release Oct. 1, but publisher W.W. Norton delayed it until November so the author could add material.
O’Toole declined to comment.
Five authors were chosen in each of four categories. While only two of last year’s finalists had even been nominated for an NBA, this year’s list includes nine past nominees and two former winners, Oates and Galway Kinnell.
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury, never nominated in a competitive category, will receive a lifetime achievement medal. Winners will be announced at a ceremony on Nov. 15, with Steve Martin returning as host.
In a year that featured acclaimed novels from Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike, the nominations for Sontag and Oates were surprising. Sontag’s "In America" and Oates’ "Blonde," each based on real-life actresses, received mixed reviews. Sontag also was criticized for the uncredited borrowing of passages from other sources.
"I don’t think judges pay much attention to reviews. I’ve been a judge for many awards and people have their own integrity and opinions," said Oates, a six-time nominee and winner in 1970 for the novel "Them."
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani panned Oates’ "Blonde," a long psychological novel about Marilyn Monroe, calling it "the book equivalent of a tacky television mini-series." She also thought poorly of "In America," based on the 19th-century stage performer Helena Modjeska. Kakutani found it "a banal, flat-footed narrative."
Other fiction nominees include Francine Prose, for her campus satire "Blue Angel"; Charles Baxter, for "The Feast of Love," an updating of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"; and Alan Lightman, for his novel about obsession, "The Diagnosis."
Barzun, who spent more than half a century at Columbia University, is the oldest nominee in the NBA’s 51-year history and one of the past year’s great publishing stories. His "From Dawn to Decadence," a finalist in the nonfiction category, is an 800-page survey of Western civilization that spent months on best-seller lists.
"The whole thing is a surprise, because scholarship is not exactly the thing people run after these days, or perhaps at any time," said Barzun, a San Antonio resident who will not be attending the ceremony.
Award panelists also cited three well-established poets: Kenneth Koch, Kinnell and Lucille Clifton. David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the first volume of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, was a nonfiction nominee for his sequel about the civil rights pioneer.
The awards are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization. Winners receive $10,000, other finalists $1,000.
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